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Teaching students' high school marks are dropping, but universities say it doesn't matter

Lego figurines sitting at desks in a classroom, facing a figurine dressed as a teacher, which is pointing at a blackboard.
Some say our teachers aren't smart enough, but universities insist teaching is not all about academia.

Pixabay: facethebook

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They are the people we trust to educate our children, but are our teachers smart enough?

On one side of the debate is Labor's education spokeswoman Tanya Plibersek. She thinks standards should be higher and wants to talk about ways to get smarter kids to study teaching at university.

And the numbers are on her side — high school marks for prospective teaching students have declined over the past 10 years.

But on the other side of the debate, universities and students say teaching is about more than just academic prowess.

What do the numbers say?

When students finish year 12 they are given what is called an ATAR score, a mark out of 100. The average score is 70. But the system is different in Queensland, where graduates are still ranked with an OP score.

The number of teaching students who scored an ATAR lower than 70 has surged over the past decade, going from 25 per cent in 2006 to 42 per cent in 2015.

Here's a more detailed look at how teaching students stack up according to their ATAR score.

This shows ATAR scores in five bands. The proportion in lower bands increases in 2015 while higher bands decrease.
This graph shows the ATAR scores of students enrolled in teaching degrees at university in 2015 compared to 2006. It shows the proportion of lower ATAR scores has grown since 2006 while higher ATAR scores have decreased.

ABC News: Georgina Piper

Ms Plibersek argues increasing the entrance scores required for teaching courses will attract brighter students and make the profession more prestigious.

"I'd like to see students competing to get into teaching courses in the same way they compete to get into medicine," Ms Plibersek said.

"I'd like to see teaching the first choice for high-performing students and not a fall-back. In some countries around the world, if you miss out on teaching you can still get into law."

She says a high ATAR score is not the only quality that makes a good teacher, but thinks the trend to take students with lower marks has consequences.

"I completely agree that it's more than just marks, I really do. I just don't know how you can sustain an argument that says it's OK for us to be taking people with lower and lower marks every year."

On the plus side, literacy and numeracy results are up

Teaching students already have to do a literacy and numeracy test before they graduate their university course to make sure they are in the top 30 per cent of Australians.

Back in 2015 when the test was in the pilot stage, around one in 10 teaching students failed.

The latest results show test scores have improved and now only one in 20 are failing to make the grade.

Ms Plibersek thinks the test could become a prerequisite for entry into a teaching course instead.

Universities say teaching is not all about the ATAR

The Australian Council of Deans of Education (ACDE) is the peak body representing the people who run education courses at our universities.

Professor Tania Aspland, from Australian Catholic University, is the group's president and disagrees with the push to lift ATAR scores.

"It is only one measure of a student's potential to become a great teacher. In fact there is no empirical evidence that shows a high ATAR makes a good teacher, there is none whatsoever."

She says non-academic traits such as compassion and humour are equally as important.

"What I want entering the teaching profession is people who connect with young Australians and take them forward in their learning. They can be very bright in mathematics and hopeless communicators."

Professor Aspland also points to the fact that only around a third of teaching students are secondary school leavers.

Here's a breakdown of the different backgrounds of people studying to be teachers.

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Education Minister Simon Birmingham says looking at ATAR scores alone is a crude measure and you need to focus on the person who graduates at the end of the course.

"The most important output is of course the graduate from the university, and having confidence that the graduate is competent and skilled and proficient to go into the classroom, not the skills of the kid who starts at university," Senator Birmingham said.

"We also want to make sure that people who go into the teaching profession have the right skills, traits, empathy to be able to inspire and develop the skills in young Australians."

Teaching not a well-respected job

The education system in Finland is often held up as the international benchmark.

Teaching students there face a rigorous process to get into university and only one in 10 make it. Then they must complete a Masters degree.

By contrast teaching in Australia has an image problem.

Adeline Collins smiles at the camera. She is wearing a plain grey T-shirt and standing in front of an open door.
Adeline Collins is studying teaching and science at Monash University in Melbourne.

ABC News: Simon Winter

Monash University teaching student Adeline Collins was inspired to become a teacher after working with children as a coach at her local pony club.

She is doing a double degree in science and education and says her friends and family appreciate how hard she works.

But outside her circle people think differently.

"I certainly think there is a negative stigma against it. They certainly see it as the easy career, the one you do when you don't know what you're going to do, which is a bit disappointing.

Ms Collins' course had an ATAR cut-off of 85. She scored just below that and is worried increasing entry requirements could deter some people who would make really great teachers.

But she says it's a matter of balance.

"It wouldn't be a terrible idea in terms of making sure our students are getting people who are academically competent as their teachers.

"But I also think it's important not to close it off entirely because for someone like me who was a little below the ATAR requirement, if they were higher I probably wouldn't have got in."