Here's what needs to be done to boost STEM in Australian schools

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Science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) are a key element in unlocking the potential of Australia’s school students. However, pupil enrolments in STEM subjects are falling in our schools.

According to figures from the Parliamentary Budget Office, it has been to cut $1.9 billion from public education budgets in the next two years.

Falling STEM enrolments are largely due to specialist-teacher shortages, and the longstanding problem of school educators having to teach out-of-field subjects.

The teaching profession has repeatedly warned about this looming STEM issue for years. It’s a problem that in particular affects students in disadvantaged schools. Students need a high quality broad curriculum to succeed.

The shortage of teachers with STEM qualifications is a real issue which needs a real solution.

The main federal response to this crisis has been to cut public school funding and rely on “better workforce management and better use of information technology” to create a new workforce of STEM qualified teachers in the next five to ten years.

Five to ten years? No extra investment to train qualified STEM teachers? That’s not a plan, that’s a thought bubble, and that’s just not good enough for our children. There are students in schools across the country who need qualified STEM teachers now.

The government has also proposed “alternative pathways into teaching” through programs such as Teach For Australia (TFA). This program places people with no teaching experience into classrooms primarily in disadvantaged schools.

Programs like TFA sidestep the traditional teacher training process, putting people in front of classes with the hope they get a “fast-tracked” teaching qualification along the way. Every child, no matter where they live or which subjects they study, deserve fully-qualified teachers from the outset. Programs such as TFA do not create them.

TFA has cost taxpayers $77 million so far, with only 124 teachers from the first five years of the program still working in schools. That is a poor return on investment by any measure. It’s also just a drop in the bucket compared to the more than 280,000 teachers in the Australian education system.

Proposals for a second “alternate pathways” teaching program have also just been requested by the federal government. Applicants for the government’s “High Achieving Teachers Program” (HATP) would not need any type of tertiary qualification before entering the classroom. There would also be no minimum training requirements for candidates before they begin teaching.

We need more teachers, but we need them to be properly qualified.

There are no shortcuts or easy solutions for boosting STEM student enrolments. The answer is not knee-jerk reactions which push unqualified teachers into classrooms. The long-term damage to the education sector caused by short-term solutions such as these is very real and very bad public policy.

The answer is in having a comprehensive education plan that includes the right resources, makes sure teachers are properly paid and ensures our public schools have the right facilities and equipment.

Fixing the STEM student enrolment problem should occur in an environment where policy makers realise that kids need a broad curriculum to succeed, not just hold to a tunnel-vision obsession with science- and technical-related subjects. We should be looking to create well-rounded students who can succeed anywhere, in anything. Yes, we want students to become doctors, scientists, engineers and STEM teachers. However we also want them to shine in the arts, in languages, in sports, and in economics – we will always need analysts, translators, historians, entrepreneurs and physiotherapists. The teacher recruitment problem is bigger than just STEM.

Most importantly, we must start fixing this problem immediately, not in five or ten years. This cannot happen without immediately reinstating the $1.9 billion in funding which has been taken from public education. This is money that schools and principals could use to hire additional teachers and teaching aides, and to support disadvantaged schools.

Further, we need a comprehensive strategy developed to attract and retain teachers. We need the right teachers in the right places – especially to address the critical shortage of subject teaching specialists in rural and regional schools.

We need proper workforce planning. No one has comprehensively looked at teacher recruitment needs and shortages into the future and come up with a solid plan to address them.

Funding education is not a cost – it’s an investment in our future. All children deserve the best start in life – they are our future.

Correna Haythorpe is the Federal President of the Australian Education Union.

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