By Jordan Baker
NSW schools are struggling with a major teacher shortage as enrolment numbers for education degrees fall by a third and half of trainees fail to finish their degrees.
The shortage is biting statewide as some small schools battle to fill more than 10 vacancies each. In May, there were 1148 teaching positions vacant in the public system, NSW Department of Education figures show.
It comes as population growth and a multi-billion school building program increase demand for teachers across the system, particularly in the regions, disadvantaged areas and in subjects such as maths. One education economist estimated the state would need 11,000 new teachers by 2030.
The government allocated $124.8 million in Tuesday’s state budget to a teacher supply strategy, which Education Minister Sarah Mitchell said would be detailed in coming months and include “big reforms and ideas”.
“Change can be confronting for some people, but I remain solution-focused and open to anyone coming to me with more ideas on lifting the profession,” she said. “To overcome barriers to entry, both for school leavers and mid-career professionals, we must continue to think outside of the box.”
Many country and outer suburban schools, however, are already feeling the crisis. At Canobolas Rural Technology High, a school of around 650 students at Orange, there are 13 positions vacant, the department figures show, while at Murrumbidgee Regional High, which has 1218 students and needs extra staff to help with a merger, there are 19 jobs empty.
At Mount Austin High in Wagga Wagga, with about 500 students, there are 10 positions vacant, while at the troubled Walgett Community College there are 12 jobs empty at a school of 117 kids, meaning key subjects cannot be delivered to students.
In Sydney, there are 10 jobs unfilled at the Chifley College Mount Druitt Campus, which has around 500 students and a full-time equivalent allocation of about 54 teachers, the latest available figures on the My School website show.
Belmore Boys High (431), Punchbowl Public (479) and Evans High in Blacktown (653) have five empty jobs each. A department spokeswoman said the vacancy rate was across the system about 1.5 per cent, “a very low rate for an organisation of our size.”
There is also a chronic shortage of casual staff this winter flu season with many casual teachers employed as part of the COVID-19 catch-up tutoring program.
The NSW government has admitted it must attract more teachers. An analysis by education economist Adam Rorris, commissioned by the NSW Teachers Federation, estimated the department alone needed 11,000 full-time teachers over 10 years to meet population growth. Catholic and some independent schools face the same problem.
However, the supply of graduates from universities is shrinking. NSW Education Minister Sarah Mitchell recently told Parliament that the number of students beginning teaching degrees in NSW had fallen by almost 30 per cent over the five years, from 9620 in 2014 to 6780 in 2019.
“A lot of factors are driving that trend, including the perception of teaching as a career and the complexity around the role,” she said.
A federal discussion paper on university teacher training, released at the weekend, found almost 50 per cent of trainee teachers nationally failed to complete their degrees. Standards for employment have also been raised; NSW graduates now need a credit average to get a job.
Members of the NSW Teachers Federation - which will begin enterprise bargaining negotiations with the Department of Education in October - have been holding rolling stop-work meetings across the state to protest the lack of teachers.
Federation president Angelo Gavrielatos said higher salaries and reduced workloads were the best way to recruit educators. “Every child has the right to be taught every day by a qualified teacher with the time and resources to meet their needs,” he said.
“Teacher shortages mean combined classes, disrupted learning and children missing out on the support they need. Some of the schools with the highest number of vacant positions are the ones with the highest level of student need.”
Last week, the government announced a plan to help mid-career professionals switch to teaching by re-organising postgraduate degrees so students cover the most important content first, then work in a classroom while they complete the rest.
However, policies aiming to attract mid-career professionals such as accountants to teach maths do not attract big numbers. In the 11 years since Teach for Australia - a program that lets career changers work in a classroom while studying - has been running in Victoria, it has produced 619 teachers.
A career-change program to attract people into teaching set up by the Gillard government closed a few years later, having cost $16 million to produce 14 teachers.
With Pallavi Singhal
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