Teaching and the gig economy: is it smart to be casual?

The education sector has relied on casual teachers for years, but are temporary staff getting a raw deal? We take a look at the current landscape

Tes Editorial

A Casual Teacher In Front Of A Class

With the fourth industrial revolution upon us, there is a belief that the most secure jobs are those that require human empathy, creativity and wisdom. Jobs like teaching.

But the profession, in Australia at least, has been subject to a gig economy approach for a couple of decades now, albeit with a variety of different labels: casualisation, contract work, temporary and relief teaching.

Non-permanent work is rife in Australia, as elsewhere, and it’s difficult to put hard numbers on the extent of it. Estimates range from between 20 per cent and 30 per cent but the last full survey of the teaching workforce on a national level was undertaken in 2013.

Based on the figures available, things seem to fluctuate from state to state and between systems; public, Catholic and independent. Victoria, for example, has 10,000 fixed-term teachers on its books and 41,700 ongoing teachers (a legacy of a 25-year-old political decision to put the majority of public school teachers on contracts). By contrast, the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) has about 88 per cent permanent teachers.

Although it’s hard to quantify the extent of casualisation, it’s estimated that during the average child’s school education, he or she will spend the equivalent of a year under the supervision of a non-permanent teacher.

An expanding sector

Non-permanence is pervasive. Research by Meghan Stacey from the University of New South Wales shows that full-time status might not equate to tenure. In a major survey for the Australian Education Union, Stacey found that “temporary teacher” – those on limited-term contracts – was the fastest growing category of employment in New South Wales (NSW) and the ACT.

Stacey’s survey of 18,000 teachers found that of those deemed temporary, 80 per cent were working full time.

It’s a much more uncertain path for those without a contract. Her survey found that almost one in five casuals worked between zero and 50 days per year, with a similar figure working more than 200 days a year.

In its submission to a parliamentary inquiry into the status of teaching, the Australian Education Union summed up the situation: “The last review on the status of teachers, published 20 years ago, recommended a reversal of the trend to casualisation of the teaching force. In the intervening two decades, it appears as if little to no action has been taken towards this goal in most jurisdictions in Australia.

“There is a substantial body of evidence showing that a lack of ongoing employment, job security and salary levels commensurate with experience are pushing attrition and reducing retention among both early career and experienced teachers.”

Supply over demand

Basic economics dictates that the rates of casualisation are at the mercy of supply and demand. In Australia, the oversupply of teaching graduates, particularly in primary education, has been exacerbated over the past decade after the federal government uncapped undergraduate university places.

Teacher education courses were at the forefront of expansionary policies as student enrolments boomed.

As a report in the Sydney Morning Herald said: “As universities pump out increasing numbers of teaching graduates, the new crop is joining more than 44,000 trained teachers in NSW on a waiting list for a permanent position. Last year, only half of the 16,000 trainees who graduated across Australia had permanent employment four months later.”

A lack of support

The oversupply of casual teachers can have a harmful impact on their professionalisation, according to experts.  

Professor Stephen Dinham, from the University of Melbourne’s Graduate School of Education, says it’s not unusual for recently graduated teachers in insecure roles to go through a period of what he calls “detraining”.

“They are brought in at the last moment and have to resort to survival tactics, such as exercises or worksheets. There isn’t time to prepare anything and they aren’t given proper support,” he says.

Indeed, mentoring, professional development and induction are just some of the fundamental supports that young casual teachers often do without.

Chris Watt, federal secretary for the Independent Education Union, noted in a report on professional development for the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL) that casual teachers tend to fall between the cracks.

“These teachers need to be part of the process that ensures their appropriate induction into the profession, but invariably they are often not anyone’s responsibility,” Watt says.

“The chance of these beginning teachers getting any form of structured induction, including time and access to a mentor, is less than remote.”

The paradox is that a competent and available pool of casual teachers is an essential component in the proper functioning of any school. Yet schools themselves are undermining this if they do not provide the fundamentals of professional support.

Rural impact

This is most strongly felt in rural and regional schools, as well as those in socially disadvantaged areas, where the pool of casuals is more of a puddle.

This is also true in specific subject areas, such as maths, science and languages, where the supply of full-time teachers is never enough and casual replacements are almost always from out of field.

“This raises real equity issues for schools in the bush,” Dinham says. “If someone goes on maternity leave, chances are that the person who is plugged in is not properly qualified.”

AITSL has estimated there are around 36,000 teachers in rural and remote settings, but has been unable to confirm how many casual and temporary teachers there are or where they may be concentrated. Once again, a lack of available data throws a cloud over understanding the national situation.

Back in the ACT, union boss Glenn Fowler says good relations with the territory government have seen induction and support services rolled out for all beginning and casual teachers. Other states are managing to introduce permanency clauses.

Perhaps the situation is best summed up by Beth Blackwood, president of the Association of Heads of Independent Schools Australia. 

She says: “You know that when staff are aligned with the values, mission and ethos of the cultural norms and expectations of your school, that the educational outcomes of the students are going to be much stronger.” 

Tes can help you find the perfect teacher for your school. Take a look at our Teacher Recruitment site for more information.