SUBJECTS: Labor’s announcement to attract the best and brightest into teaching; School funding.

RICHARD GLOVER, HOST: Think back to your final year at school, which courses did the top performing students choose when it came to university? Were the people coming first, second, third in your class going into law, medicine, science? How many in that very top cohort went on to study teaching? Well, there's been much discussion over the years about how to raise the status of the teaching profession to attract the best and the brightest; and the subject of money usually comes up. Teachers' salaries are, of course, modest in comparison to those of surgeons and barristers. Well, today a promise from Labor for a bit of extra money to encourage the clever clogs into teaching, should they win the next election. Tanya Plibersek, of course, is the Shadow Education Minister and joins us from our Canberra studios. Good afternoon. 


GLOVER: You've been worried for a while about the cohort of kids that are going into teaching. At least some of them have got really, quite low ATARs - is that right?

PLIBERSEK: Look, there's still some very talented, very idealistic people choosing teaching as a degree - but what we've seen in recent years are the marks to get into teaching degrees falling - so for example in 2005, about a third of entrants into teaching had an ATAR of above 80; but ten years later - 2015, that's only one in five. So, that concerns me because the message it sends is this isn't difficult or complex work and a lot of parents and even teachers are saying to these super smart, idealistic young people "you shouldn't waste your mark on a teaching degree." And that breaks my heart because it really is one of the most important jobs in our community and I want people to be competing to get into teaching degrees the way they compete to get into medicine or veterinary science or dentistry because it is every bit as important. 

GLOVER: Isn't there a possibility, in fact, even a likelihood that people who've got quite low ATARs might go on to be fantastic teachers maybe, like Eddie Woo who struggled, he says, with Mathematics - they might be, having struggled with something themselves - might be in a perfect position to teach it?

PLIBERSEK: Yes, absolutely, and that's why we do need pathways into teaching for people who might have bombed out in their last couple of years of high school - sometimes, that's because they had, you know, personal difficulties at that time at home, parents getting divorced, maybe they were homeless or they just don't mature until a little bit later. So, we do need alternate pathways into teaching. We want a diverse teaching workforce. I'm not worried about those exceptions to the rule, what I'm worried about is a trend where year after year, fewer high achievers are choosing teaching and more and more people are getting in with lower and lower marks. It's the trend that worries me, not the individual examples. 

GLOVER: Okay, so what's your offer to try to change that around?

PLIBERSEK: Well, the first thing we've said is we need to work with universities to lift the entry standards and I made that commitment quite some time ago, but what we announced today is that we'd be giving bursaries of up to $10,000 a year to very high achievers who choose teaching. Now, this is a way obviously of attracting the dux of the school or the university medallist or someone who's been professional in another career to do an undergraduate or a postgraduate teaching qualification and to actually, particularly for those people who are doing postgraduate qualifications if they've been in the workforce for a time - just to make it a little bit easier to make that choice of taking on this second career. But, it also - I wanted to send a signal that this is really critical, important work that is valued by our community, and this is one way of doing that. 

GLOVER: How do you choose it? I mean, it's all very well for me to use phrases like 'cream of the crop', but how do you choose that because if you use ATARs, there'll be people who say; "the ATAR is a very blunt instrument, it's not a very good guide to who's going to make a great teacher." 

PLIBERSEK: It is, but we're not saying that you have to have an ATAR of 99 to get into a teaching degree, what we're saying is we are targeting up to 1,000 people in the whole of Australia each year because they are exceptional and we want exceptional people to choose teaching. So, we'll look at academic achievement but we'll also look at personality - does this person want to be a teacher? Do they like kids? Do they have that, kind of, spark that - that, you know, that makes them something special, that makes them a leader of people? 

GLOVER: Okay, this is back, in a way, to the bonded system of years gone by whereby if you accept the $10,000 per year, you then have to be a teacher for a while? 

PLIBERSEK: Yeah, so if you accept a bursary for one year - we expect you to teach in a public school for one year. If you accept four years worth of bursaries then we expect you to teach for four years; and you say it's a bit like, you know, back to the future in that respect - teaching was such an important way that the smartest women and the smartest working class kids moved into a profession were they weren't working hard on the railways or in a factory like their parents did. Like it was, in the 50s and the 60s, a really important – and I mean, I think it's still an incredibly respected profession, but it was a really important way to move into the professional classes for the smartest women, the smartest working class people. And, now we have so much more choice and that is a wonderful thing. You know, once upon a time if you were a woman, your basic choices were nursing and teaching – and that was about it. Women can do anything now. But what that's meant is we need to compete more, we need to make this profession more attractive. This is one way of doing it. We need to make sure our community is valuing and respecting teachers. We're hearing more and more stories about parents, you know, the kids get in trouble and instead of the parents backing up the teacher, they're having a go at the teacher at the end of the day. And we also - you mentioned keeping people - you know, it's not a highly paid profession. It is when you first get out of uni, what happens is you hit a ceiling very soon into your professional career; so we need to keep our best teachers in teaching, as well. That’s why getting the right people...

GLOVER: I can hear a lot of teachers yelling at their radio saying look, you've got hard figures about the bursary, that sounds fine, but really the important thing is some hard commitments and figures from Labor about...


GLOVER: …how you stop that because everyone talks about this problem...


GLOVER: …with teaching that when you first start, it's actually pretty good compared to similar professions but then, you - it just runs out of steam. 

PLIBERSEK: Well, I happen to have an idea for that, too, Richard - thank you for the opening. When we were last in government, we had this program - Highly Accomplished and Lead Teachers where, to keep the the best teachers in the classroom, what happens quite often is people are targeted; "you are brilliant, you are fantastic, we want you to teach other teachers, we want you to come into head office, the Department of Education, we want you to run a cluster of schools, we want you to move up in the bureaucracy." And that is great because people from the classroom are bringing their professional knowledge to help more teachers, but they're lost to the classroom. We want to keep some of those teachers in the classroom by acknowledging that they are highly accomplished, that they are mentoring and training the other teachers around them; sometimes just in their school, sometimes across a local area - that needs formal recognition as well. That is happening informally in our classrooms every day. Teachers are not given the time and they're not given the money, frankly, to acknowledge that work. That Highly Accomplished and Lead Teachers program, I think it's only had about 500 teachers because it just stopped under the Liberals - they just stopped pushing for this sort of reform. 

GLOVER: But, some of these attempts, in the past, have not been entirely successful. You know, there has been offer - there has been money, particularly for people to move from the professions into teaching - there hasn't been a great take up.

PLIBERSEK: No, and we're talking, you know, in the case of the program that we're announcing today - bursaries - we're looking for a 1,000 people, up to 1,000 people a year. But, we really do want exceptional people; I'd rather have 500 great people than try and, you know, pad out the numbers. Look, I think there are - I think there are terrific, idealistic, highly accomplished people who see the importance of this work. I think by sending a strong message that our community values this work, we give them the permission to vote with their, you know, vote with their feet and choose with their hearts what they want to do. 

GLOVER: The one  thing I agree with you is a problem is, once you get a really low ATAR, there are kids who are quite bright who feel that they'll - and this is a mad thought, I know - but they feel they're kind of wasting their mark so they say...

PLIBERSEK: That's what they're told.

GLOVER: …you can get into this course for, you only need an ATAR of, you know - blah - and they say "but my, I've actually got, I've actually got 98." And they feel as if it's somehow wasting their mark and that's the problem about a falling cutoff. 

PLIBERSEK: I've heard teachers say it to kids, I've heard parents say it to kids. I've had kids who say to me "I'm, you know, I really don't know what to do. I really want to be a teacher but I worked so hard and my parents are telling me it's a waste." I think that that is a tragedy. Like, this is one of the most important jobs in our community - you can have the biggest impact on a person's life, you can literally change lives - not one life, but hundreds, maybe thousands over the course of your career. We need to send that message and this is one way of sending that message.

GLOVER: Thanks for joining me, thanks for talking to me. 

PLIBERSEK: It's a pleasure.

GLOVER: There's Tanya Plibersek, she's the Shadow Education Minister and I think on that last thought everyone can agree. I mean obviously there's different methods for trying to achieve that. The Government will have their ideas, Labor's got its ideas but that idea that you can - we've got to find a way of making this as important profession as we all know it is; and how we do that - well, you'll have to be the judge of that but it's certainly a matter of, you know, national urgency.