Interviewer: Minister, I really appreciate your time for us here at Seven. Can I ask you, how bad is the shortage of maths and science teachers?
Simon Birmingham: Well, we know there are potentially hundreds of vacancies for maths and science teachers around the country, but many, many more who are underqualified in terms of their professional experience in maths and sciences who are in the classroom. So we really have to focus on encouraging more students to study maths and science through school, into university, and then to take that back into the classroom as teachers in the future.
Interviewer: So obviously you’re talking about the students there, but how bad is the shortage of teachers, and what can the Government do to alleviate that?
Simon Birmingham: So there are real shortages of qualified maths and science teachers. We need hundreds more across Australia, and what we want to do is work with universities to get more of them trained, and with the states and territories to get commitments that they will be employing more maths and science teachers in the future.
Interviewer: Has that historically been a hard thing, to motivate people that go into the education learning system to want to focus on maths and science? What- anecdotally, what’s your experience of that?
Simon Birmingham: There’s a bit of a vicious cycle. We’ve had fewer students in school studying maths and science through the final years of their schooling, which means there’s a reduced feed of them going into university with those skills, and now we’re seeing inadequate numbers of teachers in the system with maths and science skills. So we have to reverse it right back at the starting point, which is to make sure more kids stick with maths and science in school, and that they then take that up in university and become teachers out of university of maths and science back to future schoolchildren.
In the shorter term, what we’re really determined to do is work with the universities to ensure more people studying teaching in uni are also doing maths and science specialisations, and to work with the states and territories to guarantee that they’ll be employing more maths and science teachers from those uni graduates.
Interviewer: And is the onus for the recruitment on the states?
Simon Birmingham: The states and territories and non-government schools are the only employers of teachers in Australia, so we need them to work with us, and we want to work co-operatively with those state and territory governments to get more maths and science-skilled teachers into classrooms in the future.
Interviewer: Is there anything practical or that can be put in practice that you can say with the states, how can those states recruit more qualified teachers?
Simon Birmingham: Well, the states and territories should make clear what their recruitment targets are for maths and science teachers, and we will work with them to get the universities to train those maths and science teachers in the future. We all invest record sums into our schooling system today. We know that science, technology, maths skills are essential to our future success as a nation, and we need qualified teachers in the classroom delivering those science, technology, maths skills to our kids.
Interviewer: If the states don’t lift their game, how much funding is on the line from the Federal Government?
Simon Birmingham: We’re providing record funding into our schools, and we want to co-operatively with the states. I don’t want to have to hold a gun to anybody’s head. It’s in all our best interests to make sure that we actually have skilled maths and science teachers in the classrooms, and there will be cooperative discussions that I’ll be having with the states.
Interviewer: So it’s not like you’re saying to the states right, if you can’t lift your game, I’m not- I’m going to pull x million amount out of the state budget. You’re just … you don’t want to get to that stage.
Simon Birmingham: I am confident that the states know this is a priority and that it’s a shared objective for us to get more maths and science teachers in the classroom and to use the record funding we’ve provided to ensure kids are getting the best maths and science experience in their schools.
Interviewer: If you were to eventually put the gun to their heads with threatening, wouldn’t that be too heavy-handed? Wouldn’t that just punish schoolkids if it eventually got to that stage, if states don’t pick up their game?
Simon Birmingham: Well, that’s why I’m confident that states and territories will work with us, that they know that this is a problem as well, and that it’s a shared problem which we have to solve together in terms of employment practices of state school systems and the training that happens in universities that make sure we get adequate numbers of skilled maths and science teachers trained and into classrooms in future.
Interviewer: Is there anything else you wanted to add on education [indistinct], anything else?
Simon Birmingham: [Inaudible].
Interviewer: Just quickly on the schools in Sydney, how inappropriate is it that they’ve not allowed – and pardon my interpretation of the story – but they’ve not allowed gay students [indistinct] at this specific Muslim school?
Simon Birmingham: We’ve taken a tough approach to ensure that all non-Government schools, including Islamic schools, have to adhere to the high standards of financial accountability that the Federal Government sets. We expect that the states will equally enforce that application of curriculum standards and be there in schools where there is any question about the application of those curriculum standards to make sure they are being applied in accordance with the registration standards of those states.
Interviewer: Without going too specifically, it must be concerning, reports like this that come out today.
Simon Birmingham: Well, I would hope and trust that if there is evidence of these types of incidences happening that the state and territory school registration authority are acting on it and making sure that any school – whatever its faith, whatever its background – is ensuring the appropriate curriculum is [indistinct].
Interviewer: Minister, anything else you wanted to add on that or any other …
Simon Birmingham: Studies in science and maths are critical to Australia’s success in the future, but one of the real challenges we face is not having an effective workforce of science and maths teachers in terms of the numbers of teachers available and the skilling of all of those in the workforce. We need to back those teachers who are there with the programs and resources for them to deliver the best possible support in science and maths studies. But equally, we need to really focus our will as a Government on how we get more students studying science and maths subjects through school, into university, and then into the teaching profession as skilled science and maths teachers in the future. That is one of the priorities that we will bring as part of our overall School and Student Achievement Program which I’ve outlined at this important conference of educational researchers today.
Interviewer: Minister, why don’t we have a national approach to this issue? Is that what we need to address the challenges in STEM teaching?
Simon Birmingham: State and territory ministers have agreed with the Federal Government that we will have a national approach to science, technology, engineering and mathematics. We have agreed on a strategy that will implement a range of reforms and elevate importance of studies in those areas and what I want to see translated now is specific actions; actions that would see us working with universities to get more students studying science and maths, as part of their teaching training, and hopefully we will see the states give greater and firmer commitments about employment opportunities for students in those important disciplines.
Interviewer: Some of the research has shown that we have the skill levels there, we have the skilled people – we just don’t have the outputs necessary to give those opportunities to use those skills for innovation. How will this national approach address that issue of more opportunities for using those innovations – those skills?
Simon Birmingham: It’s critical that we support teachers to deliver programs that are proven to work, which is why research is so critical in analysing the success of those programs but also why our investment across different programs – from pre-school children and supporting their engagement in maths and science right through the schooling system, including our reform plans to ensure more students stick with maths and science subjects right to the end of their schooling years – which will give them the opportunity to keep open more pathways in terms of what they go on to study, train or work in in their future lives.
It’s completely unacceptable that far too many students drop out of maths or science subjects in the middle years of schooling, rather than stick with them, particularly in those final couple of years, where they can be essential pre-requisites to success in university, TAFE, or jobs thereafter.