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.Do you have an idea for a story?
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