The result was the same no matter how often the figures were checked. Some Victorian government schools were not hiring male teachers. It was a clear story. Many schools even appeared to be eliminating men with higher credentials and specialist experience in their subjects. And they were aided in this by an official complaints process that ensured there be no investigation of schools which consistently rejected male applicants.
My decision to compile figures on teaching appointments, then see how they formed meaningful statistics, came after twelve months of fruitless search. I was after work teaching English in a government secondary school, but had landed not a single interview. I did no end of tinkering on my applications to make them more attractive. I even sought advice from the staff where I gained my secondary teaching qualification; but nothing worked. As months passed I was utterly baffled, and depressed.
So forming a database, then examining the statistics, appeared a means to fathom who government sector schools were selecting. It would take time and patience, although firm information might be extracted using teaching advertisements and appointments listed on the Department of Education and Training’s website.
This essay appears in the latest Quadrant.
Click here to subscribe
I began this record keeping in September 2014 and continued until December 2016. I gathered details on 146 positions teaching English and English/Humanities advertised in thirty government secondary schools. Geographically this cluster represented a crescent arcing over Melbourne’s northern and western suburbs, areas of social and economic disadvantage reputedly “crying out” for teachers to help struggling youngsters get ahead.
Administrative patterns were evident after just over two years of tracking advertisements and appointments. And there is no disputing the source—figures were taken from the teachers’ recruitment section of the Victorian government’s website.
For more than a decade there has been mounting media awareness of a national decline in numbers of male teachers. Primary schools are most affected. University education faculties report close to zero male enrolments in primary teaching courses, and it is evident that men are choosing not to become primary teachers. Nevertheless, if secondary teaching is now the avenue of choice for males, across Australia men make up only 26 per cent of teachers employed in government schools.
A pronounced gender imbalance was likewise shown in the survey cluster, where 30 per cent of teaching appointments went to male applicants. The figures were immediately apparent. At the government schools being measured, more than two women applicants were gaining employment as English teachers for every successful male.
No school appointed an equal number of male and female teachers, nor did men anywhere exceed women. Schools were inclined to appoint 70 per cent female applicants, with over half the surveyed Melbourne schools exceeding the national gender imbalance.
Despite teaching positions being processed by the Department of Education and Training’s computer, I duly learned that no monitoring of appointment patterns takes place. Compliance on Equal Opportunity is assumed. So there is no auditing to ensure selection processes are fair and equitable at schools which exceed national trends on the sex of appointees.
Had the government checked its own figures for potential bias, it would have spotted two schools standing out in the surveyed Melbourne region. Taylors Lakes Secondary College appointed nine women English teachers and two men English teachers during the two-year survey period, which equates to over four women hired for every man.
This imbalance paled against Keilor Downs Secondary College, which appointed seventeen female teachers and only one male teacher in the survey period. Seventeen-to-one is seriously disproportionate. It cannot be reconciled statistically with impartial, unprejudiced staff selection. Men didn’t seem to stand a chance. Women kept scoring the jobs whenever Keilor Downs advertised for English teachers.
Patterns also were evident in the speed of teaching appointments. Most schools took at least fifteen working days—or three weeks—after applications closed to make a shortlist, conduct interviews, then select a teacher. The deputy principal at one school I spoke with explained that staff selection is a time-consuming process with dozens, sometimes scores, of applications for each job. For this reason it may take up to a month to choose an applicant.
Several schools made quick appointments. Very quick. Earlier in the survey Hume Central Secondary College filled advertised teaching vacancies in nine or ten working days. They had a cluster of jobs and I’d been unsuccessful in applying for each one. Having telephoned the school seeking feedback, I got on to a deputy principal who could not fathom the selection panel’s paperwork. I was encouraged to apply for similar jobs soon to be advertised at the school. Again I wasn’t shortlisted, although the time taken for appointments by the school now advanced to fifteen working days.
One school excelled in high-speed appointments—Taylors Lakes SC. Its fastest time was logged when the school announced the appointment of a teacher the very next working day after the closing date for applications. This was a fixed-term contract under a government scheme for new teachers. Applications were restricted to graduates yet to land a teaching job, so competition was probably strong. The school’s selection panel needed to sift applications, devise a shortlist, get people in for interviews, then contact referees and make the job offer to their chosen candidate. How could thay accomplish all this in a single day?
Advertised vacancies also appeared to indicate stable employers. Certain schools had almost no staff turnover. People didn’t want to leave them, suggesting highly desirable workplaces, and they were all schools with reputations for teaching excellence.
Other schools were like revolving doors. Teachers did not stay there. Sometimes this appeared linked with unstable terms of employment. Staff were being parked on contracts, and had to apply for a job there again after several months (and be put on another contract).
A smattering of schools had high staff turn-overs for no discernible reason, which suggested difficult workplaces. Mount Aitken P–12 College leapt out here across all subject areas, not only English. It went through a staggering number of teachers, having an annual staff turnover of what appeared in excess of 19 per cent. On paper Mount Aitken resembled a transit camp for young teachers.
As for English teachers, Keilor Downs SC stood out again. Those eighteen teachers it hired over two years did not settle, sometimes moving within months to another school in the region. The young women it preferred did not stay at Keilor Downs.
By regulation government schools are accountable for how they pick teachers. Records of each applicant’s assessment must be kept on every advertised position. This ensures there is evidence of soundness and objectivity in what is to be merit-based selection. The files are retained by the school for two years. Transparency is also mandatory. To this purpose, a standard e-mail is sent from the Education Department to all the applicants when a teacher is appointed by a government school. Besides stating who landed the job, it advises, “You may request a copy of your selection report”. Unsuccessful applicants are informed they can get feedback from the school, and, if shortlisted, advice on their interview performance.
But compliance was arbitrary. Most schools in the cluster neither kept required records, nor provided feedback. This emerged in mid-2015. Some months earlier I had e-mailed a feedback request to Sunbury Downs Secondary College, but had not received a reply, so I asked a second time, again to no response. This prompted a decision to send letters to all school principals seeking feedback on my unsuccessful job applications.
Only three schools gave feedback. Buckley Park SC forwarded a page of a template used to assess applicants, showing where I was ranked by it, although no explanation was given of how the score in the boxes was arrived at. More illuminating and useful was St Albans SC, which had kept the required records and supplied appropriate, informative feedback. Best response came from Maribyrnong SC, whose principal telephoned to give full and candid feedback, and even suggested how to structure future job applications.
Most schools in the cluster could provide no feedback. They admitted being unable to help because, due to the amount of paperwork entailed by a high number of regular job vacancies, a record was made and kept only on the appointee, not other applicants. Rules may not have been observed, but schools were being honest about this, and their stated reasons were understandable.
Still, two schools were defensive. Over the telephone, Northcote SC stated it was “against school policy” to give applicants feedback, while the person calling from Kurunjang SC sternly remarked, “We don’t have records, and you’re not in them anyrate” (sic).
Seven schools did not reply to my request. They were Brunswick SC, Copperfield SC, Glenroy SC, Pascoe Vale Girls SC, Roxburgh Park SC, Sunbury Downs SC and Taylors Lakes SC. After a month with no answer, I mailed a repeat letter of request to these schools. Again none of them responded.
According to the Australian Education Union, Melbourne now has a float of around 10,000 teachers hungry for a stable job.
Partly this is due to local universities producing more graduates annually than schools can absorb, a flow-on from Julia Gillard’s rethink of tertiary enrolment quotas. The float of teacher-graduates without steady employment has crept up since the Gillard changes.
But the main cause is Victoria’s provisions for extended maternity leave. Besides standard entitlements for maternity leave, expectant mothers teaching in Victoria’s government schools may take an additional seven years unpaid leave. So rather than a new mum resigning to raise a family after using up her paid maternity leave entitlement, thereby freeing up her position for job seekers, the school holds the position for her, filling it for the interim with staff on contracts.
The industrial outcome is that steady teaching jobs have almost gone. In other states there is a movement of young women who, choosing to care for their infant children, exit the system and make positions available for fresh teachers. But in Victoria, all government schools have a growing cluster of temps doing jobs being kept for permanent teachers off on a seven-year break. And they are escalating with the birth-rate.
There are implications in being stuck in the float of unemployed, casual and contract teachers, because teaching credentials in Victoria have a four-year “use-by” date. This is due to the Victorian Institute of Teaching (VIT), the body that supervises the state’s teachers. The VIT accepts you as a provisional member upon graduation, although you must complete a professional development project to be accredited as a full teacher. It’s a worthy program where new teachers develop essential skills in monitoring students across a class, tracking their performance and adapting teaching delivery to ensure students do learn and improve.
Provisional teachers need to land at least a half-year contract in a school to undertake the accreditation project. There is mounting stress over this, because increasing numbers of new teachers are unemployed for stretches of time, being stuck in a pattern of short-term contracts, or sporadic casual relief work as emergency teachers. These people lack a job that enables them to get fully accredited. Many struggle to complete the ten weeks of teaching required annually for one to hold provisional VIT registration.
You have four years to get the compulsory project done. Otherwise it’s sticky renewing your VIT membership. At the university I attended, a VIT official who visited to talk on the requirements to be a teacher, advised those of us in the packed lecture theatre to throw in the towel if we hadn’t landed a steady job after four years. There is little hope of a future in teaching by that point. This spells the end of an aspiring teacher’s career, leaving one with a teaching credential that no longer has employment value, as well as a HECS debt still to pay on a now unusable qualification.
Teachers who feel they have been unfairly treated in a job application can lodge an objection to the Merit Protection Board. This is the ministry watchdog charged with ensuring teaching appointments are based on merit—although the board’s authority to investigate schools is restricted by a big catch. By ministerial order it cannot accept a grievance from any teacher who is not employed by a government school. You must be already in the education system for the board to act. So unemployed teachers have no avenue of complaint.
My third year of job hunting—the second year of the survey—did see me land several interviews. Most were well conducted, being professional and fair with a positive atmosphere in the interview room. But four schools merely went through the motions, making little effort to hide an intention not to choose me. Body language plainly conveyed lack of engagement. There were no smiles around the table, eyes were averted, stony silence reigned. The interview at Craigieburn SC was humiliating. One staff member made a sport of my maturity. I left very upset. What could one do? That float of 10,000 teachers must endure rules being bent or broken without complaint.
Nevertheless, in June 2016 I went ahead and submitted a formal grievance against the extreme case. Listing details of job vacancies, I pointed out to the Merit Protection Board that over the previous eighteen months Keilor Downs SC had appointed eleven female English teachers and just one male English teacher. So I complained that the school was using sexual discrimination in staff selection.
Of course, an Equal Opportunity statement is e-mailed to you as part of the job application process. This declares that when choosing teachers it is illegal for a school to factor in an applicant’s gender, ethnicity, age, disability, or religious beliefs. So at the least a cursory check of the school was in order to ensure discrimination was not occurring and the law had not been broken.
The Merit Protection Board quickly responded to my complaint. Quoting the regulation on who may submit a grievance, the board advised it was powerless to investigate because I was not in the system. Due to this inaction by the ministry’s watchdog, later in the year Keilor Downs SC hired a further six women English teachers and still no men.
It shouldn’t matter who reports a problem if the prima facie evidence is strong. Bias only becomes embedded when suspected breaches of due process are not investigated. Which raises the question: if the sexes were reversed, and in a two-year period the school had appointed seventeen male English teachers and just one female, would there likewise have been official inaction?
Schools are in the business of assessing performance and acquired abilities. They undertake this with students throughout the teaching year. Practices are in place to ensure objectivity of student assessment—chiefly the “moderation” process, which guarantees a uniform marking standard is observed by teachers within a school and a loose cluster of nearby schools.
This rigor is not carried across to staff selection. Where a student would get a similar grade in rival schools, a process being in place to accomplish this, a teacher applying for work can be given completely different assessments by those schools.
Five selection criteria are used by government schools when they advertise for, then assess teaching applicants:
1. Demonstrated understanding of initiatives in student learning including the Standards, the Principles of Learning and Teaching and Assessment and Reporting Advice and the capacity to implement curriculum programs consistent with their intent.
2. Demonstrated high-level classroom teaching skills and the capacity to work with colleagues to continually improve teaching and learning.
3. Demonstrated ability to monitor and assess student learning data and to use this data to inform teaching for improved student learning.
4. Demonstrated high-level written and verbal communication skills and high-level interpersonal skills including a capacity to develop constructive relationships with students, parents and other staff.
5. Demonstrated commitment and capacity to contribute to a broad range of school activities and a commitment to ongoing professional learning to enable further development of skills, expertise and teaching capacity.
The stress is on teaching skill, which is how it should be: there is no substitute for experience. The school appoints a selection panel for the position, and this panel then decides merit by assessing how applicants match against each criterion. However, there is no procedure to ensure consistency in gauging job applicants across government schools. So it is possible to be rated highly for a criterion at one school, but get a lower rating elsewhere.
The education ministry extols this as a positive feature, claiming schools choose staff aligned with their requirements. But this makes schools potential fiefdoms when picking teachers. Worthy schools can and do use their autonomy to keep standards high; but it is easy for less principled selection panels to utilise this flexibility to choose applicants for other motives. After all, as shown, there is no accountability, transparency or independent oversight, while complaints are deflected without investigation.
Knowledge of the subject areas taught does not figure in the education ministry’s five prescribed criteria. In former times secondary level teachers were termed “masters” due to their grasp of the discipline they taught. No more. A job applicant may have high-level experience and knowledge of the subjects, yet these are set outside the scope of selection procedures. In keeping with public service guidelines, the behaviour-focused selection method fixes on how one performs a job, and does not assign merit to proficiency or expertise in what is taught. Indeed, official procedures give no recognition to seemingly relevant experiences and achievements gained outside the teaching profession.
This enables schools to reject skilled applicants with previous careers that may strongly bear on studies. What one has done beyond the education echo-chamber is not relevant: which explains why, unlike every job interview I’d had in my prior working life, no panel member at the school interviews I attended had glanced at any of my published writings (even though some examine novels in the curriculum). Subject expertise is given no weight whatsoever when applying to teach in Victoria’s government school system.
The computerised application process means the Department of Education and Training can check government schools for patterns in the qualifications and age of appointees. It is possible to identify any schools which may keep eliminating job candidates with higher degrees, or consistently prefer applicants of a certain age bracket. But such monitoring does not occur.
In the last decade successive prime ministers have called for the brightest and the best to enter teaching. Contrary to these appeals, some universities have progressively lowered entrance scores for their education courses. Nor can it be shown that the government sector now values applicants who, besides teaching qualifications, hold masters degrees or doctorates. In my own case, the latter credential has been a distinct liability in seeking to teach in government schools.
There is persistent anecdotal evidence of government secondary schools being prejudiced against mature male applicants trying to cross into education from other professions. Tales of this discrimination figure large whenever the difficulties of getting into teaching are raised on Melbourne talkback radio—Neil Mitchell’s high-rating program on 3AW has been an intermittent forum for these frustrated male callers. Still, as the ages of successful job applicants were not accessible, I simply had no data to work with.
Teachers need to gain classroom experience to stand a real chance at competing in the job stakes. As in all trades or professions, you work your way along, going from short minor jobs to more promising positions. The obstacle for mature male teachers, and those with high credentials, is that in being unable to get those initial lesser jobs, they cannot acquire the essential experience to build a career. Passed over for job after job, these men are caught in a self-generating loop. No school will employ them because they’ve been stuck out of work too long. This also skews any prospect of work in independent schools, because the pathway is to acquire experience in government schools, then shift over to the private sector.
Frustrated at getting nowhere in teaching applications, I wrote to the state Director of Education. I got a brush-off letter in response, a cut-and-paste which quoted regulations and stressed that schools make their own decisions on teaching appointments. It also affirmed the ministry’s commitment to Equal Opportunity.
Things were on a different footing once my survey was running and statistics were emerging. Armed with a copy of the government’s own regulations, I visited the office of my local Member of Parliament. The staff there advised me to make a specific complaint about schools not providing feedback. There were straightforward transgressions that required action, they reasoned, and the Education Ministry would have to do something. I prepared a grievance stating that many schools did not keep required records, and some did not (or would not) reply to my requests for feedback, listing details. I submitted the complaint to my MP in late August 2015, and he referred the letter to James Merlino, Victoria’s Minister of Education.
The Director of Education’s office sent a response to my grievance. This document was a version of the same cut-and-paste I had previously received. It even suggested I contact the schools requesting feedback from them. Had anyone read the complaint? I pressed the issue.
In December an anxious telephone call finally came from the ministry. An official explained that my complaint had dragged too long without resolution. What did I want them to do? I suggested he look into the issue of mandatory records not being kept, and also find out why certain schools completely ignored correspondence.
I was repeating what was detailed in my grievance, although this all came as a surprise to the official. After five months it was evident that no one had still actually read the letter of complaint. He was rattled to hear regulations were not followed, remarking that serious “compliance issues” were involved as well as failures in transparency and accountability. The man from the ministry assured me he would meet with regional managers, then get back to me in the new year.
Following this phone call, letters from the ministry went to the Minister of Education, my local MP and to me, noting the matter had been satisfactorily dealt with. It had not. In fact, more than two years later I am still waiting for the ministry to contact me about that promised meeting with regional managers to discuss my grievances. Has it been held yet?
Christopher Heathcote is the author of Inside the Art Market: Australia’s Galleries, a History (Thames & Hudson). He wrote on Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey in the January-February issue