Critical teacher shortages affecting Charlestown electorate schools

21 September 2022

Ms JODIE HARRISON (Charlestown): Schools across New South Wales are facing a critical shortage of teachers, and schools in the Charlestown electorate have not been spared from this growing crisis. In the past several weeks, concerned educators, teachers and community members have reached out to me to share their experiences of a school system under extraordinary strain, and the impacts that this is having on them, their schools and, mostly importantly, their students. They have told me that teachers are leaving the profession in droves, new teachers are increasingly hard to find and retain, important school programs have had to be cancelled, teachers are unable to take leave, classrooms are being pushed to capacity and all of it is leaving students worse off.

The numbers are concerning: School enrolments are expected to grow by 10 per cent over the next decade and enrolments in initial teaching degrees fell by 8 per cent between 2017 and 2020. That means that there is an expected shortfall of 4,000 teachers by 2025—only three years away. Our schools, our State and the whole world has faced unprecedented challenges over the past 2½ years. If there was one consistent theme that I heard from the teachers that I met with in my office, it is that not all of this strain is a result of COVID. The pandemic has only exacerbated an existing problem. One teacher put the problem in stark terms. They said, "Uncompetitive salaries and unmanageable workloads mean teachers are leaving the profession and graduates are not entering it."

These shortages are causing daily disruption in school functions, which is having serious negative impacts on teachers, school staff and students across the Charlestown electorate. One teacher spelled out the problems to me. They said that teachers are not replaced when away sick, splitting classes and placing extra burden on staff because of the extra workload and duties that have to be covered. They said that important programs are being cancelled to cover staff shortages, with learning assistance and support teachers, COVID support teachers, intervention teachers and similar being used as casual relief. Relief from face-to-face teaching—which is when primary teachers get time out of the classroom to do administrative work, mark tests, call parents and the million other things they are expected to do—is being cancelled, with those teachers being used as casual relief.

One Newcastle-based teacher said, "This year, for the first time in my 20-year career, I have had multiple merged classes—two or three classes in one room—and way more extra covers than my contract permits, on a weekly basis." That means administrative backlog is building up and teachers are too concerned about the burdens placed on their colleagues to take leave, which will only speed up inevitable burnout. The Productivity Commission recently pointed to lessening the administrative burden on teachers as a key element of any effort to boost student outcomes, but that must be addressed in a thoughtful and professional manner, not by drafting parents to do administrative work, as has been suggested by some.

Another teacher wrote to me about the 14- to 15-hour days she works on a near constant basis, including on weekends. They said, "I am a tired, worn-out teacher who loves my career, yet I cannot sustain this. I want to teach, but with these conditions I am left with no option." According to reports, the lack of available casuals is causing problems even at schools that are fully staffed. Schools are having to rely on retirement-age teachers to fill relieving roles because no others are available. That is not necessarily a bad thing; however, it shows the problem that we face.

Another suggestion that has been raised with me is for a permanent casual pool in the Newcastle and Lake Macquarie area, similar to those in place in rural and other regional areas. But that will only solve that specific problem and not some of the underlying systemic issues, including the considerable increase in the administrative work required to be done by teachers. Every single one of the educators who contacted me about this issue was at pains to tell me about how much they loved being teachers, but they were just as clear that, without serious changes, it is becoming more and more difficult for them to remain in the profession.

Private Members Statement to NSW Parliament, 21 September 2022