The state of teaching: a student's letter, a report
and a keynote address

Maurie Mulheron

Among the pallets of papers, documents and correspondence that seem to come across my desk each month there were three last week that particularly caught my attention. All three reinforce the fact that Australian teachers are skilled professionals who work hard for their students. Our job, as always, is to fight to have governments recognise this, reward teachers accordingly and provide the resources that they need.

The first was a farewell letter from a NSW public high school student sent after his HSC examinations to his English teacher: "There is absolutely no way that I could have achieved the marks I have without your careful guidance you willingly gave me. I came to you for help and, without fail (even the night before the HSC exam), you would always reply and do your utmost to assist me. I cannot express easily in words the depth of appreciation I feel for the assistance and motivation that you provided to both my classmates and me throughout the HSC."

The second document was very different, much more official: the Staff in Australia's Schools (SiAS) 2013 survey commissioned by the federal Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations that is conducted by the Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER) about every three years.

The report confirms that, since the last survey in 2010, teachers are working longer hours, often on tasks unrelated to the core business of teaching and learning, and that class sizes are still unacceptably high by international standards. This confirms other research, and what we know through experience, that Australian teachers are working longer hours than the OECD average.

Far too much of this work is merely administrative and should be undertaken by non-teaching staff employed by the system. Yet, school 'autonomy', in reality, means that the work falls on teaching staff, including principals and executive.

Primary school teachers are spending an average of 47.9 hours per week on all school-related activities. This is an increase from the 45.8 hours reported in the 2010 survey. Secondary school teachers are working, on average, 47.6 hours, which is an increase from the 46 hours reported in 2010. The fact that teachers, including executive staff, are reporting that the workload increases are due to an increase in non-teaching administrative work is a cause for concern.

As the letter from our HSC student testifies: teachers have and will always work long hours on work that directly impacts on their students' progress. But the more the system is fragmented and support staff positions are lost, the more the administrative burden is placed on schools. The problem is that this results in 'teacher burn-out'. The survey showed that it is a significant reason why many leave the profession.

Class sizes in Australia are larger than the OECD average, and far larger than some high-performing systems such as Finland. Teachers, students and parents understand the benefits of lower class sizes.

The final document was in Professional Educator (Vol 13, Issue 4), the journal of the Australian College of Educators: the transcript of the keynote address that Dr Ken Boston delivered to the NSW Teachers Federation's 2014 Annual Conference. In his address, Dr Boston made a profound point that, for me, ties together the other documents.

"I begin with the term teacher quality. We do not talk of doctor quality or dentist quality: we talk of the quality of health care or the quality of oral health.

"And that quality varies greatly from place to place. Health care in Australia is not everywhere of the same quality. The variation is not explained by the quality of the medical staff, but by their number, the availability of specialist diagnosis and treatment, and the availability of technical and ancillary support.

"Low quality health care in rural and remote Australia is explained by inadequate funding for the task at hand, not by the relative incompetence of the available doctors and nurses.

"Now, it is the same with teaching. We should talk not about teacher quality, but about the quality of education. The teachers in our most disadvantaged schools are at least as good as those in our most advantaged schools.

"The issue is not their competence, skill or commitment.

"The issue is that their number, resources and support are unequal to the task."

But perhaps the final word is best left to the young HSC student who recognises, to borrow Dr Boston's words, the competence, skill and commitment of his teachers:

"I am proud of myself but wish to recognise that this would not be possible without the assistance from all my teachers and you especially."