Tanya Plibersek, deputy leader of the Australian Labor Party, has warned universities that they need to toughen their entry requirements for teacher education courses or face a cap on the number of places. This is a partial reversal of the Labor government’s 2009 decision to uncap university places.
Much of the discussion centres on the Australian Tertiary Admissions Rank or ATAR. Students who wish to attend university sit a series of exams in Year 12 in different subjects – in Victoria, these are the Victorian Certificate of Education exams. These are all cohort-referenced, with the same proportion of students getting the same proportion of scores each year. From these exams, the ATAR is calculated.
The ATAR is intended to be the percentile of performance relative to all students who started high school in that cohort, not just those who sat the exams in Year 12. So an ATAR of 90 places you in the top 10%, an ATAR of 80 places you in the top 20% and so on.
The number of teacher education students with an ATAR below 70 has increased to 40% in recent years and some stories have been published highlighting trainee teachers with extremely low ATARs. There has also been concern about the use of alternative routes into teaching that bypass ATAR cutoffs that some states have implemented.
There is a suspicion that teacher education courses cost less to run than they collect in fees and so universities are motivated to recruit too many students. Although these are shortage subjects, there appears to be an overall oversupply of teachers, with new teachers struggling to find permanent work.
Teacher education courses also employ education academics and so, somewhat predictably, they have come out to fight Labor on this. The basic argument is that we should not be looking at entry requirements, we should be looking at outcomes. I don’t find this convincing given that teacher education courses don’t even appear to be equipping primary teachers in effective methods for teaching reading.
Some will also argue that teachers’ academic achievements don’t really matter. I disagree and would question the evidence base for such a claim. However, I suppose it comes down to what you want teachers and teaching to be.
Do you see education as the process of organising activities with the intention of imparting vacuous skills such as creativity, empathy and resilience? Such a dumbed-down approach does not actually require teachers to know anything. If, however, you would like children to experience a knowledge-rich curriculum then teacher knowledge becomes crucial.
Labor currently seem likely to form the next government later this year. This is a good policy. Let’s have more of the same.