A report titled "Out-of-field teaching in Australian secondary schools" from the Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER) should be a red flag warning to federal and state governments.

The report stresses that any strategy to lift educational outcomes will likely fail if large numbers of high school teachers continue to teach outside of their areas of expertise. The problem comes as a result of large numbers of high school classes being taught by teachers who are not qualified in the field, particularly within the ‘STEM’ associated subject content such as science, technology, engineering math, computing and IT.

The author of the report, Dr. Paul Weldon, was quoted in the Australian Financial Review as suggesting that all state teacher registration bodies should collect data on the distribution of secondary teachers by subject.

Teachers are generally regarded as being formally qualified to teach a subject if they have studied it above first-year university level and have also been trained in teaching methodology for that subject.

It’s good to see someone ‘belling the cat’ on the fundamental issue of making certain that the people responsible in the delivery of specific areas of educational content at secondary school levels will themselves be appropriately trained and qualified to do so. But what happens after high school?

It would seem that in the not too distant past there were rigorous requirements for post-school educators within both the vocational and higher education streams. Most reputable universities won’t employ academic staff without a postgraduate Doctorate in their relative field of expertise.

You could easily present an argument that the vast majority of ‘teaching’ within universities is actually delivered by a casual workforce and that perhaps many career academics couldn’t teach their way out of a wet paper bag. Whilst being highly knowledge is essential, sometimes their inability to translate knowledge and learning to their student groups can fall slightly short of the mark.

So what of the ‘in between’ Vocational Education and Training (VET) sector? Unfortunately, it appears to have been mismanaged by various federal and state governments to a point where it is in terminal decline. The Committee for Economic Development of Australia (CEDA) recently called for a ‘root and branch’ review of the VET sector in its report VET: Securing Skills for Growth. It claims the VET system has been severely weakened by financial scandals associated with some private training providers and a lack of focus from the government. This appears to have been confirmed by Federal Minister for Education Simon Birmingham, who stated that there were more unscrupulous private operators in the VET sector than previously recognised.

CEDA has put forward a raft of suggestions for the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) to consider. And whilst the chief executive, professor Stephen Martin, suggests that the federal government was taking the right approach to cut off the dodgy private operators from VET FEE-HELP loan access, he feels much more will need to be done. CEDA claims that any review must include an examination of where VET sits within the context of a broader education sector. It also believes a shift away from VET’s current training packages is necessary to broaden the skills being taught.

The report recommended that vocational education should go beyond the narrow ‘competency based training’ (CBT) delivery and assessment methodology currently employed to provide students with a broader range of skills, such as creativity, social intelligence, patience, critical thinking and resilience. These skills will equip them for the jobs of the future. CEDA’s report also claims there is an incorrect but implicit assumption by our policy makers that the primary role of higher education is to meet skills needs.

Similar thoughts seem to be supported by some industry bodies such as the Council of Small Business Australia. Their chief executive, Peter Strong, suggested that the current VET system was a “disgrace” which needs to be fixed ASAP.

“It’s run by the trainers for the trainers, there is no consideration for the people they are training,” Strong was quoted as saying.

This brings me to the topic of VET course qualifications attached to the granting of occupational licenses within the building construction industry. My own quantitative research in this domain is weak. It is impossible to determine how many trade and builder licenses have been issued to ‘graduates’ of private training providers against those of persons who attended TAFEs and university. With the courses listed under the CPC08 Construction, Plumbing and Services Training Package, the required units of competence, once completed with any registered training provider, must be recognised by the state and territory licensing authorities as being valid.

So if there are real and substantive concerns ranging from non-specialist teachers delivering content in our secondary school education system together with the recognition that the entire VET sector is in reputational decline, what are the current rules concerning who can actually deliver high quality vocational education and training?

Once upon a time, you needed a formal qualification one level higher than the one you were delivering. This was augmented by full time TAFE teachers obtaining either a post graduate or undergraduate degree specifically within adult education. These requirements ceased to exist several years ago as TAFEs across Australia struggled to become price competitive with the army of private trainers issuing qualifications within alarmingly short time frames.

The vast majority of students won’t go to a private provider for convenience or because they believe they will learn more. Where the qualification is attached to the issuance of an occupational license, particularly within the building construction sector, they will use it to expedite the issuance of a nationally recognised qualification to obtain that license.

And just what type of professional skills and qualifications does a VET trainer now require? Many training providers offering a TAE40110 Certificate IV in Training and Assessment describe the qualification as being “designed for people who want to work within the national training framework as trainers and assessors.” And they’re right.

You can do this Cert IV online for under $200. Once you are ‘qualified’ you will fully meet the required standard to deliver any of the subject units within the National Training Package.

So if you’ve never actually used a surveying instrument in your life or you are unaware of how to measure building quantities and prepare an estimate, don’t worry. You think planning to prepare a ‘Bar Chart’ program involves your social itinerary on a Friday night and you’re not exactly sure of what a National Construction Code is? Again, not to worry. Under the current regulations, you too can deliver your wealth of knowledge and professional expertise under the auspices of any ‘Registered Training Organisation’ who wishes to hire you.

Non-specialist subject teachers in high schools is a definite worry. But scratch the surface and you’ll find some far more serious concerns currently operating within the VET sector. How this large scale deregulation of teacher quality standards transitions into the type of ‘qualified’ builders that Australia will need into the future is entirely uncertain. The downside risks are far too great for a multibillion-dollar industry.