Forget the ATAR: Let’s get the best science and mathematics teachers where they are needed most!


Vaille Dawson (

Professor of Science education

The University of Western Australia

Australia has an excellent education system where we outperform both the United Kingdom and the USA and perform significantly above average in international tests of literacy, numeracy and science for students from year 4 through to 15 year olds. This pattern has been consistent since reliable testing commenced in 2006. The media and certain elements of politics would have us believe that we are languishing around the bottom. Blame is often foisted on the apparent low ATAR of students entering teaching.

Australia is above the OECD average in equity when comparing gender and immigrants. Where we fall short, and media coverage is often silent, is that we have an oversized gap in academic achievement between the top and bottom quartile of students. The gap in achievement is closely linked to socioeconomic disadvantage and geographic location (Smith, Parr & Muhidin, 2018). Dr Barry Jones (formerly a school teacher and ex-Labor Minister for Science) once stated at a speech in Perth in the 1980s that the most important number in education was a person’s postcode. Little has changed.

The inequitable outcomes evident in the international tests are mirrored in national (NAPLAN) testing conducted in Years 3, 5, 7 and 9. Lamb, Jackson, Walstab and Huo (2015) analysed Australian academic achievement data and found that one in four young people were failing to reach minimum benchmarks in literacy and numeracy throughout their schooling. These students are predominantly from low socioeconomic areas. This educational disadvantage is likely to have long-term negative ramifications on the lives of these young people.

Despite spending on a plethora of initiatives such as Teach for Australia, fly in–fly out ATAR SWAT teams, financial incentives to teach in disadvantaged schools and scholarships for secondary school mathematics and science graduate teachers, principals struggle to recruit and retain qualified teachers and disadvantaged schools experience more staff turn-over than advantaged schools (Weldon, 2018).

What can we do?

One way of encouraging qualified science and mathematics teachers to teach in disadvantaged schools is to support them to do so during and after their teacher training programs. We recently published a paper where we implemented a support and mentoring program for preservice science, mathematics and English teachers who did their first professional practice in a socio-educationally disadvantaged school (Dawson & Shand, 2019). With practical support, their confidence and ability to get on with the job did not differ from preservice teachers in more advantaged schools. It is hoped that these qualified preservice teachers on graduation will seek employment in disadvantaged schools. Developing and maintaining a relationship with universities as they commence their professional careers may increase resilience and reduce early career teacher attrition (Weldon, 2018).With modest funding, this low cost initiative could be rolled out by universities in all states and territories.

So, please stop focusing on the ATAR when a miniscule number of students enter teaching courses at university with a low ATAR. Support our young graduates as they enter the workforce and acknowledge the equity issues that exist.

Dawson, V.M, & Shand, J. (2019). Impact of support for preservice teachers placed in disadvantaged schools. Issues in Educational Research, 29(1), 19-37.

Lamb, S., Jackson, J., Walstab, A., & Huo, S. (2015). Educational opportunity in Australia 2015: Who succeeds and who misses out. Melbourne, Mitchell Institute: Centre for International Research on Education Systems, Victoria University.

Smith, C., Parr, N, & Muhidin, S. (2018). Mapping schools’ NAPLAN results: a special inequality of school outcomes in Australia. Geographical Research, 1-18.

Weldon, P. (2018). Early career teacher attrition in Australia: Evidence, definition, classification and measurement. Australian Journal of Education, 37, 17-35.


Last updated: 
Friday, 22 February 2019