Birmingham’s STEM solution shortcut a thought-bubble

Federal education minister Simon Birmingham’s so-called solution to address shrinking enrolments in school science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) can't disguise the Turnbull government's failure to develop a comprehensive plan to fix teacher shortages.

Australian Education Union federal president Correna Haythorpe said that any fix for boosting STEM enrolments needed to consider all aspects of the problem, including facilities and equipment as well as STEM teacher numbers.

“Any approach to addressing falling STEM enrolments must be part of a comprehensive plan to ensure all public schools are properly resourced, so they can attract and retain STEM staff,” Ms Haythorpe said.

“We do need more properly-qualified STEM teachers, now and in the future. However current teacher shortages are significant, and Minister Birmingham is only making the problem worse by cutting $1.9 billion out of the public school system in the next two years. He thinks he can take shortcuts to fixing the issue by giving speeches and setting ten-year goals, but he is avoiding the hard work.

“What we haven’t heard from Min. Birmingham today is any sign of a plan for how he is going to boost STEM enrolments. He has no real strategy on how to make this happen.

“There are no shortcuts to fixing this issue. The solution for boosting STEM student enrolments is having an education plan that includes the right resources, making sure teachers are properly paid, proper workforce planning, as well as ensuring our public schools have the right facilities and equipment.

“The solution isn’t just using technical solutions such as ‘teaching by video’ or by employing people without the proper teaching qualifications, such as through the ‘Teach For Australia’ scheme.

“Min. Birmingham’s vague timetable of boosting STEM teacher numbers over five or 10 years, without committing to providing any additional education funding, is not a plan or a strategy in any sense of the word. International data has shown that school resourcing can make a real difference to student results in maths and science.”

Data from the OECD Programme for International School Assessment and the Trends in international mathematics and science study from 2017 showed that Year 8 maths and science students in adequately-resourced schools performed significantly better than those in under-resourced schools. The studies also showed that staff shortages are six times more likely to impact students from disadvantaged backgrounds, and these students are three times more likely to be at a school where poor infrastructure impacts on learning.

The data also showed that:

  • Principals reported 55% of students attended schools where maths teaching was affected by a lack of resourcing, and 69% where science teaching was affected
  • Student performance is heavily influenced by the level of school resourcing, with Year 8 students at schools where science and maths instruction were not affected by resource shortages achieving an average science score significantly higher than at schools that were affected by shortages
  • Australian students in the lowest socio-economic status (SES)-quartile are six times more likely to be at a school where the principal reports staff shortages as students in the highest-SES quartile (36% versus 6%)
  • Principals reported that 34% of low-SES students were at schools where inadequate infrastructure hindered their capacity to provide instruction, compared with 12% of high-SES students.

Ms Haythorpe called on the Turnbull government to replace the billions of dollars of funding it had stripped from the public education budget.

“It’s easy for Min. Birmingham to make promises about the teaching profession which don’t require any additional funding or resources and which don’t have to be delivered until five or ten years down the line,” Ms Haythorpe said.

“What’s more important is focussing on what we can do to help the teaching profession and public schools today. The best thing Min. Birmingham could do to improve student STEM enrolments would be to give back the $1.9 billion he ripped from public school funding. The figures show that would have the biggest impact on student STEM results."

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