Australian Professional Standards for Teachers: The Four Career Stages Explained

13 June 2019

Are you a “Graduate” or a “Proficient” teacher? Perhaps you’re “Highly Accomplished” or even a “Lead” teacher. Does this terminology strike a meaningful chord with you or slide away into bureaucratic background noise? In this article we explain the four career stages under the Australian Professional Standards for Teachers and set out what they mean in practice for teachers across all Australian jurisdictions.

What Are the Four Stages And Where Do They Come From?

The four career stages for teachers were devised by the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL) after wide consultation and research. Established in 2010, AITSL is a national body which, according to its website, “exist[s] to lead significant educational reforms across Australia under the direction of the Australian government and with guidance from education counsel.”

One such reform is the Australian Professional Standards for Teachers. These consist of seven standards designed to let teachers know what they should be achieving in their daily practice. For instance, teachers should “Know students and how they learn” (Standard 1), “Create and maintain supportive and safe learning environments” (Standard 4), and “Engage in professional learning” (Standard 6).

But how can one set of Standards apply to all teachers? Surely a 22-year-old graduate should not be measured with the same yardstick as a department head with 30 years’ experience? Recognising this potential problem, AITSL divided its Standards into four progressive career stages: Graduate, Proficient, Highly Accomplished and Lead.

The Standards provide benchmarks to recognise the professional growth of teachers throughout their careers and the descriptors within each category represent increasing levels of knowledge, practice and professional engagement for teachers.

Graduate teachers, according to AITSL, “have completed a qualification that meets the requirements of a nationally accredited program of initial teacher education.” Proficient teachers “have met the requirements for full registration through demonstrating achievement of the seven Standards at this level.” Highly Accomplished teachers are “highly effective and skilled classroom practitioners” who “routinely work independently and collaboratively” to improve their practice and the practice of colleagues. And, finally, Lead teachers “are recognised and respected by colleagues, parents/carers and community members as exemplary teachers.”

The key to the effectiveness of the Standards is that while the same overarching Standards apply to all teachers, the specific requirements vary according to career stage. For example, Standard 1.5 requires teachers to “Differentiate teaching to meet the specific learning needs of students across the full range of abilities.” Teachers at all career stages must meet this Standard, but the way they must meet it varies. A Graduate must “demonstrate knowledge and understanding” of relevant differentiation strategies, while a Lead teacher must “lead colleagues to evaluate the effectiveness” of these strategies.

Are the National Standards (And Career Stages) Compulsory?

As is the case with so many regulatory frameworks in the Australian federal system, the frustrating answer to this question is: “well, yes and no.”

Teacher registration in Australia is a matter of state and territory law, overseen by state and territory education departments and registration boards. This means that AITSL, as a national body, can’t impose compulsory standards unilaterally. For the AITSL Standards to be compulsory – for instance as a condition of teacher registration – they would have to be adopted by the states and territories.

Have the AITSL Standards been adopted by the states and territories? Well, yes and no. Only New South Wales has comprehensively incorporated the AITSL Standards and all four career stages into its teacher registration system. While some other jurisdictions acknowledge all four stages, none has incorporated all four into their compulsory registration systems.

The situation, however, is not as messy as it might seem. Although they may not have incorporated all four stages, every jurisdiction in Australia has incorporated the first two: Graduate and Proficient. This means that every new teacher in Australia follows this two-stage registration process:

Stage 1: Graduate Teachers

To be registered as a Graduate Teacher you must provide proof of your teaching qualifications along with evidence that you’ve met all other requirements, such as Working with Children Checks, a Federal Police clearance (in some jurisdictions), eligibility to work in Australia and English language proficiency.

You will then be granted provisional registration. This is a temporary situation designed to give you the time and experience to earn your full registration. To earn full registration, you must accrue a certain number of work hours and present evidence of your competence to a recommendation panel (which usually includes your principal and some of your peers).

As part of this process, you must show how you have met the appropriate Standards. In some jurisdictions, the appropriate Standard is the AITSL Standard for Graduate teachers, in others it is a state/territory Standard that mirrors the AITSL Standard.

Our National Education lead, Craig D’cruz, commented that many teachers believe that learning how to teach is akin to being apprenticed. He says that it is generally understood that teachers develop and refine their pedagogical skills by watching, learning from, emulating and adopting the practices of others to eventually develop their own style or as some may put it, their “je ne sais quoi” .

However, the registration process requires teachers to use evidence to both demonstrate, and reflect on, their practice against each of the focus areas at the Proficient career stage of the Standards.

If you fail to earn your full registration within the designated timeframe (usually two to three years) you might be able to get an extension or a second chance, but if you fail again, that’s it. You will lose your provisional registration and won’t be allowed to teach.

Stage 2: Proficient Teachers

You’ve earned your full registration. Congratulations, you now have a qualification that will enable you to teach for the rest of your life – provided you maintain it.

On a regular basis (once a year or once every five years depending on your jurisdiction) you will have to provide a registration board with evidence that you have worked the requisite number of hours, completed the requisite professional development training and met the appropriate Standard. That Standard will be the AITSL Standard for Proficient Teachers or a state/territory Standard that mirrors it.

Full registration is the fundamental qualification for teachers in Australia, and the Standard for Proficient Teachers is the fundamental Standard. A teacher who fails to live up to a higher standard, such as the Standard for Highly Accomplished Teachers, might still be permitted to teach, but a teacher who fails to live up to the Proficient Standard will be unregistered and out of the job.

Highly Accomplished Teachers and Lead Teachers – Not Compulsory but Still Relevant

Teachers in Australia are not compelled to earn qualifications as Highly Accomplished or Lead Teachers, but many still do, and for good reason. According to AITSL:

“National Certification is a voluntary and portable process that ensures teachers have access to a rigorous and transparent process that recognises Highly Accomplished and Lead teachers. It enables you to receive feedback on your practice and have your practice evaluated by nationally trained assessors who are external to your school. It exposes you to communities of practice and supports you to further develop and grow as a professional whilst improving outcomes for your students.”

Details on how to get certified are available on the AITSL website.

Mark Bryan

Mark is a Legal Research Consultant at CompliSpace. Mark has worked as a Legal Policy Officer for the Commonwealth Attorney-General’s Department and the NSW Department of Justice. He also spent three years as lead editor for the private sessions narratives team at the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. Mark holds a bachelor’s degree in Arts/Law from the Australian National University with First Class Honours in Law, a Graduate Diploma in Writing from UTS and a Graduate Certificate in Film Directing from the Australian Film Television and Radio School.