Interview on ABC Radio Sydney Focus with Cassie McCullagh

Topics: Specialised STEM teachers




Cassie McCullagh:      Well, if you’ve noticed less traffic on the road as you’re battling around Sydney this morning, that could be because it’s school holidays, and so many of the usual routes that people are on will be much less crowded. But while many teachers are kicking back and having a well-earned rest, some of New South Wales science teachers are heading this morning to Sydney for the Australian Science Teachers Association’s annual conference. Well, more on the people who will be addressing them is with us now, Senator Simon Birmingham, the Minister for Education. Good morning.  


Simon Birmingham:    Good morning, Cassie, great to be with you.


Cassie McCullagh:      Yeah, I was surprised to read this morning that one in five Year 7 to 10 general science teachers in Australia haven’t even completed a year of university study in that area. How can that be?


Simon Birmingham:    Well, this is real failing of the way in which the teacher workforce has been managed over previous decades and it’s why we’re asking the states and territories to agree to a national teacher workforce strategy, where we’ll truly track the teacher numbers in relevant subject disciplines to make sure that we can pinpoint where we need additional teachers. So that we have physics teachers who are skilled in physics, and biology teachers who are skilled in biology, and maths teachers who are skilled in maths, because that’s what’s going to be best for our students. But to make sure that occurs, we really need to get a much clearer picture of the teacher, of the teacher workforce; where they are, where the gaps are and therefore influence universities in terms of who they’re training, in what subject specialisations to fill those gaps.


Cassie McCullagh:      Now, you’re announcing a plan today and you’ll be talking to science teachers about it. What’s the plan?


Simon Birmingham:    Well, the plan is to ensure that every high school has access to specialist science teachers in the subject disciplines that are relevant in the future, because they’ve been far too many instances over recent years where teachers, hardworking teachers are having to teach outside of their specialisations. And while they do a fabulous job, we know that in terms of children getting the best knowledge but also the best inspiration to stick with science and maths subjects, it’s really best for them to of course have subject specialists who are passionate about their topic, committed to it. And that’s why we really want to lift the numbers of specialist teachers in our classrooms.


Cassie McCullagh:      Because we also know that enrolments in science have been dropping. The Chief Scientist Alan Finkel pointed this out not so long ago, pointing that in 2002, we had 55 per cent of students taking science, to 51 per cent in 2003. Maths has also fallen in that- not so much the enrolment, but people are choosing- kids are choosing lower levels of maths. Now, are you- what are you- you’re saying that we should have teachers who have trained in science in special in particular subjects like biology, or physics, or chemistry, or just have done a science degree?


Simon Birmingham:    Well, ideally you would have people who’ve got real specialisation in fields like physics or chemistry teaching subjects like physics or chemistry. But let’s make sure first and foremost that we have teachers in the classroom with scientific knowledge, scientific expertise and a real passion for the sciences. And then of course where you can, especially in larger schools, you should be able to really match those specialisations in a very direct way as well.


Cassie McCullagh:      It just- it’s sort of mind-boggling that somebody who has only been through high school science could then go on and be teaching that – the very same rudiments that they’ve learnt themselves at school – to other students in high school. People will be quite surprised that that’s happening.


Simon Birmingham:    People would be surprised and concerned. Now, to the credit of those hardworking teachers that they of course bring themselves up to scratch in terms of understanding the curriculum and being able to teach that. But in terms of ensuring that students do stick at science through their high school years, we know it’s not just about knowledge, but also about passion and enthusiasm and interest. And that’s going to be best imparted by people who have studied those areas, who are themselves passionate about those subject areas, to keep more kids sticking at science because that’s so critical in terms of our future economic capability as a country and in terms of those children having the best chance of securing the jobs of the future.


Cassie McCullagh:      Now, we know, of course, that it’s the states that run the education system, the high school education system, around the country. As the federal minister, how much pressure can you put on them? What kind of change can you affect?


Simon Birmingham:    We’re doing a few things. We’ve already made changes in the way universities train primary school teachers to require, rather than future primary school graduates being just generalist teachers, that they must undertake some subject specialisation not only to get more skilled science knowledge into our primary schools, but also more English or music or foreign language skills as well. But in terms of the secondary school years, the high school years, we of course are asking the states and territories by the end of this year to sign on to a new national school reform agreement. We’re providing record and growing levels of funding to support Australia’s schools and we want the states to commit to a number of reforms, and high on that list is developing the type of teacher workforce strategy and monitoring of teachers in data collection, so that as I say, we can identify and pinpoint where we need to get extra resources in terms of skilled teachers. And then we have to shape our universities in terms of who they’re training, what they’re training as future teachers and the subject specialisation they’re encouraging them to undertake.


Cassie McCullagh:      So at this stage, it’s- you’re hoping to find some points of agreement with the states and territories, and also with the universities. But you’re not ruling out using the federal funding mechanisms to apply more pressure?


Simon Birmingham:    We’ll do what’s required to address this serious problem that, I’m confident that the states and territories share this ambition. Everybody has heard from the chief scientist and others, through countless reports over the years, identifying this problem. We have to fix it and of course we want the states to help us in terms of identifying where the gaps are so that we can really then get the universities to respond to that. The unis I’m sure will be willing to do so, but if it came to it, well, we have regular funding agreements with the unis and we could of course apply conditions to those to make sure these issues are addressed.


Cassie McCullagh:      We’re talking with Senator Simon Birmingham about a plan that’s being announced today to get more qualified science and maths teachers into schools – not just high schools, but primary schools as well. I guess, Senator, the one- the other way of thinking about this is how do you make it more attractive to science graduates to go into education? How do you do that?


Simon Birmingham:    Well, I think it is indeed a case where we have to also think about how we attract people who haven’t first up enrolled in a teaching program, but have gone to uni and studied science or possibly even spent a number of years working as an engineer or in a technology field or the like, and then as part of a career change might think about teaching. And that’s why in this year’s budget, we committed some extra funding to try to secure or trial programs for getting new, highly skilled individuals into the teaching profession. So we’ll be going out to essentially tender shortly, inviting expressions of interest for universities or other organisations to come back to us with proposals on how we can best attract and inspire people who’ve undertaken high level studies in scientific disciplines to think about making teaching their vocation as well.


Cassie McCullagh:      Excuse my ignorance on this subject, but are teachers that do have a specialist degree paid more than ones who are generalists?


Simon Birmingham:    That depends on the award structures from state to state, and what we’ve called for a period of time now is for states to have a look at their industrial arrangements and not just create pay increments based on time served, but indeed to recognise expertise, those who undertake the training to become highly accomplished or lead teachers within schools, which means that they then take on, or can take on, more mentoring, more leadership roles in helping other teachers to be able to extend and improve their teaching skills.


Cassie McCullagh:      And so those teachers are able to lead and enthuse and inspire and really come check up on their colleagues who may not have that kind of speciality and that kind of expertise.


Simon Birmingham:    Absolutely. Ensuring that you’ve got good subject specialists in schools is critical, not only for the classrooms that those teachers front, but for then shaping their discussion in the classroom and the preparation and support that’s available to every other teacher within a school.


Cassie McCullagh:      Okay. Well, enjoy your conversations with those science teachers. How good of them to give up part of their school holidays to go and talk about their work.


Simon Birmingham:    Absolutely Cassie. It’s a wonderful example of the fact that so many committed teachers are just that; very committed to upskilling themselves, to ensuring that they develop new knowledge and stay on top of the game, particularly in technology-rich subjects where what they can do in the classroom is ever-changing in terms of the way in which the curriculum can be delivered.


Cassie McCullagh:      Thank you very much for talking with us this morning.


Simon Birmingham:    My pleasure, cheers.


Cassie McCullagh:      Simon Birmingham. He’s a Senator for South Australia and also the Minister for Education and Training, talking about this plan to get more qualified science teachers into staffrooms in high schools around New South Wales.