Both have tickets into the same teacher training course and both harbour aspirations of making a difference to young lives in the years to come.

One comes armed with an ATAR of 94.5, a hazy memory of two years lost to study and a crippling anxiety to succeed. An introvert, he wonders how he will deal with the social complexities and demands of the profession. He figures he’ll learn all that before it’s crunch time in the classroom.

The other presents with an ATAR hovering around 66, a buoyant demeanour, a gritty work ethic and that endearing ‘way’ with kids that others have long remarked upon.

So, who will make the better teacher?  And should we be demanding more academic nous from those entering the teacher training pipeline? Or should we assume motivation is all one needs to make the grade in schools?

Then there’s the professional status conundrum to consider – why not raise the tertiary entry bar to put teaching on par with medicine or law and the like?

They’re contentious questions, and ones that recently fired across the public arena when the media got wind that a Victorian university had accepted a student with an ATAR of 17.9 into a teacher training course.

To add a dash of perspective, the rank is almost 50 percentile points below the minimum entry score set by the Victorian State Government, which currently stands at 65. Next year, the official cut-off point will jump to 70.

Fuelled along by cries over our declining educational standards and slide down the international ranks, heads turned, tongues wagged and politicians stood to attention. 

Sour headlines including “ATAR dunces let into uni courses” and “epic education fail” loomed on newsfeeds and newspapers around the country.

The prevailing question lingered – how could universities be allowed to set such dismal standards?

Victoria’s Education Minister James Merlino was quick to jump on the situation.

“I will not stand for universities who are attempting to undercut or bypass our reforms and minimum ATAR standards,” he told Australian Teacher Magazine.

“These reforms were introduced because there were simply too many students entering teaching degrees with ATARs as low as 30 or 40 who are not ready to teach.

“While universities have always been able to take into account special consideration for all courses, it isn’t good enough that some universities are looking for ways around the rules purely to boost their numbers to make money.”

Merlino said he had instructed the Victorian Institute of Training to launch an “immediate investigation” into all entry data that falls below the minimum ATAR.

The state of our pre-service pipeline

Dr Lawrence Ingvarson, principal research fellow at the Australian Council for Educational Research, holds grim concerns over the state of our pre-service pipeline.

“We’ve got this unilateral assumption that universities should be autonomous and free to enrol whoever they like – I think we have to question that very seriously,” he begins.

“I do think that some teacher education programs are behaving irresponsibly. The recent media release by the Deans of Education ... ignores the fact that they have an agenda that’s obvious to all, that’s self-serving, and a rationalisation for practices that are not in the interest of the profession.

“They don’t consult with the profession, they don’t seem to care about the effects on the profession – I’m very concerned.”

Ingvarson, who helped prepare the research report for the TEMAG as part of the OECD TALIS 2018 study, says we are deluded if we believe that there are no sketchy course accreditation practices at play.

“The problem is that currently the universities are doing what they like and the accreditation bodies don’t seem to have the power to do much about it.

“One of the key standards says your course cannot be accredited unless you are recruiting people mainly from the top 30 per cent. 
“In some universities, no students are in the top 30 per cent cent – none! None have study scores over 70, or very few.”

The academic is calling on the Federal Government to enforce a national regulatory body to prevent under-performing applicants from tunneling their way into the classroom.

Professor Tania Aspland, president of the Australian Council of Deans of Education, refutes the claim that universities are flying in the face of state rules.

“I could put my hand on my heart and say, that of all the deans of education I know, they honour the benchmark set by the government – and they absolutely honour it and support it,” she says.

However, it seems that some in policy circles can see red flags when it comes to the quality of graduates filtering into teacher courses.

Maurie Mulheron, president of the NSW Teachers Federation, says he’s appalled by the clear defiance shown by some institutions. 

“...the universities have been using education as a cash cow to rake in the funding and then using that to cross subsidise more expensive faculties and building programs within the university,” he says.

 “And so that market model of enrolments has led to a decline, and potentially a huge decline, in the future of the quality of candidates coming into teaching.” 

This month saw the New South Wales Government announce strict new benchmarks for the state’s future teaching graduates vying for spots in public schools. Under the new scheme, scheduled to take effect for those commencing a teaching degree next year, job seekers will need to have achieved a credit average in their degree. They’ll also need to demonstrate a commitment to the “values” of public education. 

Mulheron is fully supportive of the move. 

“Teaching is an extraordinarily complex and difficult job, it requires people of the highest intellect, capacity to use the English language as a mode of instruction. You need people with strong content knowledge as well as suitability to work with young people…

“So in order to do the job successfully, you have to be at the top of your cohort … it’s not a job for everyone. Not everyone who wants to be a teacher can be and should be a teacher.

“And so that’s why we want to make sure that the people entering the public school system in New South Wales are only the very best.”

There’s fierce skepticism in Mulheron’s voice as he casts a critical eye over the proliferation of teacher training courses now offered online. 

“We doubt very much the integrity of these courses,” he begins.

“…we would say that the explosion of online courses has got nothing to do with trying to get more people into teaching.

“It has a lot to do with it being an extremely cheap model to run,  and so we see one in five teachers being trained through cheap online courses in New South Wales, that’s 20 per cent.

“And there’s no research being done to say what the class sizes are, what the tutor to student ratio is, indeed at the other end, what kind of person is [coming out].”

The situation belies rational belief, he says. 

“Teaching is a profession built on human relationships … so to think you could do teaching without having set foot on campus and engaged with other people I think is a very doubtful concept.

“…I say ‘would you allow a surgeon to operate on you who has done their surgical training online?’ Seriously, would you allow a dentist to give you root canal therapy  if they’ve done their entire dentistry course online? The first reaction is that people recoil at that, ‘no way!’

“So why is teaching any different?”

Do the ATAR benchmarks matter?

And yet, Aspland says the brewing “kerfuffle” over aspiring teachers’ ATAR marks, ironically, misses the mark. Exceptional teachers, she argues, are not always backed by their own academic success at school.

“I think [the benchmarks] are politically motivated, because I don’t believe an entry score is an indicator of a good teaching graduate.
“I think there should be a comprehensive selection process, and a comprehensive exit process, like the teacher performance assessment, and if those two work together, you are going to get high quality graduates.”

Aspland argues that intelligence does not always equal motivation; a key player for sticking in the education long-game.

“You can have a very bright student, and a medium-ranked student coming to a university, and what do they have to do? They have to learn to think like a teacher. 

“They have to get knowledge in their content area and know all that pedagogy...

“Now, of course intelligent people can all learn to think like a teacher, but [it’s] whether they’ve got the motivation to do so.

“So it’s not a simple linear process; if you’re intelligent you come through, you learn all the stuff and you graduate, it’s a very dynamic, complex, multimodal process.”

Aspland wants to set the record straight – pre-service teachers that do not meet the grade at university are unlikely to ever throw their mortarboard in the air. 

“…people who don’t have the intellectual capability to pass university exams, don’t stay in the university. They might come in, but they don’t stay.”

According to Aspland, there is “no way” an undergraduate could make it through the scrupulous rounds of assessments if they don’t have what it takes to be a great teacher. 

“When a student comes into a four-year program, they do up to 80 items of assessment, both in the university and in schools,” she notes. 

“… so if they come in and they are not intellectually ready to become a teacher, there is no way they can pass 80 assessment tasks. 
“They usually are detected in the first year of study when they fail two, three, four, five, six assignments, and the university says to them ‘you are not ready to become a teacher, why don’t you think of another profession?’ or they self-select out. 

“Anywhere between 10 and 30 per cent of students do not progress past the first year of study; that is a big number and that is a statistic that’s not going out there.” 

Janet Fellowes, senior lecturer in the School of Education at Edith Cowan University, also believes our focus is skewed. 
“[It’s] not really about who goes in, it’s about who goes out at the end,” she contends.

In fact, Fellowes says sometimes it is those teachers who have themself struggled in their own learning that are best placed to assist youngsters who are treading water in classrooms around the country.

“Sometimes if you’ve had difficulty learning yourself you are much more aware of the difficulties a student can have. And so you are much better in supporting in those little nuances that make it difficult to learn...”

Sure you need a dose of “academic nous”, Fellowes continues, but being a good teacher requires a whole lot more than knowing a lot of theory.

“I think [great teachers] are made before uni; there is a lot to do with personality and approach to life, that’s important,” she says. 

And yet there’s another layer to this; exceptional educators can be moulded during their degree, but they can also unravel when tested at the coalface. There really are no quality guarantees, Aspland insinuates.

“Good teachers that are made at university can also be weakened in practice. Yet more average teachers can be strengthened in practice – it really is the balance of the two ... you have to get both right, and that’s difficult.

“We need good mentors in schools as much as we need the good teachers in universities.”

Ingvarson holds a very different view. He says although the ATAR is not a “perfect” indicator of someone’s ability to cut it in the classroom, it’s the only indicator we have.

Put simply, one’s ATAR does matter.

“From an international study we did on 17 countries on the quality of teacher education graduates, this is what we know: recruitment is basic, it’s fundamental, it is more fundamental than the measures at the other end,” Ingvarson contends.

“The quality of people going into a course affects the quality of the course. If you have people who have been academically unsuccessful at school, you finish up in the course lowering expectations, you cannot generate the same intellectual quality in seminars and lectures...”

Ingvarson says it’s not just the public that’s worried about the quality of graduates entering teaching – according to studies, it’s principals too.

An issue of recruitment, not selection

Ingvarson believes the “real problem” with Australia’s dubious teacher training pipeline is not the sliding initial selection criteria – it’s the fact that teaching is simply no longer a desirable profession for school leavers. 

Indeed, why should a top scoring student be compelled to squander their success in a teaching course for which the end profession holds such little appeal?

“We have to turn our attention to recruitment, and the fact that if teacher education can’t attract high quality students, we have to ask really ‘where does the responsibility rest for doing something about that?’”

Well, it rests firmly with those at the top, Ingvarson contends. 

“We have a situation where governments in the past had active recruitment policies, actively tried to recruit academically successful people into teaching.

“Many of my generation had bursaries to stay at school, we had fees paid, we had salaries during teacher training, we had attractive salaries relative to other occupations.”

Things have now frayed significantly, he says.

“Salaries for teachers have declined relative to other professions, and in recent years I would describe state and federal governments as having passive, well, no recruitment policies. 

“Passive in the sense that they just expect that the universities will enrol enough people to meet the demand, without any active recruitment policies to ensure that the quality of people recruited is mainly in the top 30 per cent.”

A rigorous focus needs to be channelled towards boosting teacher salary and status. 

Only then, Ingvarson says, will teaching be able to attract the best and brightest to the table. 

“Setting a bar will not ensure that more academically successful students apply for teaching.

“What we know from surveys from high school students, especially the very able ones, is while they know teaching is a worthwhile career, (and) important, they will not choose it because of its status and the salaries... 

“Our governments have to face up to the fact that we need policies that ensure teaching as a (viable) career choice for able graduates and it can compete with other professions.
“It’s a competitive market out there for the best graduates;  teaching is not able to compete at the moment but for the country’s future, for the quality of teaching in the future, it must be able to compete,” he argues. 

Aspland puts the dive in enrolment numbers down to the nasty publicity that continues to plague the teaching profession. 

“If the public were getting better stories about great teachers – and there are tens of thousands of them – more people would be attracted to the profession and to university, and we’d have even greater teachers… 

“There’s going to be a tremendous teacher shortage in the next three or four years and that’s when the government starts to import other teachers from Ireland or Cananda, and we would ... be so much better growing our own.”

Meanwhile, Mulheron points the finger at politicians. Stop meddling, and allow educators to get on with their jobs, he says. 

“We need politicians to stop interfering politically in the curriculum, to stop criticising the teaching profession, to have more trust in the profession, because that turns people off as well.”

The leader says the time is right now to raise the bar and weed out those not fit for a career in education. Teaching, he argues, is akin to working in rocket science. 

“The job has never been more demanding than it is now … It’s  not the lesser of professions … and in many ways [teaching] has greater responsibilities than many of the other professions. 

“There aren’t too many professions where parents entrust their children to you every single day of the week for nearly 13 years. 

“And we take that responsibility very seriously.”