Labor will need more than scholarships to make teaching science an attractive career

Shaun Belward wrote in The Conversation on 20th May 2016

Labor has proposed to invest $400 million to ensure that all high school science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) teachers are fully qualified.

While this education policy may look appealing, there is a distinct lack of breadth in what is on the table.

The aim of the policy is to boost STEM grades and take up of these subjects at school and university. But does research say this will help?

Why are there so few specialist teachers?

The decline in participation rates in STEM subjects in secondary school is well documented.

The number of students choosing to study advanced maths secondary school dropped from 16% in 1994 to 9% in 2012. In 1994, 38% chose to study intermediate maths, which dropped to 27% in 2012.

Similar trends have occurred in physics (falling from 21% in 1992 to 14% in 2012) and chemistry (from 23% in 1992 to 18% in 2012).

The main reasons for this include: more choice of subjects available to secondary school students; the lack of qualified teachers and the way the subjects are taught; the belief that choosing STEM subjects risks lowering the university admissions rank (ATAR) because it is difficult to get high grades in them; and the way universities prescribe prerequisites for tertiary entrance.

This has had profound implications for STEM subjects at university where participation rates are less than in comparable countries such as Germany, Ireland, New Zealand and the UK.

This decreasing pool of STEM students is strongly linked to the lack of qualified STEM teachers in schools.

In 2013, between 11% and 29% of secondary teachers in maths, physics and chemistry had not studied second year university subjects in those disciplines.

This means that they didn’t meet the graduate standards as prescribed by the accrediting body AITSL, to teach the STEM subject as their “minor” teaching area. Let alone it be their “major” teaching area.

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