The improvement of student learning outcomes is said to be at the heart of the recent debate on performance pay for teachers. This is to be achieved, it is argued, by attracting more graduates to teaching and giving just reward to those, often overlooked, excellent teachers working in what are labelled disadvantaged schools.
Such arguments fail to recognise however that there are a group of schools that have been hard to staff for as long as records have been kept and whose disadvantage has been catalogued by more than 20 commonwealth and state reports in the last 80 years.
I am talking, of course, about schools in remote and isolated areas. The advocates of performance pay may indeed be including these schools in their definition of disadvantaged: however, to do so is wrong as the issues confronting them are very different from those confronting metropolitan schools.
Most small towns, in the great bureaucratic black hole beyond the sandstone curtain, have a small public school or Central School catering for students from K-12. In many isolated communities the local public school is the only symbol of government they have.
In many of these schools extra cash is not the panacea required to attract staff. Many of these schools already attract a retention benefit for teachers, however the benefit is generally shown to only have a slight impact on teacher retention. Such benefits also get eroded as over three quarters of the extra money is absorbed by increased taxes or by increased HECS repayments for recent graduates.
The real issues affecting these schools are the impact of isolation on young professionals and the seeming lack of support for their staff. Recent research has shown that the isolation from family and friends, lack of services and a sense of professional isolation all tend to encourage teachers to leave after a couple of years.
These similar factors usually mean that departments find it difficult to fill vacancies in these schools with neophytes being the likely appointees. More experienced teachers simply are not attracted to remote locations as they already have nice lives where they are and don’t need the upheaval.
My research (PDF 1.16MB) shows that teachers report the lack of professional development opportunities as a significant disincentive. Most courses are held in the cities making them inaccessible, or alternatively in large towns often three or more hours away. When a course is good enough or there is an important meeting they need to attend there are generally no casual teachers to replace them, so they don’t go.
This lack of casual staff, combined with the tyranny of distance, means they miss out on opportunities others take for granted. And consequently their pupils miss out. The prospect of a six-hour return trip either side of a full day with the prospect of dodging kangaroos and emus simply isn’t enticing.
Schemes to attract experienced teachers through improved pay have been tried around Australia but ultimately have proved unsuccessful. What is needed is a move beyond the mentality that increased pay will solve all problems.
The research demonstrated initiatives that improve the conditions under which teachers teach do have an effect on keeping them in the job in these communities. Initiatives like extra leave to visit family and friends, improved access to professional learning and the availability of casual relief all have a positive effect. What also works is teachers who have either grown up in these areas themselves or who have simply fallen in love with the country and the children.
Where performance pay has been combined with a deregulated staffing system the implications have been disastrous. Schools in economically uncompetitive positions cannot raise the extra cash needed to attract staff, putting them at a disadvantage.
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