100 years of unionism: challenges and opportunities for teachers

NSW Teachers Federation contingent at this year's Sydney May Day march. Photo: Zebedee Parkes

The NSW Teachers Federation (NSWTF) has just marked its centenary. John Gauci, a long-time union member and secretary of the Inner City Teachers Association spoke to Pip Hinman from Green Left Weekly about the challenges facing teachers and the union today.

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What are the milestones and the challenges for the NSW Teachers’ Federation?

There have been major improvements in teachers’ wages and working conditions over the past 100 years, including permanency for women. The NSWTF has a long proud history of social justice: we continue to campaign for the rights of Indigenous peoples, refugees, women and for peace, the environment, LGBTIQ rights, Palestine, a truly free East Timor, supporting the progressive struggles in Latin America, supporting other union struggles and against poverty, to name just a few.

A great deal of our campaign work has focused on improvements for students, including programs for Indigenous students and increased funding for students with special learning needs, for students from low socioeconomic backgrounds and from regional and remote areas and for students from non-English speaking backgrounds. We have also won decent classroom sizes and established a high-quality curriculum that is accessible for all.

State and federal governments are attempting to claw back these hard-won gains, so it is a constant battle to defend any improvements.

Another NSWTF campaign is focussed on excessive teacher workload and salaries. The NSW government’s policy, Local Schools Local Decisions, has led to significant job cuts from NSW Department of Education head office. Much of this workload has been passed onto local public schools and dramatically increased principal, school executive and classroom teacher workloads, on top of their core role of educating students.

Much of our professional time is now occupied by administrative work. Many principals now spend valuable time dealing with contractors, instead of the vital role of educational leadership. The NSWTF will be campaigning to reduce this administrative workload so that educators can focus on the vital work of teaching students.

The wages policy introduced by the Labor government in 2011 limited teacher salary rises to 2.5% per annum, despite a significant increase in the complexity and hours of our work. The wage cap has impacted on the status of teachers, lost teachers tens of thousands of dollars in wages and made it harder to attract the best and brightest graduates to our profession.

While there have been major improvements in teachers’ conditions over the past 100 years, in this age of insatiable neoliberalism both Labor and Coalition governments are attempting to erode our hard-won gains.

Most recently, the federal government cut $17 billion from the original Gonski agreement. The NSWTF, together with other Australian Education Union branches, are attempting to win back badly-needed federal funding via our Fair Funding Now campaign.

What are the new challenges that come with education becoming a fast-growing commodity?

The commercialisation of education has allowed multinational corporations, such as Pearson Education, which are administering and marking national tests such as NAPLAN to reap millions of dollars’ profit from public funding.

The ultimate goal of these multinationals is to control our curriculum as a means of maximising their profits. It comes at the expense of quality teaching and learning. Their long-term goal is to establish their own low-cost private schools and universities.

The privatisation of education has led to billions of dollars being slashed from the TAFE and corrective services budgets and public funds going to dodgy private education providers. We have seen the introduction of exorbitant student fees and the erosion of our world-class TAFE system.

Overseas, multinationals’ involvement in education has had a disastrous impact. It has led to the curriculum being narrowed and outcomes for students being reduced. The poorest students are being totally excluded from education. This is a worldwide phenomenon, but some of the worst examples are the Omega schools in Ghana and the Bridge International Academies in Kenya.

You were recently awarded life membership of the union for your service to the Inner City Teachers Association (ICTA). What has the association and others like it achieved across NSW?

Yes, alongside two other long-time activists, I was recently honoured with the life membership. We are all extremely proud of our ICTA.

In addition to the campaigns I mentioned, ICTA successfully prevented the closure of numerous local public schools in the 1980s and 1990s. At one stage, ICTA had the highest number of registrations nationally for the I Give A Gonski campaign for federal education funding. This was the result of teachers’ tireless campaigning stalls after school and on weekends.

ICTA has a long history of grassroots activism around a range of progressive issues and I feel very fortunate to campaign alongside such amazingly committed and caring educators.

ICTA has also established the annual Public Schools Arts Festival (PSAF) in partnership with the Addison Road Community Centre and Drawn To Seeing. The PSAF is now in its fourth year and showcases some of the amazing teaching, learning and diversity of our local public schools.

[The 2018 festival launch is on August 18 at 6pm at the Addison Road Community Centre in Marrickville. It will include paintings, sculptures, films, musical and theatrical performances.]

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