Teacher Shortage Solution More Complex Than Just Raising Wages: Education Minister

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SYDNEY—Resolving the teacher shortage in New South Wales (NSW) requires a more complex solution beyond just hiring and more wages, hinted Education Minister Sarah Mitchell ahead of the state election.

In an election debate at the Centre of Independent Studies on March 14, Shadow Education Minister Prue Car claimed to solve the teacher shortage was “really simple” while having 2,000 vacant positions was unacceptable.

“For the first time ever in the last 12 months, we’ve seen resignations outstrip retirements, we do not have enough teachers in our classrooms,” she said.

“[Labor] will work straight away from day one if we’re elected to get to the structural systemic reasons why we have such a chronic teacher shortage—uncompetitive pay, overburdening workloads, actually getting more teachers permanent from temporary.”

Epoch Times Photo
NSW Deputy Labor leader and education spokesperson Prue Car speaks to media during a press conference with Labor leader Chris Minns, in Sydney, on Feb. 21, 2023. (AAP Image/Dan Himbrechts)

But Mitchell argued that it was important to look beyond that figure, suggesting schools were actually near-capacity.

“So, we know at the moment, half of our schools in New South Wales don’t have a single vacancy. About 25 percent have one vacancy,” she said. “We’ve got 2,200 public schools, so when you’re talking about 2,000 vacancies, what that means is, on average, 75 percent of schools have either one vacancy or none.”

Mitchell acknowledged that some schools were facing staffing challenges, most often in regional and remote areas or in high-demand subjects like STEM.

“What’s actually more important is to look at, where are the vacancies? What are the trends? What are we seeing in the non-government sector as well? And where do we see particular areas where you need support. And that’s exactly what our Teacher Supply Strategy does,” she said.

Recruiting and Retaining Teachers

Labor and the unions have been critical of the government’s Teacher Supply Strategy, saying it has failed to recruit enough teachers.

The state’s teacher union, NSW Teacher Federation (NSWTF), said in January that the $125 million (US$83 million) scheme “has been an expensive failure.”

“[Premier Dominic] Perrottet’s Teacher Supply Strategy has been a hopeless failure with three teachers recruited from overseas in a year,” NSWTF President Angelo Gavrielatos told The Epoch Times, referring to answers to Budget Estimate supplementary questions (pdf).

But Mitchell highlighted said training qualified teachers took time.

“You can’t do that overnight,” she said. “At the minimum at the moment, it’s two years for somebody who already has an undergraduate degree in four years for someone who’s coming straight out of school.”

The minister also told The Epoch Times that the program has delivered 520 teacher and teacher trainees since it launched at the end of 2021.

Car said that there was a need to address the underlying structural problems. However, detailed long-term solutions were not discussed.

“Students are not attracted to go to teaching and then when they get in there, not only are they not paid enough, they’re not valued enough … they’re leaving because they’re overburdened with a crippling workload,” she said.

Her solution was to remove the wage cap and to cut workloads by at least “five hours per week”—yet how this would be achieved was not outlined.

Beyond actual teaching, educators often have to deal with lesson preparation, constant communication with parents, and administrative tasks—all outside of teaching hours.

Meanwhile, NSW Labor leader Chris Minns has campaigned to abolish the current government’s public sector worker wages cap, which applies to public school teachers.

However, during the Channel Nine leaders debate with the premier on March 15, Minns avoided promising that the scrapping of the current 3 percent wages cap would not translate to higher wages for workers.

“We need to do that around the table and that needs to be a negotiation that can only happen in government,” he said.

Epoch Times Photo
A combined image shows (left) NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet and (right) NSW Labor leader Chris Minns during an election Leaders Debate in Sydney, Australia on March 8, 2023. (AAP Image/Bianca De Marchi)

Meanwhile, the unions agree with Labor that workloads and salary numbers were critical to reducing teacher shortages.

“It is only by addressing the real causes of the teacher shortages—unsustainable workloads and uncompetitive salaries—that we can recruit and retain the teachers we need,” Gavrielatos said.

“This crisis will only get worse without immediate action. We have two-thirds of teachers saying they are burnt out and 60 percent looking to leave in the next five years.”

The NSWTF referred to an internal document (pdf) dated to November which revealed that almost two-thirds of schools had at least one vacancy, where 76 schools had six to 10 vacancies and seven schools had 11 to 15 vacant positions.

More to the Numbers Than Vacancies

But in an explanation note at the end, it said that a large influx of vacant positions had opened up after a number of additional roles had been created, which would “continue to impact total vacancies for the next few months.”

The NSW Education Department said vacancies levels were higher in remote areas. Science and maths subject areas accounted for the highest number of vacancies, at three percent and four percent, respectively, and spread widely across other subjects.

According to the department, the state has almost 95,000 teachers in total, of which 8,600 positions were filled last year.

“More than half of our schools have no vacancies as of Monday, March 13, 2023, and 27 percent of schools have only a single vacancy,” a NSW Education spokesperson told The Epoch Times.

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