Science teachers must be supported: Report

m-westwell3Governments and the higher education sector must join forces to boost the qualifications of high school science teachers in South Australia, according to the authors of a Flinders University study that has revealed many teachers are not qualified to teach the subjects for which they are responsible.

The study, by the Flinders Centre for Science Education in the 21st Century (Science21), found that only 58 per cent of Year 11-12 physics teachers and 72 per cent of Year 11-12 chemistry teachers were qualified in those subjects. Science21’s state-wide survey also found only 75 per cent of Year 11-12 biology teachers were qualified while 84 per cent of science teachers of Years 8-10 were qualified.

The survey, which received more than 600 responses, regarded a person as formally qualified to teach at the senior secondary level if they have an appropriate teaching qualification and a ‘major’ in the subject they are teaching (or a very closely related science subject) in their university degree. For Years 8-10 teachers, in addition to the education degree, a major in any specialist science subject was required to be considered qualified.

Science21 Director, Professor Martin Westwell, said the results of the study, the first of its kind undertaken in South Australia, were likely to be replicated across Australia.

“The lack of qualifications and the age profile of teachers appear to align with a period in which science subjects, and physics and chemistry in particular, became less popular in the community generally and we have a resulting lack of qualifications in these areas,” Professor Westwell said.

“Physics stands out as the subject where the qualifications shortfall is most pressing with only 12 of every 20 physics teachers meeting the qualification criteria. Concerns about the future are raised by the finding that of the under 40-year olds who are teaching physics only 39% are qualified,” he said.

“Parents expect their children to be taught by appropriately qualified teachers. To meet this expectation we will need to attract quality people to the teaching profession and make the best use of our teacher workforce.

“While significant commitments have already been made to improving the quality of science education and increasing the numbers of students following pathways to work involving science, technology, engineering and maths, our study results indicate that more is required.

“We have recommended that science teachers being asked to teach outside of their area of expertise should be supported to develop their skills and extend their qualifications through custom-made science courses to be offered by universities like Flinders.

“We have also recommended that SA’s Teacher Registration Board should recognise the subject-specific qualifications of teachers and teacher registration should include a statement of the subjects an individual is qualified to teach and to what level.

“The findings of the survey have highlighted some of the areas where South Australia can continue to innovate to improve the science education of our young people. As both State and Federal education agendae focus upon quality teaching, the obvious area where large gains are to be made is in maintaining the balance between educational and subject-specific expertise.

“This may be achieved through:

  • Providing custom science courses that will enable teachers to extend their qualifications.
  • Extending teacher registration in South Australia to include a record of an individual’s subject-specific qualifications.
  • Phasing in a requirement, or a target, that science classes should only be taught by those teachers formally qualified to do so.
  • Applying the requirement to new graduates immediately to ensure quality teacher education.
  • Requiring a minimum amount of science in primary teacher education.”

The results of Science21’s survey were revealed at a workshop of senior science school coordinators in Adelaide at the end of August, 2009.

Flinders Centre for Science Education in the 21st Century works to support decision-making in science education by policy makers, educational leaders, industry and others. Through helping to ensure that the available evidence informs today’s decisions, Science21 aims to “future-proof” Australia and young Australians against a world increasingly influenced by scientific and technological change. Through this approach Science21 will aid individuals and the wider community to best prepare for social and economic prosperity.

Science21 focuses on interactions with three sectors – policy makers, industry and educational leaders – and is supported by the State Government and Flinders University.

The report – Who’s teaching science in South Australia – is available on link: www.flinders.edu.au/science21

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