ATAR for teaching: all you need to know

Australia's teacher education system has been mired in controversy in recent years, with shifting requirements and political intervention. But what are the facts?

Julie Hare

The Australian Outback

What are the academic entry requirements for a teacher education degree in Australia?

It depends on which university you apply to and whether you want to be a primary or secondary school teacher.

Most secondary teachers first undertake an undergraduate degree in their discipline of choice – English, history, science, physical education – and then a postgraduate diploma of education. A number of institutions, such as Charles Darwin, Notre Dame and Australian Catholic University, also run bachelor of teaching degree in secondary education.

For primary education, however, most school-leavers go straight into the degree. Universities set their own minimum requirements, except in New South Wales (NSW) and Victoria, where the government has intervened and mandated specific entry requirements.

Depending on the university, the minimum Australian Tertiary Admission Rank (ATAR, a number between 0.00 and 99.95 that indicates a student’s position relative to all the students in their age group) for entry is usually advertised at around 60, although that is often adjusted to take into account factors such as educational disadvantage, being of indigenous background, coming from a rural and regional area, and so on.

Entry requirements for teacher education degrees have been declining over the past few decades, but there has been a rapid downward shift in the past 10 years that has attracted a lot of attention.

Why is the debate over teacher education so heated?

Since 2012, universities have been able to admit as many students as they deem academically qualified into their courses. That saw the number of students entering university increase dramatically.

As Field Rickards, the former dean of education at the University of Melbourne, wrote in 2016: “The uncapping of undergraduate places in 2012 led some universities to exploit the fact that they receive funding for as many students as they can enrol. This has been a factor in the oversupply, giving the impression universities use teaching courses as a ‘cash cow’.”

To facilitate this, there has been a decrease in entry requirements. A report for the Australian Council of Educational Research noted that 36 per cent of people accepted on to teaching courses have an ATAR score of between 51-70. That is compared with 23 per cent of all students.

A review by John Mack from the University of Sydney found that in NSW and the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) in 2015, half of all those offered places in teaching degrees had ATARs of below 50. There were 28 offers made to students with an ATAR of between 0-19, 29 offers to those with scores of 20-29 and 73 to those with ATARs of 30-39. Of the 4075 offers in 2015, only 292 had an ATAR above 90 and 14 with an ATAR above 98.

Can school-leavers get into teaching without an ATAR?

Certainly. Tony Loughland from the University of NSW has said that only one in five education students is accepted on their ATAR. The majority are either mature age or transfer from another degree.

Since 2012, the number of direct offers to school-leavers has also increased dramatically. This means that even if a student has an ATAR, it is not part of the admissions process. Usually, a direct offer takes the form of a principal’s recommendation. It’s meant to help overcome disadvantage but many experts are very concerned about the lack of transparency.

Also, around one-third of all entrants into teaching courses are mature age – older than 21 – and their school academic achievement is not taken into consideration.

How have governments responded?

Two state governments set minimum standards for entry into teacher education courses. In NSW, universities can now accept only students who have achieved in the top 20 per cent of the state in three subjects, including English. In Victoria, universities can only accept students with a minimum ATAR of 70 on to teacher education courses.

Also, all education providers must now administer a personal attributes test of some description that looks at motivation, organisational and communication skills. It can take the form of a written statement, an interview or can be taken online.

A literacy and numeracy test was also introduced nationally for students completing their degree. While it’s not widely loved, it does, as Loughland notes, allow students from a poor academic background to prove they have made significant gains during the course of their degree. However, about one in 10 students fails.

Is that working?

It’s hard to tell. Certainly, following all the bad press and political interventions, enrolments on teacher education courses have declined slightly over the past couple of years. But a lot of experts, including Steve Dinham from the University of Melbourne, have been calling for teacher education to be mandated as a postgraduate degree which, he argues will improve the quality of teachers moving into the workforce.

In the meantime, the current federal government has called a halt to the demand-driven system of funding university places. That means teacher education enrolments, along with all other courses, will likely remain stable or decline further in coming years. It will likely also see minimum ATARs for entry to rise slightly.

Will that solve the problem?

Most experts say that the real problem lies in the low status of teaching. High-school students tend to “spend their ATAR”, which sees them get into the most selective course possible no matter where their true interests lie. And while graduate salaries for teachers are generous, salary increases plateau after about a decade, with little upward movement after that.

But work by the Grattan Institute shows that even though teachers have relatively flat pay scales, they still earn, on average, $2.1 million over their working life. The most recent federal inquiry into raising the status of teaching was interrupted by the federal election and so did not produce a final report.

Have there been any innovations of note?

In 2009, the Gillard government introduced the Teach for Australia programme. The aim was to recruit high-achieving graduates from a range of disciplines and hothouse their teacher education training during an intensive six-week residential course. The “associates” were then placed in disadvantaged secondary schools where they completed a master’s degree and received about 80 per cent of a graduate teacher salary.

However, an evaluation in 2017 found that one-third of participants had left teaching within a year of qualifying and a half had left within three years.

Find out more on how to become a teacher