Teacher Shortages and Long-term Impact on Schools and Students

Acute teacher shortages might require tutoring services' help.
Dr Selina Samuels
Apr 21, 2022
Applications for teaching courses are down massively.

For some time, there have been warnings from schools and school systems of a growing teacher shortage, particularly in secondary schools. The NSW Teachers Federation has been warning for years of a growing crisis, with the Department of Education recently acknowledging the gravity of the situation. The problem is not confined to NSW, with the number of graduates in Victoria applying to become teachers dropping sharply by almost 40% in a year. According to research conducted at the end of 2021, 84% of Australian teachers have contemplated leaving the profession in the past year. COVID has certainly been a catalyst, but as a recent Grattan Institute report discusses in detail, the pressures on the teaching profession have been growing for some years. 

Inevitably, the impact of teacher shortages is felt by schools and students. Teacher shortages in the STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) are particularly acute, with many students being taught by an out-of-field teacher (that is, a teacher not trained in the specific field they are teaching). According to a federal government estimate, around 40% of students in Years 7 to 10 are taught without a qualified mathematics teacher. There is a real risk that students are not receiving the expert support that they need and may therefore self-select out of further STEM study. It is perhaps not incidental that in the latest OECD PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) rankings, Australian students placed 29th in Maths, compared to 16th in reading and 17th in Science. This represents a substantial drop in Maths across the country compared with comparable countries, with even our highest performing students showing a steep decline.

In the senior years of school, teacher shortages in particular subjects directly impact subject choices, with some students unable to take their preferred electives because there are no teachers available to teach them. This limitation directly impacts their ability to undertake specific university degrees – often in the technically specific STEM subjects. Regional, rural and remote communities are particularly affected by teacher shortages. Again, it is not incidental that the 2021 NAPLAN results tell us that regional students are falling further behind their metropolitan contemporaries.

Our awareness of the challenges that teacher shortages pose across the country prompted Cluey Learning this year to add Biology and Physics to our Chemistry offering, so we are now catering to Year 11 and 12 Science students across the country who are in need of additional support. We are also hearing from many of our parents that our English and Mathematics programs, fully mapped to the relevant curricula and guided by a tutor with subject-specific expertise and enthusiasm, have not only improved their children’s subject-specific skills and knowledge, but also their sense of confidence and positivity about the subject. A subject-matter expert, who can model being good at the subject, can show a student the possibilities available if they persevere.   

We find that matching a high school student with a tutor who has direct and recent knowledge and experience of the curriculum and assessments and has gone on to excel in that subject at university, is a perfect way to build confidence and enthusiasm. Not only does the tutor demystify the assessment process, they can also illustrate what a particular area of learning is for and how knowledge can be applied in the real world. This “near to peer” tutoring is a way to address the negative impact of teacher shortages and the knock-on effect of discouraging students from selecting hard-to-staff STEM subjects. In some cases, it may be the most expert subject-specific instruction that students can access.

The most serious impact of teacher shortages is a perpetuation of the current situation, where too few Australian school students are electing to study those STEM subjects that are so vital for Australia’s (and, for that matter, the world’s) future. The Australian Curriculum states clearly the importance of STEM skills for Australia’s future and recognises that not only are students’ results in Science and Mathematics declining, the take-up of STEM subjects in the senior years has at best stagnated. We know that the environmental, social and economic challenges that face us require well-qualified people with the skills to analyse data, develop and deploy technology and develop solutions to complex problems. And, without university graduates with these skills, we will continue to lack teachers with the appropriate qualifications. It becomes a perpetuating cycle where teacher shortages not only disadvantage current students, but also future generations.

Selina Samuels is Chief Learning Officer at Cluey Learning

Image by Marcelo Jaboo