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Teacher Shortages in Australia (Jennifer Buckingham)

The Australian Education Union (AEU) – the peak national union for public education – likes a good crisis as much as the next vested interest, especially if the remedy is money. According to the AEU, Australia is facing a dire shortage of teachers in the next three years.

Media reports of the AEU national conference in January this year quoted the AEU as predicting “a looming primary school teacher shortage that will leave Australia with a shortfall of 40,000 teachers by 2010.” Naturally, the AEU is calling for more government funding – $2.9 billion, in fact.

There are two problems with this assessment of the teaching labour force in Australia. The diagnosis is inaccurate, and therefore the treatment is likely to be ineffective. There is no doubt that there is an existing and potentially serious teacher shortage in Australia, but it is unlikely to be as much as 40,000, and is not a shortage of primary (elementary) school teachers. It is the same shortage that is being experienced all over the world – a lack of qualified teachers of high school maths, science and technology.

Numerous reports, reviews and inquiries have noted this problem over the last decade. The most recent report on teacher supply and demand from the Ministerial Council on Employment, Education, Training and Youth Affairs (MCEETYA) evaluates numbers of teachers entering and leaving the teaching force against projected school enrolments and other demand factors such as class size. MCEETYA estimates a shortfall of around 20,000 teachers if demand trends continue. However, the shortfall is specific rather than industry-wide.

In 2004, the labour force of generalist primary school teachers was in balance, although some states reported moderate difficulties recruiting sufficient numbers of specialist teachers, including special education and English language teachers.

The report also noted that the projected supply of primary teachers would exceed demand, but that under current demand trends, there would be growing problems staffing secondary schools. Again, however, not all secondary school teachers are in short supply; most unmet demand is for maths, physical sciences and technology.

Correctly identifying the problem is important because it allows the formulation of specific and targeted strategies. In the past, strategies to recruit more teachers have been too broad – with the result that there is a oversupply in some areas of teaching – or too timorous – such as a NSW program that reduced the duration of teacher training from two years to 18 months.

A shortage of teachers arises when there are too few new teachers to replace resigning and retiring teachers. A large number of Australia’s teachers will reach retirement age in the next decade which means we need to attract lots of people into teaching, both new graduates and qualified teachers currently employed in other industries. MCEETYA believes there is a substantial ‘pool’ of people with teaching qualifications not employed as teachers nor seeking work as teachers.

What will it take to get more maths and science teachers? Two things. One is better pay, but not for all teachers, as unions advocate. Teachers unions have staunchly opposed differential pay rates, but they are becoming increasingly necessary. People with qualifications and experience in maths, science and technology are highly employable across the labour force and indeed, across the world. Schools will eventually have to offer competitive salaries to attract high-calibre people into teaching.

The other strategy is to get highly capable people into the classroom quicker. Highly qualified and capable people have to make considerable sacrifices of both time and money to become school teachers. Australian governments have been reluctant to embrace alternative forms of teacher certification such as school-based training to fast-track these people into schools, despite calls from principals’ associations and wide-spread discontent with the standard of training in universities. Perhaps sheer need will compel them to broaden their thinking.

Population changes and labour market dynamics make a certain amount of fluctuation in the demand and supply of teachers uncontrollable. But if present demand cannot be met, it makes no sense to artificially generate a growth in demand. When a teachers union predicts a shortage of 40,000 teachers and at the same time recommends reducing class sizes, it makes no sense at all.    

Jennifer Buckingham is a research fellow at The Centre for Independent Studies in Sydney, New South Wales, Australia.  


  1. Bob Rose, MD says:

    Maria Montessori wrote, almost a century ago, that three- and four-year-old preschoolers will learn to read spontaneously if they get “sufficient” practice forming alphabet letters. Although boldly claimed in her “The Montessori Method” this possibility has strangely never before been subjected to a scientific test.

    In 2002-2004 I found five kindergarten teachers on the Internet who provided experimental data on 106 experimental kindergarten students as they practiced printing fluency and we monitored their reading ability (and also five other first-grade teachers who did NOT make the effort of inducing printing practice, but who only measured how much of the serial alphabet students could print in a timed, twenty-second period of time, and the correlation with reading skill. These 94 students formed a control group).

    The correlation was very obvious in all ten classrooms. We found that all but a very small percentage of students read well, and with good comprehension, shortly after the point in time when they were able to print at least the first thirteen letters within 20 seconds. Multiplied by three, this equates with a fluency rate of 39 letters per minute.

    The children enjoyed the practice sessions, and observing their gradual increase in fluency as the weeks passed. No apparent stress was noted, and it was found that the median kindergartner, after spending five minutes daily of each school day practice printing, was “printing fluent” after a mere three months. But printing fluency didn’t correlate with reading skill among older students, according to our results with a group of fifty fourth-graders.

    The kindergartners wrote and read with about the same skill as the first graders at the end of the winter of school. The fact that kindergartners were reading and writing at a level of children a full grade ahead shows that the early acquisition of literacy in the kindergarten (experimental) group was caused by the dedicated attempt to induce practiced fluency in printing, and not just a coincidental marker of some third, and unknown, causative factor.

    At the present time (May, 2008) I have collected another group of kindergarten and first-grade teachers on the Internet. Fourteen K-1 teachers have already submitted correlations of the printing fluency and reading skills of their pupils. In each case the correlation has been obvious and strong. Anyone wishing to join and monitor (or participate on) this free list need only send any email to k1writing-subscribe@yahoogroups.com. Returning the automated “confirmation message” to the computer will result in automatic list membership.

    Printing practice and fluency training in the early grades has completely gone out of style during the twentieth century, though it is still practiced (though not specifically tested) in India and China. This rediscovery of this important principle offers an inexpensive and effective means toward ensuring reading and academic success from the earliest grades for children of all races and ethnic backgrounds.

    It has also been found that second-graders able to give correct answers to simple addition facts more fluently than 40 answers per minute rarely have problems with math or science thereafter.

    Bob Rose, MD (retired), rovarose@aol.com
    Jasper, Georgia

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