Members of the NSW Teachers' Federation (NSWTF) have much to be concerned about — salaries, public education system award conditions, staffing arrangements and the teacher shortage responsible for increased teacher workload and lowering of teacher qualifications standards.
A campaign has been launched by the union to address these issues, which ultimately affect students in NSW public schools and TAFE colleges.
To express their anger at NSW education minister John Della Bosca, for his lack of willingness to negotiate with them about their concerns, public school teachers are considering striking for two hours to attend state-wide Sky Channel meetings on April 8. The March 8 NSWTF state council meeting will discuss the first phase of statewide industrial action.
The union is seeking:
•More permanent teachers to address teacher shortages and to prepare for the replacement of the 40% of the service retiring in the next five years;
•Guarantees of secure staffing to ensure that all students in the state's 2240 public schools are taught by qualified and trained teachers, and to ensure that teachers have employment security for another three years; and
•Increases in salary levels for the whole sector by no less than 5% per annum and 1% per annum for superannuation.
The current state-wide staffing system gives the government responsibility for ensuring that resources, particularly qualified teachers, are equitably distributed. This will be undermined by a new government plan that gives principals the sole power to select teachers locally.
Under this plan, which will take effect in 2010, the gap between rich and poor, haves and have-nots, city and country, will widen as teachers compete against each other to work in more affluent, advantaged areas.
The planned abolition of the current system demonstrates that the state Labor government does not care about inflicting damage on certain schools, students and communities, some of which are already suffering great disadvantage. In fact, the most disadvantaged schools will be forced to increase class sizes and place unqualified people into their classrooms because there will be no incentive or system to encourage qualified teachers to seek employment in such areas.
Della Bosca has lauded his decision to remove university teacher education qualifications in TAFE as a "solution" to the teacher shortage.
Dismantling the centralised staffing system is part of a broader agenda of subjecting all elements of public education to market forces, and transforming principals from educators to managers. This will pave the way for each school to compete for staff, students and ultimately funding. It sets the pre-conditions for the introduction of individual contracts and performance-based pay for teachers — the same neoliberal approach as the Howard government had.
In her address to the NSWTF state council before last November's federal election, then Labor state education minister Carmel Tebbutt stated: "The NSW government takes responsibility for making sure that every school in NSW is staffed with experienced teachers and we will continue to do so. The Coalition will destroy the NSW staffing agreement. We know they tried it in 1989 and their desire to do so has just got stronger with Howard's industrial relations fixation …
"A deregulated workforce would change forever public education in NSW. We would no longer be a public education system but rather 2240 schools pitted against each other. That is not the vision for public education that a Labor Government has."
Many teachers and their families, as well as students, actively participated in the Your Rights at Work (YRAW) campaign against the Howard government's IR laws. It is ironic, then, that the very industrial system which they fought against is now being imposed on them by stealth by a Labor state government.
It is the state staffing system that secures permanent employment and professional development opportunities for teachers, as opposed to contract-based employment and limited tenure. While the state Labor government sought to place some public sector workers under the protection of the state industrial jurisdiction during the height of the YRAW campaign, it is now stripping NSW public school teachers of their work rights.
This situation is a clear example of the state government abrogating its responsibility to ensure equal treatment in the staffing and standards in state schools. It is no coincidence that this is occurring when a teacher shortage is looming. The government can then deny responsibility for mismanagement and understaffing, as it does with the public health system.
The abolition of the current staffing arrangements has to be seen in the wider context of the "free market" economic rationalist agenda of a state Labor government that is selling off public assets such as the state's electricity industry to the private sector under the guise of using the money from the sale to improve the very public services that the government is intent on dismantling.
Teachers, firefighters and nurses stand ready to take serious industrial action as their respective unions seek negotiations with the government for salary justice for the workers who sustain the education, health and safety of our community.
Public service workers should be considering joint industrial action in a coordinated campaign to maintain the last bastions of public ownership of public infrastructure.
[Noreen Navin is a NSW Teachers Federation state councillor.]