Posted: 20 Jan. 2021 05 min. read

How might COVID-19 help education systems to recruit teachers?

Responding to COIVD-19 has challenged Australian education systems since March last year. As natural as it would be to concentrate solely on addressing the lingering effects of the COVID-19 pandemic (particularly how to address the loss of learning experienced by students), attention also needs to be directed toward harnessing the opportunities it has generated.

Most of these opportunities lie in leveraging teachers’ increased familiarity with online forms of delivery and collaboration. An opportunity of a different sort is the chance to extract a benefit from Australia’s depressed labour market to plug teacher supply gaps and improve teacher quality.

Wait, there is a teacher supply gap?

Not a gap, but gaps – as it doesn’t make sense to think about teachers as interchangeable.

Broadly speaking, the supply of primary teachers in metropolitan and larger regional centres is more than sufficient now, and is likely to be into the future. It is in specific secondary subject areas (particularly maths and science) and in rural communities that supply is either currently falling short of system demand, or predicted to in the coming years.

The teacher recruitment uptick

Deloitte Access Economics predicts unemployment will rise to 8.3% in 2021-22 and remain higher than its pre-COVID rate for years ahead. Job losses among those aged 20-29 have been particularly high and for this age-group there’s been relatively less bounce-back in employment since the impact of lockdowns nationally peaked in April 2020. As Deloitte Access Economics’ Chris Richardson said, soon-to-be university graduates and school leavers will face a “really tricky time” in the labour market.

A depressed labour market presents an opportunity for education systems. Research from other nations – our thirty-year streak of economic growth leaves us without a substantive domestic evidence base – shows that applications to initial teacher education programs rise significantly during recessions, mainly as a result of changes to relative wages, the unemployment rate and a corresponding greater interest in job security.

The experience of the United Kingdom which, unlike Australia, experienced a recession during the Global Financial Crisis (GFC), provides a case in point. In 2009, at the height of the recession, the English school system was able to meet all ITE subject recruitment targets (including in maths and all sciences) with qualified candidates for the first time in recent history. Last year’s English ITE recruitment data shows this experience is likely to be repeated, with ITE applications up 65% from their five year average.

As most postgraduate ITE programs admit students directly, it isn’t yet possible to form an aggregate view of whether teacher training applications have risen in Australia among graduates, who are likely to be more responsive to labour market conditions than school-leavers. When we checked with Teach For Australia, they reported a 25% increase in applications in 2020. Looking at the Australian Defence Force, which similarly offers job security during an economic contraction, recruitment applications surged 42 per cent in 2020. Though our economic contraction has not been as pronounced as the UK’s, these trends suggest an increased interest in teaching (and therefore teacher training) is likely.

International research suggests that any such increase in applicant numbers will also herald an increase in applicant quality. Given Australia has seen a long-run decline in the academic aptitude of new teachers (though this may have been partially arrested by some jurisdictions implementing minimum entry standards), this would be particularly welcome. There’s good reason to believe this quality uptick translates into improved outcomes for students. One study using data from Florida found that teachers who enter the profession during or following a recession are significantly more effective in raising student test scores, particularly in maths.

Making the most of things

To a certain degree, education systems can sit back and let these trends play out to their benefit. That said, there are several measures policymakers should consider to capitalise on this opportunity in addressing teacher supply gaps.

First, Australia’s two-year Master’s pathway into teaching may put a brake on recession-driven entry into teaching relative to the US and UK, where shorter entry and employment-based ITE programs are the norm. The Queensland Government has already flagged reviewing the loss of the shorter Diploma ITE pathway, but more immediately systems should consider implementing or expanding programs for those with qualifications in subject shortage areas that condense course content and pay a stipend (like the condensed training program for those with a STEM background the NSW Government will soon launch) or which provide employment during study (like Teach For Australia and similar programs).

Programs of both sorts allow bonding to rural and hard-to-staff schools, but care will have to be taken that any temporary decrease in teacher attrition (due to the recession) does not cut off opportunities for placement of employment-based pathway candidates as it has in the UK.

Additionally, consideration should be given to providing top-up funding to enable employment of teachers who possess a specialism that is predicted to confront a shortage, even if there are no current vacancies. By drawing on what might be a one-off opportunity to recruit a large number, systems can get ahead of the curve and build up a pool of specialist teachers to meet demand into the future.

System leaders should also plan ahead to limit attrition of teachers recruited over this period. This should be a concern, as research from Israel and the UK shows that teachers recruited during a recession may be more likely to leave the profession once the economy picks up. Tackling this can take place at the selection point, by preferencing candidates with a higher degree of altruistic (rather than extrinsic) motivation, which studies have linked to lower attrition among teachers. Additionally, systems can put in place policies on how these teachers are deployed and supported in schools that evidence shows can reduce attrition.

We know that quality teaching is the most significant in-school driver of student learning outcomes. If school systems get their teacher recruitment and retention settings right, a silver lining of COVID-19 could be the long-run benefit of students who get greater access than they otherwise would to appropriately qualified teachers. This is an opportunity we can’t afford to pass up, and will be critical to the success of our schools, children and young people over coming decades.

More about the author

Will Gort

Will Gort

Director, Financial Advisory

Will is a professional economist with expertise in economic modelling and econometric analysis which he brings to bear on a range of strategic policy analysis, primarily for Australian public sector clients. He specialises in economic analysis and policy in the education sector, where he has over six years’ experience working with key government clients across Australia. His experience includes analysing policy, regulation and funding arrangements from early childhood to tertiary education and beyond. Will’s previous experience includes undertaking extensive evaluations and research in school education, with a particular focus on schooling funding model reform and empirical analysis on the drivers of student outcomes. He has extensive expertise on matters of system improvement for schooling jurisdictions, having delivered a series of major reviews and evaluations for Departments of Education in Australia, as well as major research for the Australian Government. Will also has deep knowledge of the Australian higher education sector, having worked with a significant number of Australian universities and been involved in a number of complex research studies for the Australian Government, to inform funding policy and regulatory legislation.