The Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER) is an independent non-profit agency which creates and promotes research-based knowledge, products and services to promote learning. Apart from maný smaller studies, ACER has conducted three major surveys of teachers and leading staff in Australian schools, dated 2006-07, 2010 and 2013. It reviews the teaching workforce based on these surveys, described in association with Table 1 below. It represents the most comprehensive survey of primary and secondary teachers in Australia.1

During the writing of this article we became aware of work by ACER’s Paul Weldon published in March 2015, examining the growth in demand for teachers caused by the higher birth rate in Australia experienced since about 2008. The consequences of this and other factors associated with structural changes in the teacher workforce are quite dramatic and form a natural conclusion to this article.2

The 2013 Survey

The sample of teachers relates well to the actual statistics (Table 1). It was based on a two-stage stratification process which first involved sampling schools and secondly a selection of teachers and leaders (principals and their deputies) within the sampled schools. The aim was to achieve approximately equal probability of selection into the sample results for all eligible teachers and leaders within a stratum.

The original sample selection was 876 primary and 760 secondary schools, a total of 1,536 of Australia’s 9,389 existing schools in 2014, most of which agreed to participate. After further adjusting for low within-school response rates from teachers the school response rate was 70.7% of 619 primary schools and 67.2% of 511 secondary schools. Within the primary schools, the teacher response rate was 46.4% (5,213 of 11,225); within secondary schools 46.7% (10,349 of 22,148). This provides a very adequate sampling base though the average number of teachers per school was reduced from 12.8 of the original sample to 8.4 for primary schools, and from 29.2 to 20.3 for secondary schools.3

The main demographics are also representative:

  • Average (median) age 43.8 and 45.0 years for primary and secondary teachers, respectively
  • Gender: primary 19.1% male, 80.9% female; secondary 41.6% male, 58.4% female
  • Indigenous: primary 1.1%, secondary 0.8%
  • Australian born: primary 83.6%, secondary 80.8%
  • Language other than English (LOTE) spoken at home: primary 8.9%, secondary 10.8%. 88.5% of the LOTE speakers in primary schools speak English well, compared with 93.8% in secondary schools.

Table 1 provides the basic information by school sector (over 70% of government schools are primary, and almost 60% at secondary level), school location, socio-economic status, and state/territory. All the information generally reflects the actual situation.

The highest qualification held by most primary teachers is a bachelor’s degree (about 54% in both 2010 and 2013), but the commentary in the report highlights a strong rise in the proportion holding a graduate diploma, from 16% to 24%. There was another significant rise in the proportion holding master’s degrees from 7% to 11%. Similar trends appeared for secondary teachers — the proportion with a bachelor’s degree remained just below 40%, but graduate diplomas rose from 32% to 39%, and master’s degrees from 11% to 12.5%.

Table 2 also shows that the proportion with diplomas or advanced diplomas disappeared between 2010 and 2013, despite courses continuing to be available according to university websites. The ACER report does not appear to comment on this, but merely highlights the increase in graduate diplomas.

Australian school teachers are becoming more highly qualified in areas other than education, according to Table 3. The largest group of primary school teachers is still made up of those who have no qualifications outside education (47.4%), but splitting the survey into teachers in their early career and those with over five years’ experience shows a significant difference: 51% of those with over five years’ experience had no qualifications other than education, but this proportion was only 36% among those in their early careers.

There was also a big difference between primary teachers with a bachelor’s degree other than education: 42% of the early careers sample had such a qualification compared with less than 24% of teachers with more than five years’ experience. Similar differences are also noted in the sample of secondary teachers in early careers relative to those who have taught five years or more. Generally, secondary teachers are much more likely to have qualifications outside the education area, as shown by the low “none” count in Table 3.

Specialist Subjects, Primary

Table 4 shows a range of selected major primary school specialist subjects (the list in the ACER report is longer), compared with the recognised arts subjects, visual arts, dance, drama and music (the newest subject, media arts, was excluded from the table). Generally, Table 4 provides an impression of the great range the curriculum covers — literacy is the major subject taught by most primary school teachers (4.7%), whereas other major subjects such as general science and computing are currently taught by 2% or less of primary teachers.

Importantly, the figures in Table 4 include only those teachers who are not currently generalists. Table 4, meanwhile, indicates that 3.1% teach music as specialists, higher than the proportion teaching visual arts, dance and drama. Three times as many primary teachers who teach music currently had taught it previously, suggesting a reservoir of potential expansion. Eighteen percent had studied music or undertaken it as professional development, compared with 24% for visual arts, 15% for dance and 13% for drama. But 4.2% of professional learning activities devoted to music (right-hand column of Table 4) is not a high proportion.

Table 5 provides the crucial information that 85% of all primary teachers are generalist class teachers — about 110,000 persons. Music, as noted in Table 4, was taught as a specialist subject by 3.1% of primary teachers (about 4,000 persons). It may be assumed that a considerable proportion of these teach in private primary schools, rather than government schools.

The generalist label applies to all subjects including English, literacy, mathematics and numeracy, according to Table 5.

Specialist Subjects, Secondary

In the junior years, languages and “society and environmental” subjects (such as social studies, history, geography, religious studies and civics and citizenship) are taught by the greatest number of teachers, 34% and 31%, respectively. Creative and performing arts were taught to years 7 to 10 by 12.7% in 2013, with visual arts leading (4.5%) from music (3.4%), drama, media studies and dance. The number of classes devoted to music and visual arts, however, was relatively high. The average class size varied down from 24 for science; the average music class was 21 persons.

Table 6 shows seven subject groups rather than the individual major subjects in Tables 4 and 5. Between them, they cover all subjects (refer Appendix). The smallest subject group is creative and performing arts, shown individually for each of its five subjects in the lower part of Table 6. Secondary school is split between junior years (up to Year 10) and the two senior years.

The number of current teachers is generally lower in the senior classes, as is the average class size (Table 7). Music was taught to the senior-year students by 2.1% of teachers, compared with 3.4% for the junior years. Across all years, 3.6% taught music, 4.9% visual arts, and 13.8% any creative or performing arts subject. These figures are dwarfed by the proportion of teachers currently teaching society and environmental subjects, languages, maths and science.

We have seen that about 3.4% of all junior-year secondary teachers teach music, and 2.1% teach the two senior years. These proportions are much lower than for the major subjects, especially English and maths (table 8). In total, 3.6% of secondary school teachers currently teach music, compared with 4.9% teaching visual arts and smaller proportions teaching the three other arts subjects. However, the total number of secondary teachers with experience in teaching music is 8.3%, including 3.7% who have experience of five years or more — as it happens about the same proportion that teach music currently. Whether we can jump to conclusions that “five years plus” is a criterion for potential expansion of a subject is another matter, though it may be an indicator. If so, there may be potential for expanding subjects like dance and drama where the proportion of “five years plus” is significantly higher than the actual number of teachers involved. The same applies to the major subjects of general science and history, but not to music if our hypothesis is anywhere near correct.

Table 9 suggests that the currently teaching secondary music teachers are relatively highly experienced — at 14.4% it is roughly equivalent to the teaching experience of visual arts teachers and only maths teachers have slightly longer average experience among the major secondary school subjects. However, the proportion of music teachers that undertook professional learning (PL) during the past 12 months was much lower than those undertaking such courses in English and mathematics.

This concludes the review of main findings from the ACER 2013 survey. Basically, teaching of music in schools is handicapped by two main factors. At primary level, other evidence suggests that the approach with 85% of all teachers being generalist militates against the arts, especially music. There are some welcome signs that more primary teachers are taking up special courses but the 85% generalist training is a major factor against change. At secondary level, the arts remain a significantly smaller group than the other major subject groups, probably mainly because of the constant emphasis on mathematics, literacy and science. A more integrated approach would see the music and other arts as a catalyst for better general learning ability, in accordance with the emerging findings of neuroscience.

Future Changes in Teaching Requirements

Paul Weldon’s article (March 2015) poses another major challenge, which unless carefully planned and implemented will be serious. Table 10 shows that between 2000 and 2014, the number of primary school students in Australia increased by 13.6% (of which almost 10% was since 2008). The number of secondary school students also increased, by 12% over the full period but by only 3.3% between 2008 and 2014. Such is the dynamics of population growth, which has gathered speed since about 2008 beginning with the younger age groups. The current number one requirement is to increase the capacity to teach a greater number of primary school students.

So the crucial variable in the context of education in the medium term is primary schools. Covering the period from 2000 to 2020, Weldon’s main analysis is shown in Table 11. In the first half, 2000-2010, the number of primary school students increased by 5.2%, but the distribution of this growth was strongly influenced by the mineral boom. The number of students increased by 20% in Western Australia and by 19% in Queensland, and the only other state showing any growth was Victoria (1.7%). Based on the ABS mid-range population projections, 2010-20 will see 21% growth, topped by WA (37.5%).

Translated into new classes required to accommodate this growth, the impact will involve extensions of new schools and probably entirely new schools as well. 1,761 new classrooms per year is a demanding requirement, which will be concentrated on Victoria, Queensland, Western Australia and New South Wales. The number of additional students is expected to be about 107,500 in Victoria, 106,300 in Queensland, 92,400 in NSW and 84,200 in WA.

There will be increased demand for secondary school space from about 2018, which is towards the end of the period analysed by Weldon, but well within the limit of the music sector scenarios which cover the period to 2035.

Weldon points out that the demand for teachers is about more than teaching a particular number of students. The ratio of students to teachers has been falling steadily for many years. The gender imbalance in primary schools (80% females) also contains potential risks; teaching has become an increasingly part-time profession (the 2013 ACER survey shows that 27% of primary and 20% of secondary teachers work part-time (females more)), and there are issues with replacing those leaving the profession. Furthermore, there is always greater demand for English and maths teachers and competition from non-teaching activities including technology jobs. Despite the female domination of school teaching generally, male-dominated subjects continue to include physics, computing, information technology, mathematics and chemistry. Dealing with all these matters is a major current issue, putting our concentration on the neglected arts subjects into further perspective.

The subject is major and needs further integrated study within the Music Trust and beyond.

Appendix: 2013 Survey

Appendix 1 and 2 compiles information for each subject and subject group contained in the 2013 ACER survey, for primary and secondary teachers, respectively.

Two-thirds or more of primary teachers of English, literacy, mathematics and numeracy have undertaken some tertiary study, with general science and physical education next in line at 57% and 55%, respectively. This exceeds any arts subject — 51% of primary teachers undertook some tertiary study in visual arts, and 40% of those teaching music. The total number of primary school music teachers with some tertiary study was 51,600, compared with 90,000 or more English, literacy and maths teachers.

The last two columns of Appendix Table 1 show that 43% of primary music teachers had undertaken tertiary study for three years of more — very close to the proportions for other arts-related subjects. The vast majority of arts-related primary teachers had training in teaching methods.

The situation is different for secondary teachers with supplementary tertiary study, with lower percentages presumably because the teaching study provided more foundation than for primary teachers. But 8.2% of secondary msic teachers reported doing some tertiary studies ( a total of 10,500), second in the creative and performing arts group to visual arts and drama. However, 63% or more of secondary music teachers had undertaken tertiary studies for more than three years, marginally above the figure for visual arts and much higher than dance, drama, and media studies.


Hans Hoegh-Guldberg, entered on Knowledge Base 14 July 2015.


  1. Phillip McKenzie, Paul Weldon, Glenn Rowley, Martin Murphy and Julie McMillan (ACER April 2014), Staff in Australia’s Schools 2013: Main report, for the Commonwealth of Australia represented by the Department of Education who has the copyright of the material.↩︎
  2. Paul R. Weldon (March 2015), The Teacher Workforce in Australia: Supply, demand and data issues. ACEReSearch Research Publications, 3-2015.↩︎
  3. The detailed sampling design is reported in Chapter 2 of the 2013 report.↩︎

Hans founded his own consulting firm, Economic Strategies Pty Ltd, in 1984, following 25 years with larger organisations. He specialised from the outset in applied cultural economics — one of his first major projects was The Australian Music Industry for the Music Board of the Australia Council (published in 1987), which also marks his first connection with Richard Letts who was the Director of the Music Board in the mid-1980s. Hans first assisted the Music Council of Australia in 2000 and between 2006 and 2008 proposed and developed the Knowledge Base, returning in an active capacity as its editor in 2011. In November 2013 the Knowledge Base was transferred to The Music Trust, with MCA's full cooperation.

Between 2000 and 2010 Hans also authored or co-authored several major domestic and international climate change projects, using scenario planning techniques to develop alternative long-term futures. He has for several years been exploring the similarities between the economics of cultural and ecological change, and their continued lack of political clout which is to a large extent due to conventional GDP data being unable to measure the true value of our cultural and environmental capital. This was announced as a major scenario-planning project for The Music Trust in March 2014 (articles of particular relevance to the project are marked *, below).

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