Interview on 5AA Mornings with Graeme Goodings
Topics: Specialised STEM teachers




Graeme Goodings:       Now, I’ve got a confession to make, among many: I was never a great student. In fact, saying I was average is probably a bit of an overstatement. And when it came to maths and sciences – forget it. I was never destined to become an engineer or a scientist. But the country does need people with that sort of expertise – more and more, in fact. So, it’s alarming to hear that there’s a diminishing number of students studying maths and sciences at the highest level. So, what is the Government going to do to reverse the trend?


Education Minister Simon Birmingham joins me now. Good morning, Minister. It’s certainly a disturbing trend.


Simon Birmingham:     It is indeed a disturbing trend to see that we have fewer students proportionally studying high level maths or indeed science subjects, because we know that future jobs and our future economic strength as a nation is going to depend on the STEM disciplines – science, technology, engineering, math – to make sure that we stay at the forefront as a country in terms of responding to the way in which work will change. So, we really want to lift students’ interest in sticking with these subjects so that we can get more science, technology, engineering, maths graduates in the future and then into the workforce.


Graeme Goodings:       So why is it that virtually unqualified teachers have been taking these classes?


Simon Birmingham:     This is a real concern that has been identified, that across Australia there’s been an increasing trend of teachers who are outside of the scope of their specialisation having to take maths or science subjects, and obviously that’s because there are too few specialist science and maths teachers, certainly in the areas where they’re needed, and that’s why we’re committing as a Government to get the states and territories to agree to a new teacher workforce strategy, so we can pinpoint where we need extra physics teachers, chemistry teachers, maths teachers, to be able to really help ensure that this problem is addressed and fixed in the coming years.


Graeme Goodings:       So if there’s no pool of teachers with those qualifications, how long is it going to take to get them up to speed?


Simon Birmingham:     There’s no silver bullet and it can’t be done overnight. We’ve already put some reforms in place – better support in terms of training of existing teachers so that they can access new online courses to lift their technology skills and knowledge in the sciences, as well as reforms in universities in the primary school years to ensure that future graduates out of unis in the primary school teaching profession have subject specialisation – it’s not only in maths or science, but equally in English or music or foreign languages. But in terms of getting true specialists into our high schools, our secondary schools, that’s going to take a couple of years, but I hope we can get the states and territories this year to agree to a national reform agreement that focuses very much on ensuring we pinpoint what skills we need, where we need them, so we can then get our universities to respond in terms of who they’re training to step into our classrooms.


Graeme Goodings:       Have you had any preliminary talks with the states and territories? Do you know their feeling on this?


Simon Birmingham:     We have and look, everybody shares the understanding that this is an issue, it’s one that we need to address, and so I’m fairly optimistic that in terms of the school reform agreement, the states will enthusiastically support development of this workforce strategy, then we have to collect, as I say, the data to really identify not just the generic of: we need more science teachers, but in particular: if we need more physics teachers, where do we need them, in what areas, so that we can then shape university enrolments for teaching.


Graeme Goodings:       So, how did it get to this stage? I mean, did we take our eye off the ball? I mean, is this just been something we’ve realised in the last months?


Simon Birmingham:     Sadly this has been reported on before, but clearly there’s been ineffective action to address it. That’s why now’s the time to say: this cannot wait a moment longer. I’ve made it clear that, if we had to, we would use our federal funding powers over the universities to shape them in terms of the way they enrol their students, but equally I’m sure that they, like the states and territories, will be committed to helping us fix this problem. We just need to tell them precisely what it is that we need.


Graeme Goodings:       Have you put a cost on what it will be to implement a program like this?


Simon Birmingham:     It shouldn’t really require a great deal of cost. There will be some admin costs in monitoring and getting the data around where the gaps are and developing the workforce teacher strategy. We’re already training record numbers of potential teachers in our universities, we just need to make sure they’re being trained in the right subject specialisation.


Graeme Goodings:       Seems like a bit of a Catch-22 – there are diminishing numbers of students taking on maths and sciences at the highest level, but you need more of those to go on to become teachers.


Simon Birmingham:     Well, that’s true. Which is why we do really need to address this problem, otherwise it becomes quite entrenched. And of course, the reason why you want to have subject specialists in the classroom is not just about the knowledge that students get, it’s also about the inspiration and interest they get, because to encourage people to stick with a subject, they’re going to be most likely to do that when they actually have teachers who are specialists in that subject who therefore inspire them and generate an interest and a passion to stick with it right through to Year 12 and hopefully beyond.


Graeme Goodings:       I see a number of countries have made maths compulsory through to the end of high school – countries like Sweden, Japan, Korea, Russia, just to name a few. Any thoughts of doing that in Australia?


Simon Birmingham:     Well, firstly I’m calling on our universities to have a good look at the pre-requisites they set for admission to uni. That drives a lot of behaviour in our schools and recently the Australian National University has said that it’s going to require maths as a pre-requisite in future. The University of Sydney’s taken similar steps in relation to particular courses. And I think this sends a very powerful signal to students, their families, and schools, that these are critical disciplines to stick at. Maths, as Australia’s Chief Scientist has said, is the language of science; it underpins so much of scientific study and it’s alarming to think that we have a lower proportion of students today undertaking advanced or intermediate level maths than we did back when I was at high school and we really need to boost that and I think our unis could send a very strong and powerful signal by indicating that that is a requirement for entry to uni, not just an optional extra.


Graeme Goodings:       Any time frame? When can we see some results?


Simon Birmingham:     We’re hoping to have the agreement with states and territories signed by the end of this year. We’re continuing to roll out our university reforms in terms of the training of primary school teachers, and we’ll see new graduates coming through over the next few years in those disciplines. But in terms of then getting that teacher workforce strategy developed and shaping the training of future high school science teachers, I hope that can be resolved in the next year or two.


Graeme Goodings:       Minister, good to talk to you.


Simon Birmingham:     Always a pleasure, Graeme.


Graeme Goodings:       Education Minister Simon Birmingham.