Lawrence Ingvarson on the situation and future of the teaching profession in Australia

Dr Lawrence Ingvarson is a Principal Research Fellow at ACER.  His major research interests centre around the professionalization of teaching.  He recently co-directed a study for the IEA on the preparation of mathematics teachers in seventeen countries (TEDS-M).  Recent books include Assessing Teachers for Professional Certification: The First Decade of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. He is a Fellow of the Australian College of Educators and a recipient of a Distinguished Service Award from the Australian Science Teachers Association.  In 2014 he was awarded the James Darling Medal by the Australian College of Educators.

Interview by John Graham

JG I’ll ask you a couple of “big” questions to begin with and then look at some specific areas.

How would you sum up the state of the teaching profession in Australia at present?

What do you see as the main challenges facing the profession and to what extent do you think they are being properly addressed?

LI I think it is clear from many indicators, such as performance on international tests of student achievement, that Australia has had a strong teaching profession. However, it is also clear that our performance on those tests has declined over the same period that has seen a dramatic decline in the attractiveness of teaching to academically successful students.

The lack of vigorous recruitment policies at both levels of government is one of the most serious threats to the quality and equity in Australia’s school system. I don’t think it is a coincidence that the teachers who retired over this period, with thirty to forty years of experience, were recruited with relatively strong academic credentials for teaching. Back then, governments took their responsibility to ensure teaching was an attractive career choice with bursaries, scholarships, low course fees and competitive salaries.

In contrast, current recruitment policies are passive. It is hoped that sufficient numbers of students will turn up, and they do by and large, but few with the capacity to apply successfully for professions offering higher status and better salaries. Ensuring a high quality teaching profession calls for concerted, stable long term policies. High achieving countries know this and have the recruitment policies to match.

The evidence indicates a widening gap between the kind of teachers needed in the future, given increasingly ambitious expectations for student outcomes and welfare, and the quality of people being recruited into teaching. Despite what the Deans of Education claim in their recent media release, research shows that the quality of teacher education programs and the quality of graduates from those programs depends more on the academic quality of the students recruited to those programs than the programs themselves.

I don’t see the state of the profession lifting significantly unless our governments accept that ultimately the responsibility to reverse the decline with recruitment policies that enable teaching to compete successfully with other professions for our ablest graduates rests with them; no one else. Not teacher educators, not teachers. Setting a high bar for entry to teacher education does not address the recruitment problem – it makes governments look like they are doing something when they are not. Teach for Australia falls into the same tokenistic category.

I’d like to see each political party, before upcoming elections, asked “What are your policies for steadily lifting the proportion of entrants to initial teacher education with ATAR scores above 70, or equivalent, to 100 per cent over the next five years?” I’d also like to see measures in place to track progress toward meeting that target. I suspect that such a campaign would mobilise surprisingly wide public support.

Our recent workload studies of teachers and principals also clearly show that far too many teachers and principals are working under stressful conditions that are having a detrimental effect on the quality of teaching they can provide to their students, and consequently their job satisfaction.

Third, we must carefully consider the appropriateness of the accountability structures that are created for teachers and teacher leaders. If we want to hold teachers more accountable for student learning, then we must provide them with additional control over the teaching/ learning process. Similarly, if teachers want to have more influence over their profession and their professional lives, they must assume greater responsibility for policies and student results.

If we want to encourage teachers to work collaboratively, then we need to consider whether teacher evaluation or compensation systems that focus on the individual teacher are appropriate, or whether it is more useful to create evaluation tools and systems that recognize and reward teamwork and collaboration. We also must consider how systems should recognize individuals in formalized teacher leader roles versus those that recognize teacher leadership as an expectation for all teachers in the school.

The role of the profession

JG You have been a long time campaigner for the profession to take control of its own destiny - the notion that the profession itself should have the guiding role in matters such as qualifications, curriculum, professional standards, professional learning and governance. Why do you support this approach?

LI Basically, because it is in the public interest to have a teaching profession with a strong sense of ownership of and commitment to its professional standards. The defining credential for professional status is the ability to define what members should know and be able to do – and the ability to distinguish members who meet those standards from those who do not. Standards are the way other professions control their own professional learning and certification systems.

Back in the 1990s, I saw standards as the means by which teachers could resist the deprofessionalising policies of that time and gain a stronger voice in professional matters such as who enters their profession, who trains them and who decides what teachers should get better at with experience. Standards that reflected the complexity of successful teaching, not the generic standards we have now, were always a tool for empowering the profession. I worked with English, mathematics and science teacher associations to develop their own standards for highly accomplished practice.

Many other associations followed. The passion and commitment of teachers to their standards was palpable. The quality of their standards was higher than those developed by employing authorities. The wonder for me is why governments and employing authorities have not seen that it is in their best interest to capitalise on the power of ownership and trust teachers with the responsibilities of a profession.

I’m with Dick Elmore, when he says:

I used to think that policy was the solution. And now I think policy is the problem . . . To policy makers, every idea about what schools should be doing is as credible as every other idea, and any new idea that can command a political constituency can be used as an excuse for telling schools to do something. Elected officials . . . generate electoral credit by initiating new ideas, not by making the kind of steady investments in people that are required to make the educator sector more effective. The result is an education sector that is overwhelmed with policy, conditioned to respond to the immediate demands of whoever controls the political agenda, and not in investing in the long-term health of the sector and the people who work in it.

For the future, I am putting my energy into building a stronger profession, not into trying to repair a desperately dysfunctional political system.

JG To what extent do you think the profession is playing a ‘guiding role’ at present?

Have you seen any improvement in this area over the past few years?

It has been argued that teaching has some particular complexities as a professional occupation which hamper its professional control - its size, the nature of its employment, the government role in managing (and at times micro-managing) schools and teachers, and the way the Australian education system is structured. Would you like to comment on this?

What steps need to be taken for the profession to gain a greater control over the professional issues which serve to define it as a profession?

LI There’s a long history here. How far back do you want to go? In 1959, as the Australian College of Education was being established, James Darling wrote that:

Despite its importance, the teaching profession as a whole has never yet had a voice with which to speak. There are innumerable professional associations, at different levels and of different degrees of specialised interest, but there is no organisation to speak for education as a whole in matters of principle, which concern the whole body of those who teach. There are acknowledged leaders in specialized fields, but no leaders of the profession as a whole.

Nearly sixty years have passed since Darling wrote those words and still the teaching profession remains leaderless and powerless in the sense he identified. Progress has been made, but the old obstacles remain and new ones have been created.

I was inspired by the vision of teaching as a profession responsible for its own standards in the 1972 Karmel Report. There have been many similar statements over the past 40 to 50 years. For example, in 2003, 15 teacher associations including the AEU put together a National Statement from the Teaching Profession on Teacher Standards, Quality and Professionalism, which recommended that

A nationally coordinated, rigorous and consistent system should be established to provide recognition to teachers who demonstrate advanced standards . . . The enterprise bargaining process between employers and unions will be an important mechanism for providing recognition for professional certification. All employing authorities should be encouraged to provide recognition and support for professional certification as the process comes to demonstrate its credibility and its effects on professional learning (p. 4).

That Statement encapsulated the mutual responsibility that the teaching profession and governments have for ensuring all students have quality opportunities to learn. If teachers want recognition for accomplished practice, they must be able to demonstrate that they can set high standards and identify those who have attained them. If governments want to lift student performance they must place high value on teachers who attain those standards and create a strong market for them.

Several attempts have been made to establish a national body for the teaching profession. We had the Australian Teaching Council in the 1990s. Howard killed that. We had Teaching Australia in the 2000s, established by Brendon Nelson. It lost its way and lacked the essential support of both employing authorities and the unions. By 2008 all the main stakeholders were in favour of establishing a national professional standards body with responsibilities that included a certification system for recognising and rewarding highly accomplished teachers.

AITSL was established with that responsibility, but to the surprise of many, if not dismay, its Board was not representative of all of the stakeholders needed to ensure its programs gained the full commitment of the profession. No teachers were on its board. As a Ministerial agency it was not a body the profession could identify with readily. Earlier standards development work by teacher associations was disregarded. A clearly expressed readiness by teacher associations, at the time, to provide certification in collaboration with AITSL was ignored.

For me, the capacity to define standards and certify members who attain them are the essential credentials if teachers want to claim professional status. If ever there was a time when the profession needed to be able to speak on equal terms with governments and other employing authorities about matters central to quality teaching and learning, such as the quality of entrants to teacher education programs, that time is now.

In a strange twist of logic, and to the amazement of other professions, employing authorities claimed that they had “jurisdiction” over any system for assessing teachers for certification at highly accomplished and lead teacher levels. Showing a complete lack of understanding of what a professional certification is all about, many saw it as a “managerial prerogative”, not an opportunity to encourage teaching to ‘grow up’ as a profession.

We now have the unfortunate situation where there are many different certifying authorities across states, territories and school systems and the long-standing vision of a profession taking responsibility for setting high standards and providing certification to teachers who attained them faded again. It is recognised that the current system for assessing candidates for certification lacks evidence of its validity and reliability, is expensive and cumbersome and is unlikely to go to scale. We need to establish one rigorous national certification system for which the profession has a major responsibility.

This history makes me wonder why it is that those responsible for the administration of education in Australia, unlike high achieving countries, regularly resist or thwart any genuine movement toward the professionalization of teaching.

Initial teacher education

JG Recently every report which has come out with anything to do with school education includes recommendations about the need to improve initial teacher education. There have also been a plethora of reviews of initial teacher education over the last twenty or thirty years.

After all of that focus do you think initial teacher education is now on a sustainable improvement track? If not, why not?

What do you think needs to happen to improve the quality and outcomes of initial teacher education?

LI I have no doubt that, generally speaking, teacher education programs are better than they were thirty to forty years ago. However, as we pointed out in the background paper ACER prepared for the Teacher Education Ministerial Advisory Group, we lack the information to know much at all about the quality of our teacher education programs or what graduates from those programs know and can do. So it is difficult to know whether they are improving or not. I suspect they are in many respects, but teacher educators need to give more support to measures that would give the profession greater assurance that they are doing a good job.

These measures would benefit greatly if teacher educators for each field of teaching were to put their heads together nationally and come to some level of agreement about what, for example, a graduating primary teacher should know and be able to do about recent research in teaching reading or mathematics. The current standards for graduate teachers need to be elaborated in the form of what I have previously called a national curriculum for teacher education – that recognises the depth of knowledge needed for each field of teaching. This is a responsibility that teacher educators should embrace, supported by the profession.

A need I won’t go into here is for far more attention to be paid to the preparation of teacher educators.

However, as mentioned, recruitment is a much greater problem. Of all the stages in the quality assurance pipeline, recruitment is the most important as its effects flow through to influence the quality of teacher education programs and the quality of graduates and new teachers.1 No matter how rigorous selection, accreditation and new outcome measures such as final year teacher performance assessments might be, they are unlikely to compensate for the lack of recruitment policies that attract sufficient numbers of high-quality students to meet the demand.

Recent data on enrolments indicates that Australia has lost control over the academic quality of students entering teacher education programs. Some universities are behaving irresponsibly and teacher registration bodies are letting them get away with it by not applying their own accreditation standards rigorously. Teachers have little say in who gains entry to their profession.

Australia needs an agency with the authority that state governments once had, to be able to match the supply of new teachers to the demand, in the interests of the tax-paying public and the profession. Ensuring that the supply of new teachers matches the demand is too important to be left to the vagaries of university admission policies.

The Australian Council of Deans of Education has been running a self-serving campaign to discredit the use of ATAR scores in selection. They are by no means perfect, but we do not have any better predictors on which to base selection – nor do the Deans. What they fail to mention is that the academic quality of students entering teacher education programs directly, not through the Tertiary Admission Councils, is much weaker.

Teacher Supply and Demand

JG How do you deal with the dilemma of a looming teacher supply problem with the demographic data forecasting a massive increase in the numbers of students who will enter Victoria’s schools over the next five years and new measures to tighten the entry requirements for initial teacher education courses?

LI The problem we need to address is the quality of the supply problem, much more than the quantity of the supply.

If Australia is to achieve excellence in its school system, we must press our governments to meet their responsibility to ensure that, over the next few years, increasing numbers of academically successful students enter teaching, sufficient to meet the demand. Relative salaries and status are the main reasons why few academically successful students are choosing teaching.2

OECD data show that Australia stands out as a country that has lifted starting salaries for beginning teachers much more than salaries for experienced teachers.3 However, international research shows that it is not the salaries for beginning teachers that distinguishes countries with higher levels of student achievement. Rather, it is the ratio of salaries of experienced teachers relative to GDP per capita4 and on this measure, teacher salaries in Australia have been declining for many years.5

As I have argued for many years, a rigorous and well rewarded national system for the certification of highly accomplished teachers and school leaders is essential to achieving that purpose. Build it and they will come.

School Leadership

JG How significant is the relationship between school leadership and the achievement outcomes of students?

Some of the issues impacting on those in the principal class include workload and its consequences (health and welfare), the burden of compliance and red tape preventing principals from acting as educational leaders and a fall-off in teachers applying for principal positions.

How do you see this situation and what do you think needs to be done to address it?

LI The research supports what most people know, that there is no doubt that the quality of school leadership has a major influence on student outcomes (and many other aspects of the rich communities that schools are). But it is an indirect influence mainly. Leadership standards synthesise this research. It is through their capacity to create a strong and accountable professional learning community among staff members that school leaders improve outcomes for students.

However, we need to ensure conditions are in place that enable school leaders to establish strong professional communities and focus on leadership for learning. Compared with high achieving countries, Australia lacks rigorous and sustained programs for preparing school leaders and workloads are dangerously high.

Principals rely on the values and expertise that teachers bring to the school if their initiatives are to be successful. They also rely on teachers who are strongly motivated to attain profession-defined standards for highly accomplished practice. In other words, school leaders are more likely to be successful it they can depend on a strong profession.

Research shows that school leaders who themselves are highly accomplished teachers and teacher leaders are more effective principals. It follows that we should move steadily to a situation over the next ten to twenty years where all school leaders have gained certification at the Highly Accomplished and Lead Teacher levels.

To achieve this, a major need is to build a better integration between career ladders from teacher, to teacher leadership positions and on to school leadership, as defined in current EBAs across the school systems, and the career stages as defined by the current Australian Professional Standards for Teachers at the Highly Accomplished and Lead Teacher stages.

When asked what would make their work more manageable, principals rank highly the need to attract and retain good teachers. This calls for needs-based funding that will ensure principals in all schools have the resources to compete on an equal footing for well-qualified and competent teachers.


  1. Ingvarson, L., Schwille, J., Rowley, G., Peck, R., Tatto, M. T., Senk, S. L. (2013). An Analysis of Teacher Education Context, Structure and Quality Assurance Arrangements in TEDS-M Countries. Amsterdam, NL: International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement.
  2. Department of Education, Science and Training (2006). Attitudes to teaching as a career: A synthesis of attitudinal research. Canberra: Commonwealth of Australia.
  3. OECD (2015). Education at a Glance. Paris: OECD.
  4. Akiba, M., Ciu, Y., Shimizu, K., & Lang, G. (2012). Teacher salary and student achievement: A cross-national analysis of 30 countries. International Journal of Educational Research, 53, 171–181.
  5. Productivity Commission (2012). Schools Workforce. op. cit.


This article appears in Professional Voice 12.3 Personalised learning, inclusion and equity.

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