Threatening schools and unis won’t solve the STEM teacher shortage

The Federal Government has announced that every high school will have to employ science and maths teachers who have studied those subjects at a university level. This recognises that many students are being taught by teachers who have not completed even a year of university study in the area they are teaching in.

Now the problem is hardly news and at one level it’s good to see a recognition of the issue. But this appears to be recognition without a solution – and backed by threats rather than incentives.

The Government is saying that all schools will have to employ domain-qualified maths and science teachers. What that fails to recognise is the reason the schools don’t do that at the moment. It’s not because school principals are too stupid to think it matters or that they have some quirky bias – it’s because those people don’t exist. This is what happens when you allow generations of high school students to not study maths and science – fewer people choose to study those subjects at university. And of those who do, many will go with the lure of well-paid jobs rather than take on teaching. The current pipeline of maths and physics teachers in NSW Universities is woefully small; and the lack of inspiring teachers, leads to a lack of inspired students, spinning the cycle again and again. So saying schools will be required to have qualified teachers when they simply don’t exist is just silly.

To the extent the government has a solution they are threatening University funding if the Unis don’t get more people to study physics, chemistry, biology, technology or maths. But again that misses the point. Unis are not turning people away from STEM courses. Having accompanied my elder son on a series of university visits recently, the reality is quite the opposite: Unis are actively working to get students into STEM courses. Realistically the only ways they could make it easier is to pay the students or to drastically lower the entrance requirements (and it’s noticeable that the Government is not offering to reduce the HECS debt of students studying to become STEM teachers). Now those things might well get more students in (always assuming you have enough coming through high school with an interest) but it doesn’t follow that they’ll end up wanting to be teachers or that they’ll be particularly good at it.

No, there are two bits missing from all of this. The first is that you can’t look at the end result in isolation from the pipeline. We have been on a downward spiral for decades – fewer teachers leading to fewer engaged students leading to fewer teachers and so on. You can’t address one part of the spiral in isolation from the others. Our ridiculously split system of education funding means that the Federal Government is focusing on the levers it has more control over; but this problem requires active intervention at all levels: curriculum changes, more money to hire casual teachers; money and time for retraining; and so on.

The second thing missing is making teaching an attractive career choice. Making sure our teachers get payment and recognition commensurate with what they do. Removing layers of bureaucracy and reporting that chew through time which could be spent actually teaching. Making sure resources are available to encourage engaged teaching – have you seen some of the science facilities in our public school system? If you have STEM skills you are in demand in our current world, and so if you want STEM teachers you need to be competitive with the other employment choices students have.

Look, a recognition of the problem is a good thing. But as I keep banging on about we need a holistic solution that will take decades to come to full fruition, and which will require politicians to stick to a plan for more than an electoral cycle. Fixing this wont be easy: We have made a mess and simplistic headline-grabbing stabs at part of the problem won’t fix that. For a start perhaps we need less stick and more carrot (or apple).

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