"There seems to be no guidance on what constitutes an A, B, C, etc at any grade."
While it is tempting to read this as a comparison between teaching in the UK and Australia, I must make my first caveat: this is not a like-for-like comparison. I worked in the state sector in the North East of England. I trained and took my first teaching post in non-religious schools, one of which was what might be politely called a “rough” school, before then teaching in two Catholic schools. The last school, in which I spent the longest, was an ‘outstanding’ girls’ Catholic academy. This bears most resemblance to my new school, which is a private boys’ Catholic school, with some day students and some boarders, in Australia.
So I have moved from the state to the independent sector. Secondly, although I had various smaller responsibilities in some of the schools I worked in previously, I am now head of department in Australia, so my job is not exactly the same, but much of the management of the department is what you would expect: curriculum, assessment, staffing. Obviously, this is an anecdotal account too, so keep that in mind as you read.
Most teachers didn’t begin their teaching careers for the money, but salaries in Australia are better than those in the UK. This is a direct comparison, as private Catholic schools follow the public school salary scale. Queensland, the state in which I now teach, is (so my colleagues tell me, anyway, I haven’t checked the facts) the lowest paid state. Still, a teacher’s starting salary in Queensland is around $53,000 (£25,800 on today’s conversion, though the AUD has been devalued much recently, which has been great for us bringing our savings out from the UK). We have also found the cost of living to be very reasonable in north Queensland, so we have a great lifestyle (read: a house with a pool).
While salaries might be slightly better in Australia, this would not really be a good reason to up sticks and move. For me, the move was more about the quality of life that goes with the job. I arrived four weeks before the mid-year holiday (the school year is a calendar year in Australia), and in many conversations I had with other teachers, no one answered the question “what are you up to this holiday?” with “marking,” “planning,” or anything school-related for that matter (except for those away on school trips). It was all “camping with the kids,” “taking the family to Sydney” and other family-oriented activities. There is no expectation to spend your evenings, weekends and holidays busting a gut dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s. In short, teachers didn’t feel the need to justify taking a break: it is the norm.
It goes without saying that there is a certain amount of pressure in teaching in a successful school, and one challenge in my department is to raise the academic rigour, but the pressure is nowhere near that of Ofsted. There is no equivalent body that keeps teachers at school late at night, entering data, marking every minute details of each exercise book, and making the displays relevant and vibrant. Since I’ve been here, I’ve had many conversations about other schools in the area and the state, and I haven’t heard a school being labelled ‘outstanding’, ‘good’, ‘requires improvement’, or worse, ‘coasting’. Even better, I haven’t heard teachers being labelled either. While there is some degree of satisfaction in being labelled an ‘outstanding’ teacher, I can’t imagine what it must be like to be labelled ‘satisfactory’ or ‘requires improvement.’ Teachers are trusted to be professionals, and to do the job they were trained to do.
There is a difference in reporting too: students are given grades termly (there are four terms in the year) and short reports each semester (two terms make up a semester). The reporting system, at least in my school, is simple. Students are given a grade, and a short comment that relates to that grade. Most departments even have comment banks related to these grades, so reporting is not arduous at all. The only lengthier reports are those of the homeroom (form) teacher. Better still – though I am assured this does not happen in the state system – we were given a student-free day in which to complete said reports. So reporting happens in a condensed period of time, for all students.
One thing I am yet to get used to is the lack of levels (though they are going out in the UK, are they not?), as an A-E system is used. The assessments tie in with this system, but there seems to be no guidance on what constitutes an A, B, C, etc at any grade. Moreover, this means that there is no overarching plan for progression that students can follow (as in, for example, in the UK we would tell students that applying their knowledge is a level 4, while comparing and contrasting using sources was a level 5).
This means that I have shifted to using Bloom’s taxonomy for planning my lessons (which I think most schools used, at least in the form of key words, in writing level descriptors in the UK). However, as levels were often used in the UK to hold teachers to account rather than pupils, this system puts the onus on the students to achieve. The jury is out.
"Teachers are not railroaded into teaching to the exam."
A trait of the Queensland education system is that there are no external exams. Schools follow a scheme set by Queensland Curriculum and Assessment Authority, but students are assessed in-house at the end of Year 12. I’m not sure if this system is better or worse than the UK system, but it certainly means that the curriculum is not driven by a money-making organisation as it was (and arguably still is to some degree with the new curriculum) with Religious Studies in the UK.
Another difference is that there are no equivalent qualifications to the GCSE. Students who leave school at 16, or at the end of Year 10, do so without their leaving certificate. This takes much of the pressure off staff and students – most of whom do continue until the end of Year 12 anyway – and means schools are not ranked by exam results (though they are still compared on the basis of the Year 12 results). This means that the curriculum in Year 7-10 is more free, and teachers are not railroaded into teaching to the exam. I know schools in the UK which are already planning their Year 7-8 Religious Studies curriculum based on the content of the new GCSE exam. Here in Australia my subject does not really exist outside of faith schools, so the curriculum Years 7-10 is set by the diocese, and 11-12 by QCAA, in the case of Catholic schools in Queensland at least.
Something I didn’t expect to enjoy so much – and this is very much an individual school trait rather than a state or national trend – is the fact that we have Wednesday afternoon sport. This reminds me of my time at university. Moreover, it gives staff and students the opportunity to interact on a competitive, professional, but friendly playing field (literally) and does wonders in forging staff-students relationships: my ‘pommy hat’ (cap with three lions on) has already been threatened many times, and I take quite a hammering for supporting NUFC, but the walk or bus ride to and from sporting venues is a safe space for students to have these non-work-related conversations without ‘wasting’ lesson time.
There is much more I could say (regarding, for example, Special Educational Needs, data, etc) but I will save that until I know more about it. My advice to UK teachers considering the move would be: do it! Register with the relevant approval body for teachers in the state you want to work in, get a visa (this is a lengthy process unless you can get a young person’s working holiday visa!), get a job (if you’re a Catholic RE teacher, give me a buzz!) or sign up with an agency (there’s a really good one that I probably can’t mention here), and give it a try! There’s nothing stopping you moving back to the UK if you decide it’s not for you (though if you intend to bring lots of stuff it’s pricey)!
Have you undertaken a similar adventure? Let us know in the comments!