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Alan Tudge wants Singaporean education excellence on the cheap

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Federal Education Minister Alan Tudge has launched an inquiry to improve Australian teaching standards (Screenshot via YouTube)

How do we attract high-performing school leavers into teaching? Everyone knows the answer. That is, except the Federal Education Minister. 

Federal Education Minister Alan Tudge is falling over himself to equal Singapore in students’ international test results. Two decades ago, Australia was up there with Singapore, but no more. To get back where we belong, Mr Tudge has launched a new inquiry into improving the quality of Australian teaching.

The inquiry’s discussion paper lists Australia’s dismal performance: student results have been falling, fewer high-achieving school leavers are entering teaching and almost half of trainee teachers drop out before completing their course.

To be fair, we can’t blame Mr Tudge for this mess — he’s new. And, as you know, we’re all deeply indebted to Mr Tudge. If you doubt me, ask Centrelink.

But I digress.

Things have not been well in the teaching profession for at least three decades. Over that period, government inquiries into teaching have averaged one per year. Over the same time, student results have fallen. In other words, the more inquiries, the worse the results. Fair enough. At least we know what to do.

Undaunted by the evidence, Mr Tudge is repeating the charade. He’s trotting out the same old question: how can we lure high achievers into teaching?

You know the answer. Mr Tudge knows the answer. Teaching organisations know the answer. But that solution won’t fly. Mr Tudge wants gain without pain. After all, inquiries are the best strategy yet for doing nothing. Thirty years and counting.

Central to the current inquiry are the four questions below and curiously, there is a single answer to all four:

  • How can we encourage high-performing and highly motivated school leavers to enter teaching?
  • What can be done to attract more career changers to the profession?
  • What factors influence course selection of high-performing school students?
  • What may prevent high-quality career professionals from transitioning to teaching?

You guessed it. But don’t bother telling the review. Thirty years and counting.

Still, this charade is important to the Government. The strategy seems to fool enough of the people enough of the time to win their votes.

Here’s how the deception works. What do you do if you’re a departmental head and your boss wants you to cut costs at the same time as recruiting better staff? You’re already cut back to the cuticles. What can you do? Have staff bring their own toilet paper? Install coin slots on the toilet doors? Slap debt notices on the kids? It might work. It's been done before.

As for high-quality recruits, the same old same old should work. First, look as if you’re hellbent on quality. Second, hire some consultants – preferably old schoolmates – to run an “independent” inquiry (always money for consultants). Third, ensure the terms of reference exclude the idea that would work best: a pay rise.

Fourth, dig out the same old question: “How can we attract high achievers into teaching?” You need to ask it again because it’s a long time since anyone got the right answer. All you get from the woke, Marxist, so-called “educational” institutions is a version of “pay ’em more”. As if federal budgets grow on coal deposits.

No, the required answer is: “Cut teacher training down to an innovative three-week package; put unsupervised trainees on half-pay in front of year-nine maths classes; and scour the industry for poor sods on the verge of burnout.” Tell the poor sods not to fret about the pay drop, that teaching’s a vocation, not a job and that they’ll feel better soon.

That is the juggling act Mr Tudge is trying to perform.

To reiterate some of the real problems in the teaching profession, salaries have fallen over the past 30 years. While starting salaries are competitive, Australia’s pay for older secondary teachers rates in the bottom half of OECD countries. High achievers are increasingly rejecting careers in teaching; they comprise only three per cent of demand. The Grattan Institute reports that, while most high achieving school leavers would like to teach, they ‘are turned off by the big financial sacrifices teaching involves’.

In addition, total teaching graduate numbers have declined and, currently, only half of teacher trainees complete their degree. An acute shortage of mathematics staff means the subject is often taught by teachers lacking a major in mathematics. This is the case, for example, for nearly a quarter of year-eight students. I wonder if the proportion is the same in both state and private systems.

Australian educational organisations, for example, the Grattan Institute, say the best way to improve teaching quality is to pay teachers more. By mid-career, the Institute says, teachers are ‘many tens of thousands of dollars a year’ behind peers in fields such as engineering. Its advice to the Government is to offer high achievers teaching scholarships and create expert teacher roles with up to $80,000 extra pay per annum.

‘Central to the attraction of the highest quality of graduates is the remuneration and the respect,’ says the Teachers Federation of NSW. Even Mr Tudge’s admired rivals spend money on their teachers: ‘Trainee teachers in Singapore are paid while they are studying.’

To top it off, Mr Tudge’s dream result – high international test scores – depends on, guess what:

‘There is a strong relationship between teacher’s pay and... test scores.’

Curiously, Mr Tudge’s statements on the discussion paper ignore this ubiquitous advice from educational experts. Crucially, questions central to the inquiry – for example, how can we encourage a) high-performing school leavers and b) mid-career professionals in other fields into teaching? – must not stoop to matters of trade.

How do we convince the chary high performers? ‘We are still not consistently attracting the best students into teaching,’ says Mr Tudge. So, we’re to attract top students without embarrassing them with financial incentives. As Mr Tudge emphasises, the existing problem is ‘certainly not because of a decline in funding’. In this case, we are to ask quality school leavers to become quality teachers because it’s a worthy challenge to get less pay and more stress in a dead-end job.

Next, the task of luring professionals from other fields into teaching — again, without embarrassing them with financial inducements. ‘I would love to see more engineers and accountants,’ says Mr Tudge, ‘to help us address our critical shortage of maths teachers’. Sure, Mr Tudge, by all means, ask the quality to leave a highly paid job to get less pay and more stress in a dead-end job.

The Grattan Institute asked young high achievers how they felt about a career in teaching compared to their current field. Teaching, they said, fell ‘well short of the intellectual challenge and pay offered’ where they were.

But not to worry. No such Marxist ideas about pay rises from lefty leftovers of the 1960s education revolution will sully the final report. Rest assured that, as a result, no teacher will receive as much as a cent more in pay.

One thing we can expect from the inquiry is a proposal to shorten teacher training courses, particularly for mid-career graduate entrants. As Mr Tudge says, ‘shorter pathways [into teaching] are required’. Don’t get me wrong — I’m not necessarily opposed to the idea.

No, the thing that’s sticking in my craw is that, unlike some compelling inquiries of the recent past, this one is a piece of play-acting run by government clowns.

Dr A L Jones is a psychologist, academic, editor and author of books and articles on gender politics. You can follow Jones on Twitter @ALJones58178191.

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