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An Education: let’s talk about teacher training at Sydney Uni

“While learning what to do in the classroom, we were being shown what not to do from the university”. Last night’s episode of Q&A was only the beginning of the discussion we have to have, writes education student Cameron Caccamo.

[Photo: Marijn de Vries Hoogerwerff, licensed under CC BY 2.0]

[Photo: Marijn de Vries Hoogerwerff, licensed under CC BY 2.0]
Last night much of Australia sat down and prepared themselves for the weekly ritual of politicians and other ‘experts’ slinging mud in the name of democracy. The ABC’s Q&Ais an odd creature, in that for many people it is compulsory viewing, while also being regarded as a terrible format for actual debate. This is only exaggerated when major issues, such as teacher education, are not afforded the time deserved to fully flesh out the issues. This also leads to misinformation, as we saw last night from the Vice-Chancellor, Dr Michael Spence.

The first of these was Dr Spence’s argument that courses at Sydney have a high ATAR requirement (90) and are not part of the lowering standards of acceptance for education courses across Australian universities. A bit of research tells us that the Vice-Chancellor is only partially right, at best.

Only one of the six main Bachelor of Education course programs, Primary Education, has an ATAR cut off of 90.00. The other five; the four secondary streams of humanities, science, mathematics, and physical education, as well as early childhood; have ATAR cut offs ranging between 82.45 and 78.40. That last one is for Early Childhood which, as Simon Sheikh last night said, is the most important time in terms of a child’s development. I doubt we will hear Dr Spence mentioning that on live television. Moreover, these cut-offs have dropped in recent years: the cut-off for Secondary: Humanities Education was 85.35 in 2010, dropping five points in two years. A full breakdown is provided in the link below.

One does not have to look far for reasons why. A recent Government initiative to have 40 per cent of Australia’s workforce hold at least a Bachelor’s Degree has meant lifting the caps placed on university intake into courses. For universities struggling with cash flow because of declining international student intake, the obvious answer to quickly raise funds was to increase student intake. This meant dropping ATAR requirements to allow more students in.  The first year cohort (the first year of all 6 B. Ed courses) in my year numbered around 400; in 2012, that jumped to around 600.

A second issue raised was class sizes. Despite how some interpret Mr Pyne’s comments, there is no doubting that small class size, with a good teacher who can utilise this, is beneficial to a classroom environment. Over three semesters of my bachelor’s degree, I have learnt, in surprising depth, how small class sizes can be effective and what methods can be used to emphasise this. Dr Spence himself seemed to advocate smaller class sizes, particularly at disadvantaged schools. Of course, these classes were done in tutorials of 28 people. So while learning what to do in the classroom, we were being shown what not to do from the university. With the axe looming large over academic staff, it remains to be seen whether class sizes will eventually grow to uncontrollable levels.

Finally there is the issue of teacher training and in-classroom experience, deemed most important by Mr Pyne. What does Sydney offer, you may ask? In accordance with the NSW Institute of Teachers accreditation guidelines, the different degree programs give students between 75 and 85 days in the classroom, over four to five years. For secondary programs, this equates to no practical experience until the end of the third year of the degree.

There are reasons behind this; ensuring an adequate base knowledge in the subject and education pedagogy, and establishing a significant age difference between teacher and student among them. There are several detractors too, like not knowing if you have the capacity to teach until you have gone through three years of the course. Is this enough? I doubt many internships could fully prepare anyone for their first class, but it is important that teachers are not totally unprepared either. Eighty days over four to five years is probably not enough, however. The link to the full breakdown is below.

What is clear is that teacher education at Sydney University is not the shining light it is painted out to be by Dr Spence. I could discuss at length these individual issues, being, as they are, vital aspects of education as a whole. We need to start a reasoned discussion about what your university is doing in terms of teacher education and whether it is enough.

Read more about the Government initiative here:

For a full list of education degree program statistics visit my blog:


Cameron Caccamo is a second year Arts/Education student at the university.