Doorstop interview, Conference of the Australian Science Teachers Association
Topics: Specialised STEM teachers
Simon Birmingham: Good morning everybody and thanks so much for coming along. I’m thrilled to be here at University of Sydney for the Australian Science Teachers Association annual conference. The Science Teachers Association and Sydney University are clearly focused on lifting and delivering science skills in our classrooms and right across our economy, which is so critical to Australia’s future. We know that some of the fastest growing job occupations require STEM rich skills, which is why we want to inspire more students to stick at science and maths subjects right through their schooling and to pursue those subjects into their tertiary studies and into their working lives.
But it’s disappointing that data shows over the last couple of decades there’s been a steady decline in relation to the proportion of Australian students studying high level and advanced level and intermediate level maths and a decline in relation to the proportion of students studying in science subjects, and that’s just unacceptable. One of the factors that’s been identified as a reason behind this decline is because we see that in too many cases, teachers in the classroom teaching science don’t have a background in studying those scientific disciplines themselves, that they are teaching outside of scope, outside of their area. And we have some fantastic teachers right across Australia, both experts and non-experts, who do an outstanding job, but we know that students will get the best possible opportunity if the teacher in front of them is skilled in and passionate about the scientific subject that they’re teaching. Australian students deserve to have the skilled physicists teaching physics, skilled chemists teaching chemistry, skilled biologists teaching biology and mathematicians teaching maths. They’re the skill sets that we want to see in our classrooms in the future.
The Turnbull Government’s already taken a number of steps in this direction. We’ve reformed the way in which primary school teachers will be trained in the future to ensure that they will all have to undertake a subject specialisation, which will give us not only more specialist maths or science teachers, but also more specialist music, English or foreign language teachers, for example. We’ve also invested through our National Innovation and Science Agenda in new training opportunities for existing teachers to up-skill their capacity to deliver technology, coding, new science and technical skills in the classroom.
But we also want to see states and territories work with us to act on recommendations in the recent Gonski report and the Chief Scientist Alan Finkel’s STEM partnerships work around getting a better teacher workforce strategy for the future. We know that there are too many teachers teaching outside of their professionalism in terms of scientific skills in the classroom. That’s long been apparent. We must address this. And I hope that by year’s end the states and territories will agree to a new school reform package which we’ll be delivering against our record and growing investment in Australian schools and will include requirements for a national teaching workforce strategy which can identify and pinpoint the areas around Australia where we’re lacking particular skills in our teachers and ensure we get our universities to train future teaching graduates in those scientific disciplines that are needed.
Journalist: Minister, these statistics are five years old, how can you be certain that there is still a decline in the amount of students taking STEM?
Simon Birmingham: Look, we continue to monitor this and we most recently received a report from Australia’s Chief Scientist just early this year, who I invited to speak to the Education Council of all state and territory ministers and who identified this is a continued problem in terms of the decline in advanced and intermediate level maths, decline in relation to following science subjects…
Journalist: Just to interrupt you, he is using stats that are five years old.
Simon Birmingham: The Chief Scientist in his report has used the best available data and indeed from his extensive consultations. And as you’ve heard from the Science Teachers Association, from their observations, they see this as an ongoing problem and one that we must work to address.
Journalist: Is this an actual policy and what will you be doing, i.e. the federal funding powers over universities, will you actually be strong-arming the universities into providing more STEM places?
Simon Birmingham: I’ve indicated that we have to do whatever it takes to get skilled, science-focused teachers in classrooms teaching science. Our first step is to get the states and territories to agree – as I’m sure they will – to including development of a national workforce strategy as part of a school reform agreement. Second step will then be to deliver on that strategy, which will identify where we need more subject specialists in which scientific disciplines in which regions of Australia, and then to get universities to act on that.
I’m confident that there is goodwill from both the states and territories and universities to address this problem, but if we encountered a problem, then the federal government does have the powers in terms of funding agreements with the universities to be able to require them to focus in certain areas. There have been in recent years record numbers of people enrolled in teaching qualifications; we need to make sure they’re studying the subject specialisations that are needed in the science disciplines and ultimately, having known about this problem for many years, we must take whatever steps are necessary to fix it for the future.
Journalist: But if we’ve known about it for so many years and you’re saying you want to roll this out in five to ten years, it means the Liberal Government may not be in by the time that’s been introduced into all schools.
Simon Birmingham: Well, this is the problem that is recognised by states and territories across the country, regardless of state or federal differences, regardless of party political differences, and I am confident that if we have a clear nationally developed workforce strategy to pinpoint where the gaps are and to work to get them filled, that any and every government would seek to support that in the future being delivered and stuck to.
Journalist: Is this sort of a thought bubble, if you like, or is it a real policy? Will the federal government actually be actively be working towards this and insisting with the states that we have this happen, or is it more of an aspiration?
Simon Birmingham: Both David Gonski’s report and Alan Finkel’s work have recommended this type of workforce strategy being developed, and we are absolutely committed to seeing it implemented, seeing it delivered, and to supporting the steps to ensure its success in getting more science teachers in specialisations into our classrooms.
Journalist: And why is it that you say we need to have at least one specialised teacher in each school? Why is that so important? Are we not seeing adequate levels of teaching going on at the moment?
Simon Birmingham: We know that having specialist teachers doesn’t just provide a lift in terms of the knowledge acquired by students, but encourages them, incentivises them and builds a passion for them to stick at a subject and be passionate about them themselves. Passionate teachers inspire passionate students, and if we want more Australian students to stick to studying science through their schooling lives and into higher education, then we want to have passionate teachers incentivising those students to do just that in our schools.
Journalist: Do we know how many schools are lacking one of those specialists?
Simon Birmingham: We know that on data estimates, around 20 per cent of schools or students face teachers teaching outside of their subject specialisation and in a scientific discipline. It’s just unacceptable that that occurs. We should be making sure in those secondary school years that we have the subject specialists in front of the classroom inspiring those students to learn more and to stick with the sciences into the future.
Journalist: Again, Minister, you just quoted a statistic that is five years old – why don’t we have better research than this from the Government?
Simon Birmingham: That is exactly why we need a clear national workforce strategy that collects the data to ensure we can pinpoint where the problems are and fill those gaps.
Journalist: The federal government doesn’t do this? The state governments don’t do this? The federal government doesn’t have these figures?
Simon Birmingham: This is why the likes of Mr Gonski and Dr Finkel have recommended this, because there is a gap in the data and knowledge there. But we can tell from previous studies and from the feedback of science teachers and others that there is a problem, we must address it, and we’re committed to doing so.
Journalist: So, there’s a significant demand for people with IT skills in finance and banking. How are you going to incentivise people to walk away from their salaries and into teaching? Do you have to think about incentives?
Simon Birmingham: Well, what we want to do is encourage school leavers to think about, when they’re going in to studying teaching, that they actually pursue science specialities. But also yes, career changes, to look at the opportunities there too, which is why, as a Government we, in the last Budget, made an investment to a new program that’s going to identify how we can get high achievers into the teaching profession, to take those skills – whether it’s in technology or engineering – and bring them to apply in our classrooms.