Kirsty Johnston is an investigative reporter at the New Zealand Herald.

The Primary Issue: Teaching - the 'Plan B' degree

Thousands of children begin secondary school each year without the reading, writing or maths skills needed to make it through. In our series 'The Primary Issue' we look at what more can be done to raise achievement for all Kiwi kids.

• Students accepted into teaching degrees have some of the lowest entrance scores across all bachelor programmes
• Education leaders from seven New Zealand universities wrote a joint letter to government recommending getting the "best and brightest" graduates into classrooms
• Teaching as a career considered a 'Plan B' option in New Zealand
• Just three per cent of 15-year-olds in New Zealand want to become teachers, compared with 5 per cent across the OECD

Students accepted into teaching degrees have some of the lowest entrance scores across all bachelor programmes, prompting calls to mandate postgraduate entry to lift teacher status and quality.

Education leaders from seven New Zealand universities wrote a joint letter to government last week recommending the move, in a bid to get the "best and brightest" graduates into classrooms.

The push comes amid a Herald investigation into stalling achievement levels at primary schools, which found a variety of issues linked to the status of teaching.

These included:

• Education faculties accept low entry scores from high school leavers into their bachelor of teaching programmes when compared with other faculties, although all entry scores are rising

• The number of entrants into teaching has dropped by 25 per cent in five years, putting pressure on universities to accept even lower entry grades to maintain numbers

• In a recent survey of prospective teachers many considered the career a "Plan B"

• Just three per cent of 15-year-olds in New Zealand want to become teachers, compared with 5 per cent across the OECD

• Lifting status was considered one of the key steps to lifting capability, addressing skill shortages and raising achievement, experts said

"For none of these issues is there a simple solution," said the chair of the New Zealand Council of Deans of Education Roger Moltzen, from Waikato University. "But we have to be careful in saying it's complex that we don't hide behind it, and don't talk about it."

Professor Moltzen said the deans group had come up with seven recommendations on how to lift the prestige of the profession. These included requiring a postgraduate qualification before registration, and raising entry requirements to teaching courses.

"We felt it was important to be proactive. There have been concerns about the status of the profession for as long as I can remember, but I think it's probably lower now than when I started," he said.

"I think we can always improve our performance and improve the quality of teachers going into the profession - but I don't think there's a message there the profession is failing. The vast majority of teachers care deeply about their students and work incredibly hard."

Data sent to the Herald by two universities with large teaching intakes highlighted the issue around entry scores, showing while scores were rising, they lagged behind those of other degree entrants.

At AUT, for example, the average grade-point entry across all disciplines, calculated from NCEA scores, was 208. For primary teaching applicants, it was 198.

At University of Auckland, which used a different calculation, teaching entrants scored 4.1, compared to those entering a Bachelor of Arts, who scored 4.2, and those doing a Bachelor of Science on 5.3. The University said a "4" was equivalent to B- while "5" was equivalent to a "B".

The other five universities either did not require a grade-point average or refused to release the data. Waikato and Otago both required university entrance, but had no further academic criteria. They highlighted the importance of disposition and attitude for those going into teaching.

However, the Dean of Education at University of Auckland, Graeme Aitken, said teacher entry shouldn't be a trade-off between intelligence and personality.

"Grades matter. And interviews matter," he said. "We want warm, positive, optimistic, determined people. No, we don't want people with a high grade-point average who can't communicate. But it's not a dichotomy."

Mr Aitken said a shift to a postgraduate profession would be in line with international standards.

Several universities were already offering masters programmes as part of a ministry pilot, now in its third year. However, numbers were capped, and most of the 4450 students studying this year still took the undergraduate path, data showed.

Chief education scientific adviser Professor Stuart McNaughton argued the evidence supported the idea of mandatory postgraduate qualifications, but warned there were risks to be considered.

There could be an immediate negative effect on enrolments from some groups, for example, Maori, Pasifika and students from lower income backgrounds. Those students were more likely to have lower entry scores than their peers enrolling in teaching, but their presence was "significant" in schools, he said.

Even more attention to scholarship and internship pathways, and retention in first degrees, would be needed to ensure those students were able to choose teaching as a career.

Lifting the status of teaching was considered a key to lifting capability, and in turn lifting achievement, Mr McNaughton said.

Head of the primary teacher union NZEI, Louise Green, said it was involved in a review around teacher education, but she said the two years of induction and mentoring during beginning teacher employment was equally important.

"Initial teacher education is not the be all and end all. We need to keep supporting teachers as they go through or we're not making the most of the human potential," she said.

"One of the problems is that our beginning teachers aren't getting that employment. That's a workforce issue that needs to be addressed."

The Education Council, the new teacher body, has been tasked with raising the status of teaching.

Chief executive of the Education Council Graham Stoop said it had a "comprehensive work programme" to do so, which included working closely with the Ministry of Education, and the profession, to design a professional learning and development model.

The Ministry of Education said it had established the Prime Minister's Education Excellence Awards; created new career pathways through the Communities of Learning initiative; and it was also overhauling professional learning and development as part of its work.

Education Minister Hekia Parata agreed teaching status needed to lift.

"Our kids deserve the very best we can give them and I want our most able students to consider teaching as a career option," Ms Parata said.

Higher education for educators: Countries doing it ...

Singapore: Prospective teachers must complete a postgraduate diploma in education (PGDE). It takes 16 months and fees are paid by the Government. While training teachers receive a monthly salary.

Ontario, Canada: Teachers must complete a minimum three-year undergraduate degree; and have successfully completed a four semester (two year) teacher education programme.

Finland: All teachers in Finland require a masters degree. Teacher education takes five years. The high level of training is seen as necessary as teachers in Finland are autonomous professionally, and it is regarded as a "good" profession.

Business grad made switch, and couldn't be happier

Greg Rawson, a teacher at St Heliers School, is happy with his move into the profession. Photo / Doug Sherring
Greg Rawson, a teacher at St Heliers School, is happy with his move into the profession. Photo / Doug Sherring

It took just one year for Greg Rawson to switch from a career in business to one in the classroom.

Rawson, 25, was one of the first graduates to enter teaching under a pilot masters programme, which universities believe could become the template for the profession as it moves to raise teacher status.

The St Heliers School primary teacher, who now has a class of 6 and 7-year-olds each day, says the programme was extremely tough, but he could not be happier.

"It was really high pressure. You were tossing between university assignments, and that stress, and your teaching practicums," he said.

"But I knew it was what I wanted to do so I just got on with it. I think it prepares you well in terms of being able to juggle lots of things at once -- and it prepares you for the stress of the actual job."

One of the criticisms of the masters route is that it doesn't allow training teachers enough time to get to grips with all the curriculum areas -- maths, english, science physical education, arts, and social sciences -- as it's much shorter than a traditional three or four-year teaching degree.

But Mr Rawson, who studied at Otago University, said while the hours spent on those topics weren't huge, they were well prepared and extremely useful.

"We had a lot of time on English and maths, up to 18 hours each. There was less time on other subjects but for those, rather than teaching what to teach, they taught you where to find what you needed," he said.

"We were given heaps of resources -- websites, books, folders -- so for me, in curriculum areas that are a weakness, I just spend more time planning."

Mr Rawson said for the day-to-day running of a classroom, he relied heavily on what he learned in practicums.

"I had fantastic mentors who I'm still in touch with. My routine this year is based on what they did."

With a business degree as well, Mr Rawson says he can see some management in his future, but at the moment he's just loving being in the classroom.

"It is a huge workload and it is really stressful, and tiring, but it's also very rewarding," he said.

"Because, it sounds cheesy, but every day you're making a difference."

The series

• Day 1: National Standards: A failed crusade?
The trouble with NZ's primary schools
Is the $250m policy working?
Quality of school report cards a 'lottery'

• Day 2: Measuring the success of Early Childhood Education
Have kids got the skills they need to start school?

• Day 3: Teacher quality: How to raise the status
Our secret teacher's report - What it's like to tell parents their six-year-old is failing

• Day 4: The problem with maths
• Day 5: Peace, war and reading

- NZ Herald

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