Australian teacher training reforms ‘scapegoat’ universities

Education faculties say they are already delivering the ‘core content’ now mandated in their degrees

July 8, 2023
A schoolteacher helps his pupils
Source: iStock

Australia’s universities have become a “convenient scapegoat” for school systems that overwork and underpay their teachers, with education faculties to be held accountable when their graduates quit the teaching workforce.

Academic administrators say recommendations from a review of initial teacher education (ITE) will achieve little while increasing workloads at universities and schools.

The review’s recommendations have won in principle endorsement from the federal, state and territory education ministers. They include adding “core content” – covering the neuroscience of learning, effective pedagogical practices, classroom management and “responsive teaching” – to the accreditation standards used by state and territory authorities to regulate teaching degrees.

Universities and colleges will be required to embed the core content in their courses, with an “ITE quality assurance board” set up to monitor their progress. Universities that leave the board unimpressed could have conditions placed on the accreditation of their teaching courses, or lose their accreditation altogether.

Meanwhile, “transparent indicators” developed to report on course quality – and influence student choice – would track retention rates, employment outcomes and students’ diversity, satisfaction and “perceived preparedness” for teaching work.

Federal education minister Jason Clare said the changes would help overcome national teacher shortages. “Only 50 per cent of students who start a teaching degree finish it, and 20 per cent leave the profession in the first three years,” he said, blaming ITE courses that left students feeling unprepared on “day one” of their teaching careers.

Critics say professionals of all sorts feel overwhelmed when they first start work. Faculty administrators say early career teachers quit mainly because of workload and pay grievances, and the 50 per cent attrition claim is misleading because it reflects the proportion of students who do not complete within six years – not those who drop out of their courses.

Mary Ryan, executive dean of education and arts at the Australian Catholic University, said high living costs – exacerbated by unpaid placements – forced many teaching students to go part-time, significantly extending their nominally four-year degrees.

She said students needed help covering the costs of practicums, and universities needed “technological” systems for organising them. “It would save us a huge amount if we didn’t have to have people ringing individual schools, begging for placements,” she said.

Louise Jenkins, deputy dean of Monash University’s Faculty of Education, said universities already delivered the core content now being mandated. “Setting up a national board and paying a lot of bureaucrats to do work that has already been done – that money could be much better spent,” she said.

She said universities were being used as a “convenient scapegoat” for failures in school governance. “Once [our] students go out into the schools, we can’t be responsible for the fact that they’re not…remunerated appropriately [and] have crushing workloads.”

Donna Pendergast, former dean of Griffith University’s School of Education and Professional Studies, said the review recommendations were “tweaks” of major reforms undertaken in 2015. She said the new assurance board would be a “really positive move” if it helped bed down the 2015 reforms, but the risk was that it could turn all ITE programmes into “vanilla” replicas of each other.

The review has recommended a transition fund to help universities and colleges embed the core content. Professor Ryan said an additional accreditation round would be “very expensive” and a “burden” on schools, because accreditation panels were staffed mainly by teachers and principals.

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