Federation Chamber, March 6 2023

Dr HAINES (Indi) (11:46): I thank the member for Reid for this very important motion. Alongside her, I stand here to give my utmost respect and gratitude to the teachers who walk amongst us right across this nation.

Teachers in regional, rural and remote Australia are critical to giving our kids the best education, as they deserve. We know that people living in rural and regional Australia have much lower educational outcomes than our city cousins. We are less likely to complete year 12, less likely to gain a certificate, for, or above, qualification, and less likely to apply for and then to accept a university offer. That’s not because we don’t have the capacity. We’re missing out on the opportunity.

This educational inequality between metropolitan and regional Australia simply must be addressed. Tackling the unprecedented teacher shortage is, indeed, one step.

In Indi, we are, sadly, at the forefront of this severe teacher shortage. Wodonga senior and middle years colleges and the North East Flexible Learning Network combined are the largest public schools in Indi. When the member for Reid talks about the critical and unprecedented teacher shortages, I hope it doesn’t get worse than it is in Wodonga right now. The executive principal of the colleges, Vern Hilditch, a Wodonga school principal for over 30 years, says that finding and keeping qualified teachers in Wodonga has never been harder. The school has been advertising 11 positions since the end of last year and so far has received zero applications—not one. On top of this, last week, they lost three much-needed casual relief teachers from Ireland, who were here on the first year of working-holiday visas. Because their first year is over, they now need to complete three months working in agriculture to qualify for working a second year in Australia. So this means they can no longer teach in Wodonga, where they are loved and needed most.

The effects of these shortages on students are profound. This includes a cohort of kids who are still recovering from the isolation and stress of remote learning during the COVID-19 pandemic. We know these students are resilient, but, without continuity of teachers, their wellbeing is impacted. Kids are missing out, and the teachers that we already have are under enormous stress as their workloads increase.

The government says it’s taking measures to attract, train and retain teachers, but unfortunately, in Wodonga, we’re not seeing any of these measures working right now. I want to work with the government on finding long-term, sustainable solutions to addressing educational disadvantage in Indi, including ways that we can attract and retain the highest quality teachers. In the interim, I offer some simple ways the government can address the teacher shortage, right now.

Firstly, regional teaching should be added to the list of approved agricultural industries and work areas for visas. Like we see in Wodonga, there are teachers from across the world who are keen to live and work in regional Australia. Let’s make the most of this. I’ve contacted the Minister for Immigration, Citizenship and Multicultural Affairs and the Minister for Education and I look forward to engaging with them on this immediate solution.

Secondly, the government must expand La Trobe University’s Nexus program, which receives federal government funding. Participants in the program must have completed an undergraduate degree and then study a Master of Teaching (Secondary) while gaining practical skills working as education support workers in a school. The key driver of this program is to address the challenge, especially in regional and rural areas, of attracting, preparing and retaining high-quality teachers in schools that are often hard to staff and in schools in low socioeconomic communities. The Nexus program has been running since 2020. This year Wodonga has taken on six new students, and Vern Hilditch, the principal, tells me they could take on 10 students. The government should increase the funding to this valuable program. Also, Nexus should be expanded to the VET programs. There’s currently only one teacher at Wodonga Senior Secondary College training almost 100 students in their Certificate III in Early Childhood Education and Care. So let’s expand Nexus so we can train many more needed childcare, disability, and building and construction workers.

Thirdly, the government must add teachers to the list of professions eligible to have their HELP debts partially or completely forgiven if they work in regional, rural or remote areas. Already under this scheme, doctors and nurse practitioners are incentivised. We need to add teachers to this list as well. They are some of the most important members of our society. They equip our children. We need to protect them.

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