Australian secondary school teachers face more diversity in their classrooms

Friday, 29 Nov 2019

29 November 2019: Australian lower secondary schools and teachers are dealing with more diverse and potentially more challenging classrooms than across the OECD and in many high performing countries, according to a new report from the Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER).

The report analyses responses to the latest OECD Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS) from teachers and principals of students in Years 7 to 10. The Australian report released today complements the international report released by the OECD in June of this year.

TALIS revealed that Australian lower secondary classrooms have more students with special needs and migrant backgrounds, and more non-native speakers and refugees than the OECD average (Figure 1).

“Working with a diverse student population is the reality for many teachers and schools, across the OECD generally and certainly in Australia,” said report co-author and ACER Deputy CEO (Research) Dr Sue Thomson. “Encouragingly, Australian teachers are responsive to these challenges and generally feel confident they are able to provide the appropriate leadership in multicultural classes.”

Figure 1: Percentage of lower secondary teachers in schools with the following composition:

TALIS also reveals one-quarter of Australian teachers work in schools in which more than 30 per cent of students are socioeconomically disadvantaged, compared to one-fifth of teachers across the OECD on average (Figure 1). In Singapore, Finland, Estonia and Japan, all of whom outperformed Australia in the 2015 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), even fewer teachers are working in such schools.

Explaining the relationship between disadvantage and achievement, Dr Thomson said, “A range of research including PISA shows that, regardless of their own socioeconomic background, students benefit academically if they attend a school in which most of the students come from a less disadvantaged background.”

TALIS shows Australian schools are significantly more likely than other OECD countries to have additional supports in place specifically for socioeconomically disadvantaged students. However, only 50 per cent of Australian lower secondary principals report that their school has explicit policies combatting discrimination on the basis of socioeconomic disadvantage, compared to 73 per cent across the OECD.

Dr Thomson notes that the efforts of teachers in schools with high proportions of disadvantaged students are hampered by the fact that they spend 10 per cent less time on teaching and learning than their colleagues in more advantaged schools. Most of this difference is due to teachers in disadvantaged schools having to spend more time on keeping order in the classroom.

“The difference for Australian teachers is the highest in the OECD and equates to about 6 minutes per hour, or more than 100 hours over a year of schooling,” Dr Thomson said.

Teachers in more disadvantaged schools reported that the most pressing resource issues affecting instruction in the classroom included a lack of digital technology (32 per cent), internet access (23 per cent) and a shortage of instructional materials such as text books (19 per cent). Comparable figures for more advantaged schools were digital technology (13 per cent), internet access (10 per cent) and instructional materials such as text books (6 per cent).

Principals in more disadvantaged schools were significantly more likely than principals in more advantaged schools to report teacher absences, lack of parent/guardian involvement and support, and lack of shared leadership with other staff members as limiting their effectiveness.

TALIS 2018 was conducted in 31 OECD countries and economies and 17 partner countries and economies. In Australia, a nationally representative sample of 3573 lower secondary teachers and 230 principals completed the TALIS questionnaires. ACER conducted TALIS 2018 in Australia on behalf of the Commonwealth and state and territory departments of education.

The Teaching and Learning International Survey 2018 Australian Report Volume 1: Teachers and School Leaders as Continuous Learners, by Sue Thomson and Kylie Hillman, is available at https://research.acer.edu.au/talis/   

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