Interview on 3AW Drive with Tom Elliott
Topics: Specialised STEM teachers
Tom Elliott: So the federal government has announced today that every high school in the country must now employ science and maths teachers who have actually studied these disciplines and qualified in them at a university level, which begs the question: who's been teaching kids prior to now?
Now, Simon Birmingham who is the federal Education Minister addressed the National Conference of the Australian Science Teachers Association today. He was good enough to join us a couple of hours ago before we went to air and I began by asking him: how did we get in this position where there aren't enough teachers who have studied these important subjects? Here’s what Simon Birmingham, federal Education Minister had to say.
Simon Birmingham: Well it really has been a failure in terms of the number of teachers who’ve being trained with subject specialities in these disciplines in chemistry or physics or maths or biology and so we have had a situation that’s been identified now repeatedly over a number of years where too many students or too many classrooms have got teachers teaching outside of their area of expertise or subject discipline, and what we want to see is this reversed, and making sure that we have a detailed workforce strategy around where we have gaps in terms of skilled teachers and then how we're going to get our universities to fill those gaps by training people in the subjects we need them.
Tom Elliott: Okay well, I mean it sounds great in theory, you know, you issue an order: all schools must employ qualified STEM teachers – science, technology, engineering, mathematics. But are there those teachers available? Is there a pool of qualified professionals ready to step into these roles?
Simon Birmingham: No, not automatically and that's the problem which is why we do have to start really at a first principles level which is identifying where the gaps are; which of those science disciplines we need extra teachers in; which parts of Australia those gaps are most prominent and then really work through with the universities to ensure that the large numbers of people undertaking teaching qualifications across the country are actually doing so in the subjects where we need them most in these maths and science areas which are so critical to future job prospects for students.
Tom Elliott: What about at the school level? I mean, the way I understand it for example here in Victoria that the VCE is structured in such a way that it actually dissuades students from doing tougher subjects like physics, chemistry, higher mathematics. What will you do about that?
Simon Birmingham: Well I made a clear call today urging Australia's universities to think about reinstating clear prerequisites that mandate maths or science subjects for entering into university especially in those university courses that require maths and science skills. I've been really pleased to see in recent times that the Australian National University in Canberra - and before them, the University of Sydney - have made moves towards having clearer prerequisites because that sends the signal into schools, into children, into families about what's required and that it is important to stick at maths and science subjects through those school years, especially where they're relevant to what you might be studying later in life.
Tom Elliott: Right, so we’ll end this recent trend whereby you can somehow get into engineering without having done physics, chemistry and mathematics?
Simon Birmingham: So it’s just madness that universities are accepting students where they have to then run remedial maths programs because they didn't do advanced or intermediate Year 12 maths, and the data is quite clear that we've had a downward trend in terms of the proportion of students at Year 12 doing advanced levels of maths. And as Australia's Chief Scientist said very clearly: maths is the language of science. If we want to be good as a nation in terms of technology, innovation, adaptation, well, we really do need to make sure we have those maths and science skills at the forefront.
Tom Elliott: Now even though you're a federal government minister, you can't do this alone: will you get both the states and the unions onside?
Simon Birmingham: Well, I'm confident that the states genuinely recognise this is an issue that has to be addressed. It's why I am sure that they will agree to develop the type of teacher workforce strategy we need as part of a national school reform agreement this year. And I’ve indicated we're willing as a federal government to play our part, that if need be we can use our leverage over universities and our funding agreements with them, to make sure that when they're training future teachers, they’re doing so in the subject areas that are required.
Tom Elliott: Question without notice: some NAPLAN data out today suggests that children of migrant parents outperform their, I guess, domestic peers at school. Any explanation for that that you can think of?
Simon Birmingham: Look, I think there are questions that we have to ask around the values that we all place on education and the encouragement we give to our children to really focus in on doing well, to be encouraged to do well, to have the support to develop the basic literacy and numeracy skills in the early years and then apply them right throughout their education. And I think we do see a lot of migrant communities who may not have had the same opportunities to access education in their home country as we provide in Australia, who really do value the opportunities that are available to them here, and we need to make sure that the rest of us don't take them for granted.
Tom Elliott: Indeed, we'll leave it there. Simon Birmingham, federal Education Minister, thank you for your time.
Simon Birmingham: Thanks Tom. My pleasure.
[End of excerpt]
Tom Elliott: Alright, well, that was the federal Education Minister, Simon Birmingham. I spoke to him just a couple of hours ago. There were a couple of interesting things: one is that there's clearly been a lot of unqualified teachers attempting to teach tough subjects like higher maths, like physics, like chemistry. Secondly, that a lot of universities offer places in tough subjects like engineering to students who haven't studied those science-based subjects at school. So he's going to say because he does fund the universities look, you can only allow people into engineering if they've done the tough maths at secondary school and hopefully that’ll push down and the kids and their parents will say righto, well, we need better maths teachers and the schools will employ them. But I still don't really get where all these great maths teachers who are qualified in both mathematics and in teaching are going to come from.