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Report highlights need for more data to tackle out-of-field teaching
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Report highlights need for more data to tackle out-of-field teaching

Research 5 minute read

A Deakin University report, co-written by ACER and Griffith University researchers, examines the long-running issue of out-of-field (OOF) teaching and its ramifications for educators and students.

OOF teaching is when teachers are forced or willingly assigned to teach subjects or stages of schooling they are not qualified to teach.

The report proposes 22 actions and 46 recommendations to assess the extent of the nation-wide issue.

Deakin School of Education Associate Professor Linda Hobbs, the lead author of the report, Australian National Summit on Teaching Out-of-field: Synthesis and Recommendations for Policy, Practice and Research, said staff shortages meant classes in vital science, technology, engineering, and maths (STEM) subjects are among the worst affected by teaching out-of-field. History, geography, and English are also impacted.

Teaching OOF for science and maths was of particular concern given STEM industries were expected to record some of the biggest job growth in the coming years, she said. The first step to address the problem was to form a better understanding of the extent to which staff shortages affected Australian classrooms.

‘There is evidence that shows students learn better and are more inspired when taught by in-field teachers, but schools are being forced to plug gaps in their staffing and assign teachers to classes they are not qualified to teach,’ Associate Professor Hobbs said.

ACER Senior Research Fellow Paul Weldon said, ‘We need better policy, but for that we need evidence as to where the issues really are. We will never fully eradicate OOF teaching because we have small schools that can only employ a certain number of staff but must provide a minimum curriculum.

‘There could be incentives provided for teachers to upskill in another field, likely of less interest to them than the ones they trained in. There is also the issue of distribution (this is also the case in the medical profession). It's not enough to ensure the numbers of qualified teachers are there to meet demand - there is the issue of ensuring even distribution so that regional and rural areas aren't missing out while there is over-supply in metro areas.’

Chief among the report’s recommendations is the development of a nationally accepted definition of OOF teaching that can be used by all states and territories. This will help to measure how entrenched OOF teaching is within those jurisdictions.

The report also calls for more comprehensive data on the long-term impact of OOF teaching on teachers and students, as well as better support systems to help OOF teachers, and strengthened career pathways into teaching, including re-training for mid-career professionals hoping to switch careers.

Associate Professor Hobbs said Victoria’s Department of Education and Training launched its Secondary Mathematics and Science Initiative (SMSI) to help educators to teach some STEM subjects. But she said its success was hampered because it relied on qualified teachers already in the workforce to take on extra study while juggling their existing heavy workloads.

‘There are three main causes for teacher shortages that result in the need for out-of-field teaching,’ Associate Professor Hobbs said.

‘These include a lack of teachers available at the school who are qualified to teach certain subjects. The second is that there is an unequal distribution of teachers in a geographic area, meaning suburbs, towns or cities just don’t have enough teachers to meet demand. The third reason is recruitment practices by the school that preference qualities other than teacher specialisations when making their hiring decisions.

‘What this report shows us is teaching out-of-field has become an increasingly critical issue. We believe it is something that needs to be addressed urgently to mitigate any impact on students’ education and teacher wellbeing.’

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