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Teachers’ pay: keeping the best out of the profession

We’re often told that Australia’s teachers are among the best paid in the world, based on OECD figures, which is true, but the other – more important – part of the story is that teachers’ pay is falling behind that of other professionals at an alarming rate.

According to ABS research, female teachers’ salaries in relation to all professions fell from over 100 per cent in 1986 to roughly 93 per cent in 2018. For male teachers, the situation was starker, going from close to 100 per cent in 1986 to about 84 per cent in 2018.

These percentage falls in relation to other professions have had a number of consequences, including precipitating the retirement of experienced, skilled teachers and lowering the entry requirements for teaching degrees.

Indeed, research carried out in Australia by Leigh and Ryan (2008) studied the changes in literacy and numeracy standards of both teacher education students and new teachers. They found that, between 1983 and 2003, the “average percentile rank” of those entering teaching degrees fell from 74 to 61, while for new teachers the average percentile rank dropped from 70 to 62 (Leigh, 2012).

But as the article Peer Pressures, written by Julie Sonnemann and Jonathan Nolan, shows, Australian teachers’ pay at the beginning of their career is not the real problem: according to analysis by the Australian Bureau of Statistics and the Grattan Institute, teachers earn roughly $70,000 between the ages of 20 and 29, about $25,000 less than an engineer at the same age, or $40,000 less than a doctor. However, as one chart published in the article shows, these salaries change significantly as the years roll on.

Take the highest-earning professionals, for instance: doctors. While they might earn $110,000 in their 20s, by the time they reach their 50s, they can expect to be earning about $250,000, an increase of roughly 127 per cent. By contrast, Australian teachers’ salaries are capped after 10 years of service to about $100,000, meaning over the lifetime of their careers their salaries grow by a meagre 42 per cent.

Similarly, lawyers aged 20–29 earn on average just under $100,000, yet by their 50s they can expect to earn around $225,000, more than doubling their earlier salaries. Engineers, too, follow similar trajectories, more than doubling their salaries in 30 years.

For individuals motivated by earnings potential – and that’s most of us – the problem is pretty clear: teaching salaries just aren’t high enough to attract ‘the best and the brightest’.

It’s not that young people are not interested in teaching careers. In fact, the Peer Pressures article cites a Grattan Institute survey  showing that 70 per cent of almost 1000 high-achieving students were willing to consider teaching as a career. However,  according to university entry data, only 3 per cent of high achievers choose teaching for their undergraduate courses. This, the article argues, is part of a larger problem with Australia’s education system and our students’ declining scores in a number of key international tests. Teaching courses are only securing 3 per cent of high achievers, compared with 19 per cent for science, 14 per cent for health and 9 per cent for engineering. In a nutshell, questions are being asked as to whether too many mediocre teachers are entering classrooms and not equipping students with the right skills for success.

As the article states: “We can never know for sure what is causing our students to fall back, but it’s difficult to ignore the fact that Australia’s test score decline has coincided with the retirement of many of the teachers who were recruited when salaries were much more competitive with other professions.”

Sonnemann and Nolan recommend a bold solution if Australia is to climb its way back up the rankings and also re-establish teaching as a well-respected and well-paid career. They both support the Grattan Institute’s proposed $1.6 billion reform package, which will involve increasing the average ATAR for teaching from 74 to 85 within the next decade. It will also include $10,000-a-year scholarships for high-achieving students to pursue teaching, as well as “new career paths for leaders of the profession of up to $180,000 – about $80,000 more than the current highest standard pay rate for teachers”.

Whether there is an appetite for such a bold proposal across jurisdictions and political parties, however, remains to be seen.

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5 comments

  1. Too little too late.I is a great pitty seeing great teachers leave the profession because of the bad pay but it is also the conditions and expectations of tbe teachets that had changed and not been recognized as a great problem for our education systems. People also being promoted to leadership without experience or proper training.

  2. Does this article take into account, for example, that the engineers who are making that bigger money would be in managerial roles and so, a fairer comparison would not just be between 30 year experienced teachers and 30 year experienced engineers, but between 30 year experienced engineers and school principals? Could be wrong but just a thought.

  3. Where do you start to answer this question? Just a few pointers. Teachers pay has always been low. It is hard to monitor who are the best teachers as it works best when teachers share. Bring in promoting some is like one person in a team effort getting credit for the win. More than anything teachers have been overloaded with curriculum and paperwork and not allowed to teach how they know best. Usually those who dictate how teachers teach have been out of the classroom too long and are just reinventing old renamed work with restrictions. They are changing methods with one hand and not supporting with the other. The problem is the leadership. Teachers need to be spontaneous and creative and that has been undervalued. Teachers are generous, caring and hard working and they are destroyed by poor leadership, paperwork and nonsupportive parents. Children with parents who value education and respect educators are our best learners. Let teachers do their job and cut the overload of work. Technology can be very good but the overuse in primary schools have not allowed children to develop fine motor skills and show a very poor attention span. Children’s stamina to stay on task or follow through is very poor today because of the world we live in. Authorities overloading the curriculum and unbalanced technology use have created a lact of the basic being practice. Don’t blame the teachers for low standards blame the system and our world today. If children and teachers are not allowed creativity, sport, music, art etc we will not move forward. These are only a few comments.

  4. As a rare “high flyer” who pursued a teaching career with a TE Score that could have led to science, engineering or medicine, I have long lamented that teaching is often a “default” choice for school leavers who don’t know what they really want to do, and/or don’t expect to get the OP/ATAR score needed for what they would like to do. Teaching has typically required lower entrance scores than other professions.
    I agree with Ian Hall’s comment, that the conditions and expectations of teachers have changed enormously and are a great problem for our education systems (and therefore our governments). A colleague commented recently that the country can’t afford to “fix” teachers’ conditions and expectations – the number of additional teachers and other staff that schools would need would drastically increase the costs of education. In the meantime, however, great teachers are leaving the profession, and many of those that stay are burning out, experiencing nervous breakdowns, and a raft of other physical and mental health issues. The impacts and costs that these issues create for the individuals, the health system, the education system, not to mention the quality of education received by students, are largely unacknowledged.
    The system is broken; it is way over time to make real reforms which will not only ensure that teachers are paid salaries commensurate with their skills and responsibilities, but also allowing teachers to enjoy similar working conditions to other professions.

  5. The change in societal and family values never gets mentioned. The wider community does not value education in the sense that they support schools in managing students academic progress and behaviour. All ll falls to the teachers and the school. I rarely feel supported by parents or the community, even socially I am careful when and where I mention I am a teacher. Watching various media stories they always focus on teachers, schools and testing. Our wider community needs to accept responsibility for what has happened in schools. Staff are constantly abused and have their hands tied when dealing with both behaviour or academic progress. Students can progress from year to year with no consequence for poor behaviour or work. Students that go overseas are coming back stating how hard they worked because it was “bad for the family” if they didn’t. The consequences and accountability was with the family. This does not solve every problem but would definitely solve a lot!

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