The Australian Education Union (AEU) has attacked comments by the federal Education Minister advocating the importation of overseas teachers to address a decline in local education standards.
South Australian Senator Simon Birmingham on Wednesday acknowledged there was “clearly something wrong” in the education system after a global report found Australian 15-year-olds were getting worse at science, maths and reading.
Senator Birmingham raised the prospect of importing specialist maths and science teachers to address a long-term decline in high school student performance.
The minister’s comments were met with a swift and angry response from the AEU, which said money spent enticing foreign teachers to work in Australia would be better invested in our own system.
The Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) report found that Australia was significantly outperformed by nine countries in the OECD, including Japan, Canada and Singapore.
Senator Birmingham said previous efforts to improve student performance were failing and the government needed to shift its focus to teachers.
“The single greatest in-school factor in terms of student accomplishment is absolutely the teacher,” he told ABC Radio.
“Our No.1 focus has to always be teacher quality and ensuring that our hardworking teachers are given the skills in their training in the years and then the support through ongoing professional development to be the best.”
But the AEU was angered by Senator Birmingham’s admission that he was “very open” to discussing the introduction of special visas to import more specialist teachers.
“At the moment the issue is that Australia has a surplus of teacher graduates but a shortage of maths and science-based teachers,” AEU spokesman Ben Ruse told The New Daily.
While Mr Ruse said it was difficult to comment without knowing the specific details of Senator Birmingham’s proposal, he said any money spent enticing foreign teachers to come here could be better spent on improving the Australian system.
Fix the system from the inside
The PISA report found Australian school children were being outclassed by their Slovenian and Estonian counterparts, with Tasmania and Northern Territory children performing below the OECD average.
The damning finds come after the 2015 Trends in International Mathematics and Science report last week determined that Australian school performances had stagnated over the past 20 years.
“If we do need to get more specialist maths and science teachers into the classroom, that’s a discussion I am very open to having,” Seanator Birmiham said.
Mr Ruse said the education system needed to be addressed from the inside, not the outside.
He argued that lifting teacher salaries, improving professional development and incentivising students to take up maths and science subjects during their degrees could all help fix the teacher shortages hurting Australian students.
It’s not (just) about the money
Senator Birmingham said federal funding for schools had increased by 50 per cent since 2003, and extra funding alone would not solve the problem.
“We have consistently tipped more money into our school system over recent years – it has doubled in real terms since 1988,” he said.
“This is significant extra funding in our schools [and] now is the time to focus on why it is we are not getting value for money in terms of our results.
“More money, in of itself, is not the answer.”
But Mr Ruse said it was difficult to separate funding from the issue of teachers shortages.
“In terms of teacher development, how can you do it without someone funding it at some point?” he asked.
Labor education spokeswoman Tanya Plibersek said the report was “a very significant concern” as it showed Australian schools were going backwards in some areas.
She called for a more equitable school-funding system and said the Coalition had cut $30 billion from schools in the 2014 budget.
“What we are missing is a proper needs-based funding system that directs extra funding to the kids who are falling behind,” she said.