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The Labor Party is sticking to its pre-election theory that raising ATAR entry scores for teaching degrees will lead to improved learning outcomes by attracting “high achievers” to the profession. As a teacher, and a so-called “high achiever”, I can tell you it’s not so simple.

Firstly, an ATAR is just a rank. University ATAR entry scores are set by marketplace demand, not by degree of difficulty. There cannot be a conversation about access to tertiary education in this country without a critique of of its commodification. The perceived crisis in education is not happening in the classroom, it is happening at the point of sale. 

This is where the reality of poor pay and working conditions intersects with low enrolment rates. This week, the Grattan Institute released an evidence-based incentives and recruitment package designed with the purpose of attracting high achievers to the profession. The report’s findings bluntly confirm “high achievers choose degrees with high earnings potential, creating a high level of competition that in turn leads to high ATAR entry scores”. 

The report offers a plan for how governments can create a “positive reinforcing cycle” by making teaching careers more attractive. Top of the list is increasing top-end pay via the creation of two new roles (“master teacher” and “instructional specialist”), a $10,000 cash-in-hand incentive for high achievers who choose to study teaching, and thirdly to positively promote teaching through a marketing campaign to influence community perception.

According to Grattan, in Australia teaching has historically been most attractive to academic achievers from working class backgrounds in regional areas (that’s me), but enrolments from high rankers across class and geographic divides have plummeted dramatically over the past 10 years. At the guts of the report’s recommendations is a model adopted from Singapore. In Singapore, universities are spoiled for choice; they are able to select the “best” teacher candidates based on an ideal combination of academic and non-academic skills due to the large number of quality applications received.

However, Grattan’s report excludes the challenges experienced by so-called “high achiever” teachers already in the profession. Due to this, Grattan’s recommendations are an ideal remedy for the crisis at the point-of-sale but more needs to be done to address the crisis once these people are in the job.

Our poor working conditions are the result of a trickle-down distrust of teachers. Policymakers are never teachers; they’re career politicians obsessed with standardised data collection and fixated on auditing competency to the detriment of efficacy. Until this is addressed, things won’t improve.

In my experience, there is already a wealth of incredibly innovative, smart and dedicated teachers in schools. But many find themselves leaving the profession, unable or unwilling to put up with the conditions. Poor pay conditions compounded by an impoverished work/life balance are huge factors, but so is the way in which governments have gradually eroded education’s core business: supporting and cultivating a community of effective learners. If bureaucrats and policymakers are at the top of the aforementioned pyramid of trickle-down contempt, then students are at the bottom.

Classrooms are no longer sites of enrichment and learning; they are data mines. There is no community of learners; only over-assessed students and tired teachers walking through jungles of red tape. I’ve spent the best part of the past four years navigating the blunderbuss accreditation process inflicted on teachers in NSW. The bulk of this has involved me explaining to principals and executives on six-figure salaries what is required of them to support new teachers. This is not my job. So much for a process that apparently “has minimal impact of workload”. 

If the objective of accreditation is to uphold teaching standards and make better teachers, then my experience is a thorough testimony to its failure. Accreditation in NSW and similar processes across the states is more an exercise in banging your head against a wall of bureaucracy than it is an exercise in professional development.

With the time I’ve spent on accreditation I could have applied for numerous jobs outside of teaching. With the money I’ve spent on accreditation I could have bought a return flight to Hawaii. With the mental health that has been negatively impacted by the multi-year ordeal that is navigating accreditation, I could have been a healthier, more effective teacher. And increasing ATAR entry scores tomorrow isn’t going to fix that.

What do you think of the Grattan Institute’s proposed ideas for “fixing” the teaching industry? Write to [email protected] with your full name and thoughts. 

Peter Fray

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