Tens of thousands of NSW teachers stopped work for two hours on May 18 to protest against the Barry O’Farrell state government’s cuts to public education.
Using the smokescreen of “increasing school autonomy”, the government plans to radically cut funding and resources for public schools through its Local Schools Local Decisions policy. Many teacher meetings across NSW reported the largest turnouts in recent times and unanimous votes for escalating industrial action if the O’Farrell government refuses to halt its cost-cutting agenda.
The state government wants to take the responsibility of resourcing and staffing schools from the education department and give it to principals. The plan is often called “devolution”.
It’s likely that principals will be made to share the blame when future governments cut education budgets. Experience elsewhere has shown this planned system eventually forces principals to make cuts, often against their will and to the detriment of students, because of budget constraints.
In a May 18 interview with the ABC, Teachers Federation president Maurie Mulheron described the government's reforms as a “wolf in sheep’s clothing”, designed to reduce job security and increase class sizes.
Cheaper teaching workforce
At the core of the government’s cost-cutting drive is the creation of a cheaper teaching workforce through casualisation. This has been the case internationally and interstate, where similar devolution schemes have been applied.
Forty seven percent of teachers in Western Australia’s independent public schools are temporary employees, compared with less than 10% in NSW primary and high schools. High levels of casualisation also exist in the US and England where devolution has been applied.
Alarmingly, 70% of teachers in the NSW TAFE system are employed on a temporary basis as a result of the devolution agenda. In Victoria, casualisation increased from 6% to 19% over three years when it was introduced in 1996.
NSW and Victoria have similar-sized education systems, but Victoria now employs 7500 fewer teachers and 1500 fewer support staff. Since the introduction of devolution, Victoria now spends 12% less per student.
Twenty thousand NSW teachers are expected to retire within the next five years. The O’Farrell government plans to fill these permanent positions with a cheaper temporary workforce that is less able to defend student-learning conditions and assert their industrial rights for fear of dismissal.
Larger class sizes
The O’Farrell government also plans to cut costs by increasing class sizes. It will do so by carrying out the recommendations of the NSW Commission of Audit Report into Public Sector Management, where managerial prerogatives override state awards.
As a result, teacher to pupil ratios will rise at the expense of students. No longer protected by state awards, other public services including nurse to patient ratios, firefighters per appliance, ambulance office resourcing and police numbers can be altered to cut costs.
Devolution has no basis in educational theory and presents no evidence of better student learning outcomes. It is an economic theory developed during the Reagan-Thatcher period that was applied to the public sector to cut costs.
The former NSW Liberal Greiner government tried to introduce a similar devolution agenda in the 1980s called Your School's Right To Choose. Parents and teachers defeated this agenda after the smokescreen of “school autonomy” was exposed as a marketing ploy of slashing public education budgets. The same needs to happen again.