Updated: Sep 27, 2021
This article was published in Education Review, 31.8.21
In late 2020, the only undergraduate Initial Teacher Education (ITE) program in Australia purposefully designed to recruit and upskill industry-experienced tradespeople and technologies experts to become Vocational Education and Training (VET) and Product Design and Technologies secondary school teachers closed its doors.
Its closure heralds much more than the loss of ‘just another course’ on COVID’s long list of higher education casualties. What makes the closure of this program of particular concern is that it has come at a time when the nation is gearing itself — more so than any other time in history — for an economic recovery dependent on a critical mass of young people wanting to pursue trade and technologies-based vocations.
To generate a “pipeline of skilled workers to support sustained economic recovery” (DESE, 2020), we need appropriately skilled teachers with industry expertise and a deep knowledge of pedagogy to nurture young peoples’ curiosity and desire to pursue trade and technical career paths post-secondary school (Brown, 2017; Smith, 2018). The closure of the Bachelor of Technology Education program has left a vacuum in the secondary school sector, with many stakeholders wondering how exactly governments intend to establish this “pipeline” to recovery without the quality or quantity of specialised teachers needed for the job.
Compounding the gravity of this situation is the already existing skill-shortage of graduate VET and Technologies teachers. In 2019, the Design and Technologies Teachers’ Association (DATTA) conducted a nation-wide survey of schools to find that 96 per cent of the schools surveyed (n=404) had difficulty finding qualified Technologies teachers, and that 84 per cent of these schools were using unqualified teachers (teachers from other learning areas) because they were unable to source the teachers they needed (DATTA, 2019).
The Victorian Teacher Supply and Demand Report 2018 (2019) supports these findings, revealing that Digital Technologies teachers are the “most difficult to recruit” (at 31 per cent), with Product Design and Technologies teachers not far behind at 22 per cent) (DET, 2020). Curiously (with one cursory exception), ‘VET teachers’ did not even rate a mention in this report – an omission arguably indicative of the value the Victorian government affords VET (and applied learning) programs in schools more generally.
Although no official data appears to exist regarding the dearth of VET in Schools (VETiS) teachers, there is plenty of anecdotal evidence to support this claim (AEU, 2019; Carey, 2020; Grimley, 2021; Legislative Council E-Petitions, 2020; Parliament of Australia, 2003; Trade Training Centre Activity Report, 2019). Reminiscent of the proverbial ostrich with its head in the sand, omitting or censoring data concerning the demand for VETiS teachers will not make the problem go away.
Although AITSL (2018) and Gonski (2018) both acknowledge the importance of having appropriately qualified teachers with relevant industry experience and accreditation to ensure quality provision of VET in Schools programs, the nation now finds itself in a situation where the existing pool of qualified VET and Technologies teachers is depleting with each passing day, and secondary schools increasingly desperate to find suitable teachers to stand in front of these classrooms. Somewhere between the ubiquitous skill-shortage of VET and Technologies teachers, and the nation’s apparent incapacity to develop suitable ITE courses to generate the teachers it needs, highly questionable practices have started taking root.
Today, the hands of otherwise well-intentioned principals have been forced into either (a) placing out-of-field teachers in front of Technology and VET classes, or (b) hiring trade or technically-qualified (but not teacher-qualified) trainers to teach on a special (but temporary) authority called Permission to teach (PTT) (O’Reilly-Briggs, Gallagher & Murphy, 2021). Both of these ‘solutions’ are sub-standard, non-conducive to quality provision, and, in many cases, doing more harm than good.
DATTA’s (2019) survey also found that 70 per cent (n = 2,941) of respondents harbour concerns for the health and safety of Technologies students as a result of the practice of using unqualified teachers to teach these subjects ― and with good reason. Although industry-experienced and teacher-qualified VET and Technologies teachers (such as those produced by the former Bachelor of Technology Education program) arrive in education already expert users of machinery and equipment, with a deep understanding of safety (and the know-how to prevent potential hazards from materialising), the now common practice of placing out-of-field teachers in front of Technologies classes who do not have this knowledge, is not only bad for education, but is also a reckless act of complacency that is quite literally placing lives in danger. A solution is needed that not only offers students high-quality VET and Technologies education, but also takes schools’ duty of care responsibilities seriously. This solution needs to include a practical and accessible way for expert tradespeople and technologists to become professionally qualified teachers.
Sadly, for the tradespeople (e.g., chefs, carpenters, electricians, engineers) who aspire to become VET and Technologies teachers and are awarded PTT status, they will remain ineligible to work towards a professional teaching qualification until such time that another undergraduate ITE course is created that has been purposefully designed to value their industry expertise and technical skills to augment this precious foundation with pedagogical content knowledge. Although there have been recent initiatives to recruit industry professionals into teaching (e.g., Teach for Australia), they are all programs pitched at the Master’s postgraduate level (AQF level 9), rendering the vast majority of trades and technologies experts ineligible for admission. Why? Because their professional industry qualifications generally reside at AQF levels 3-4, and are not recognised as the equivalent of an undergraduate degree ― the minimum qualification required for entry to these programs. This situation presents yet another obstacle (and layer of disadvantage) for them towards professional teacher qualification.
It is important to note that even those offered PTT are deprived of the same opportunities afforded regular teachers, such as professional status, equal pay, professional development opportunities, and career progression ― a predicament responsible for incubating an emerging workforce of second-class teachers. That is, a subclass of teachers, much like the dilutees of WWII, whose labour is depended on, yet maintained as a semi-skilled workforce operating under the radar of official education business. Of course, trainers are not the only ones who are disadvantaged in this scenario, for young Australians too are being denied access to appropriately qualified VET and Technologies teachers, with potentially detrimental consequences for their futures and, by extension, the future of the nation.
While VET and Technology professionals continue to be denied the opportunity to achieve a professional teaching qualification in their areas of expertise, they, and the students who would otherwise be benefiting from this expertise, will continue to be disadvantaged.
Karen O’Reilly-Briggs (PhD) is a trade-qualified metal fabricator, welder, trade teacher, researcher, academic course writer for Box Hill Institute, and former coordinator of the Bachelor of Technology Education program at La Trobe University.