The quality of new teachers should be measured after their graduation from university and not be based on their marks in the Higher School Certificate, according to the deans of education from universities around Australia.
NSW Education Minister Adrian Piccoli is considering a range of strategies to lock students out of university teaching degrees based on their Higher School Certificate marks.
Brenda Cherednichenko, the Australian Council of Deans of Education president, said the suggestion that declining education standards were the fault of a small number of students who entered teacher training courses with low ATAR scores was without any foundation. “Blaming a handful of young school leavers won't help anyone," she said.
According to government figures, only 20 per cent of those starting undergraduate teacher training courses each year had ATARs of less than 60.
“What [the government] neglects to say is that a large number of those who are training to become teachers already have a degree,” Professor Cherednichenko said.
In 2011, a quarter of university offers for teaching degrees were to school leavers who had an ATAR of 80 or above. About 70 per cent of entrants came through other pathways, including graduate and mature entry, and vocational education.
“They arrive as students; they leave as teachers. It's time to judge the work of university education faculties not on the perceived quality of a very small number of school leavers but on the standard of our graduates,” Professor Cherednichenko said.
“We know who the new students are who enter teaching with low ATAR scores. Often they are from low socio-economic backgrounds, migrant or indigenous families. We know they will need extra support to become great teachers. Our capacity to provide this is matched by our commitment to ensure their success.
“Our work is already scrutinised. Universities are accountable to the national regulatory body, the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency for quality curriculum and graduate outcomes."
Vice-chancellor at the Australian Catholic University Greg Craven said the state proposal to put pressure on universities to increase their entry scores for teaching was "the greatest attack on the independence of Australian universities in history".
He accused the NSW government of trying to increase class sizes by running down the stock of teachers. "If this proposal goes ahead, the production of new teachers will reduce to a trickle," Professor Craven said.
"If you don't have enough teachers, you have to increase class sizes. This is a cost-saving measure under the guise of improving teacher quality."
The new chief executive of the NSW Institute of Teachers, Kate O'Donnell, has said it is worth looking to countries where class sizes are bigger, with training time then being used to improve the effectiveness of teachers.
A recent report by the Grattan Institute found classes in Shanghai had an average of 40 students but teachers had only 10 to 12 hours a week in front of students, with more time spent on other tasks such as classroom observation, team teaching and mentoring.
"It's not about saying make the class sizes bigger so teachers can have less contact time but, rather, to make sure in the teaching day there is time allowed for teachers to do something else other than be physically in front of their students, which is ultimately where we want them to be at their best," Ms O'Donnell said.
"There's evidence that in effective systems that do sacrifice smaller class sizes, particularly in older grades, they're not sacrificing student outcomes. But that is the balance we'd have to get."
Julian Leeser, director of government, policy and strategy, at the Australian Catholic University, said the introduction of minimum entry requirements was misguided. "If you want better-quality teachers you need to focus on what the universities are producing," he said.
"Many students mature later and respond to an independent learning environment. We think it is much better to look at students after they come out of uni rather than blocking them before they get a chance to get into university."