By Mary Merkenich
MELBOURNE — Australian Education Union members at Mill Park Secondary College in Melbourne's north-west recently stopped an erosion of their working conditions. Mill Park is the second largest state secondary college in Victoria, with more than 1500 students and about 150 staff.
The AEU has advocated a maximum of 25 students in a class, but at many secondary colleges class sizes are larger. Teachers feel very strongly about class sizes.
The more children in a class, the less time a teacher has for each student. These days this is even more important, because classes are not streamed according to a narrow ability definition. Moreover, integration students, who have physical or intellectual disabilities, are part of mainstream classes.
Teachers are expected to cater for a wide range of ability and motivation. The larger the class, the more difficult this task becomes.
Larger classes are more difficult to manage and mean more work for teachers because there is no time for the extra preparation or correction. For all this extra stress, there is no compensation or relief.
The Mill Park AEU had an agreement that the maximum class size was 26. At the start of the school year, many teachers on the junior campus found that they had year eight classes of 27 or even 28.
After a meeting with the principal, a membership meeting was organised, attended by Brian Henderson, vice-President of the AEU secondary section.
Union members also organised a petition, which was signed by non-union as well as union members, stating that teachers did not want classes over 26.
A leaflet outlining the steady erosion of conditions in the last few years, and making it clear that conditions at Mill Park were among the worst in secondary schools, was distributed to all staff. This countered the administration's frequent statements that staff conditions were among the best.
These two actions were enough. Without further discussion, the administration formed a new year eight class, so that all year eight classes are now around 25. Money was found to employ two new teachers.
The victory demonstrated to many new teachers what a union can do and its relevance for them. Apparently this fact needs to be demonstrated to the leaders of the Victorian AEU as well, who were quite surprised when informed about the successful campaign.