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Newbies more likely to be teaching outside their subject specialisation

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Authors: Jo Earp
Newbies more likely to be teaching outside their subject specialisation

Just over one-quarter of Year 7-10 teachers in Australian schools are teaching out of field, with those at the start of their careers more likely than their experienced colleagues to be teaching a subject they haven’t specialised in.

According to an Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER) report released today, 26 per cent of teachers at Years 7-10 and 15 per cent at Years 11 and 12 are teaching a subject out of field. The subjects most affected are Media (41 per cent), Geography (40 per cent), Religious Studies (38 per cent) and Information Technology (34 per cent).

The report, Out-of-field teaching in Australian secondary schools, also paints a worrying picture in relation to early career classroom practitioners – 37 per cent of Year 7-10 teachers with one-to-two years’ experience in the profession are teaching outside their specialisation, compared to 25 per cent who’ve been in the job for more than five years.

Author, ACER Senior Research Fellow Dr Paul Weldon, says: ‘The figures suggest that one way of improving retention of early career teachers would be to ensure that they are not required to teach outside their subject areas for at least the first two years of their teaching career.’

Why is it a cause for concern?

The report defines ‘out-of-field’ teaching as a secondary teacher teaching a subject they haven’t studied above first year at university and for which they haven’t studied teaching methodology. It points to research showing a thorough understanding of the subject is ‘a key attribute of highly effective teachers’.

Dr Weldon says further research is needed to better understand the issue and its impact on schools, educators and students. He suggests growing student numbers and demand for secondary teachers across different subjects, and timetabling headaches could be contributing factors.

‘It is likely that a proportion of out-of-field teaching is due to the complexity of school timetabling. Schools need to ensure a teacher in every class while working with a set number of teachers, each of whom is likely to be qualified to teach in at least two subject areas. Some teachers will be part-time or will have additional duties and therefore be unavailable on certain days or at certain times.

‘… it would be worth investigating how schools manage resourcing and timetables. This would allow us to learn from successful solutions and provide indicators of best practice that could reduce the incidence of out-of-field teaching and may also improve the retention of early career teachers.’

The report analyses data from the 2013 Staff in Australia’s Schools survey. In addition to career experience and subject area, it also explores the incidence of out-of-field teaching in relation to geographical and socioeconomic status (SES) location.

Main findings at a glance

  • About 26 per cent of teachers at Years 7-10 and 15 per cent of teachers at Years 11 and 12 are teaching a subject in which they have not specialised in as part of their teaching load.
  • Thirty-seven per cent of Year 7-10 teachers with one-to-two-years of experience are teaching a subject out-of-field, compared to 25 per cent of teachers with more than five years of experience.
  • About 16 per cent of class groups in Years 7-10 across Australia are being taught by an out-of-field teacher.
  • In remote locations, about 26 per cent of class groups are being taught by an out-of-field teacher compared to 14 per cent in metropolitan locations.
  • Nineteen per cent of class groups in schools in low-SES locations have an out-of-field teacher, compared to 13 per cent in schools in high-SES locations (Weldon, 2016)

Supporting out-of-field teachers

On the topic of support for classroom practitioners who find themselves teaching outside their subject specialisation, Weldon cites research from Western Australia. ‘There is evidence that teachers who feel they have some control over the out-of-field subjects allocated to them tend to feel more supported, more capable and more comfortable teaching out-of-field (McConney & Price, 2009).

‘It would be worth establishing the extent to which out-of-field teachers are supported by in-field teachers and by the school leadership, particularly in relation to access to high-quality professional learning.’

Visit to download a copy of the full report.


McConney, A., & Price, A (2009). Teaching out-of-field in Western Australia. Australian Journal of Teacher Education, 34(6), 86-100.

Weldon, P (2016). Out-of-field teaching in Australian secondary schools. Policy Insights Issue 6. Camberwell, VIC: ACER.

As a school leader, how are you supporting staff asked to teach a subject they haven’t specialised in?

As a secondary teacher, are you teaching a subject you haven’t specialised in? Is it through choice or necessity? How confident do you feel teaching the subject?

Whatever your experience, share your thoughts by posting a comment below, emailing or connecting with the Teacher community on Twitter or Facebook.

Leanne 31 August 2016

I’d be interested in the statistics of students in middle years Mathematics being taught by teachers outside their field. I believe that is is as close as 40% of early secondary students. This can make it very difficult for these students as they head towards higher level maths and can result in fewer students choosing these more challenging (and ultimately rewarding) pathways.

Rebecca Vukovic 05 September 2016
Hi Leanne, I followed up your query with the author of the report, Paul Weldon, who said this: 'The answer would depend in part on how you define out-of-field (OOF). We only have data for 7-10 and 11-12 and it is clear that 7-10 are far more likely to have teachers OOF than 11-12. I suspect that might look similar if you split 7-10 into 7-8 and 9-10 (ie, more OOF at 7-8), but our data doesn’t disaggregate to that level. Within 7-10, Maths OOF is about 21% of teachers if they have either studied at 2nd year tertiary or above, OR trained in teaching methodology. If they had to have both elements, the figure jumps to 38% OOF. Based on the first definition, about 12% of classes in maths at 7-10 are taught by an OOF teacher. So the data we have is not as specific as the commenter would like, but the point made about OOF teachers not providing inspiration is relevant – research suggests that teachers that are OOF and not supported, nor comfortable with the subject, would struggle to motivate their students. For details of what data we have, they should download Policy Insights 6.' I hope this helps. -Rebecca Vukovic (Editorial Assistant, Teacher)
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Out of depth 31 August 2016

I’m teaching VCAL and I have absolutely no experience with VCAL or any training. I’m enjoying it, but I feel as though I’m letting down the students as I don’t truly understand what I’m meant to be guiding them towards. I’m reading the manuals and doing my best, but it’s going to be next year before I get any training in doing the job that I’m doing, and I feel as though this isn’t really good enough. My employer knew I had no knowledge of this area, and happily took me on, but they have done nothing to make sure that I’m doing the right thing by my students.

Sue 09 October 2017

Too many OOF Teachers doing science experiments without a proper risk assessment (can’t assess what they don’t understand) and breaking expensive equipment because they don’t know how to use it, rather than ask a Technician for help. They need PD in practical skills before they are in front of a class.

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