By Adam Harrison
ADELAIDE — "To describe this budget as socially irresponsible is like comparing it to turning up to a posh party without a tie. This budget rips the guts out of social justice", Claire McCarty, president of the South Australian Institute of Teachers (SAIT) told a fiery mass meeting of 2000 people on September 3.
The meeting was organised by SAIT to inform members about the effects of the state budget and to adopt a strategy. The meeting buzzed with anger and determination as teachers, school workers and community supporters listened to passionate speakers on the platform.
The Trade Union Choir opened proceedings with a powerful rendition of "In Germany", a song that reminded people of the need for solidarity between everyone concerned about the future.
Claire McCarty set the context of the government's attacks: "Their ideology is market driven at a time when we have the greatest ever capacity to educate people. This is a short-sighted grab for petty cash when over 7000 jobs and $750 million have been lost due to cuts to the public sector this year. We demand a free, accessible, education for all! Education is a right, not a commodity!"
The South Australian education system is facing the most drastic attack for many years. The government's August 25 budget announced cuts that would increase class sizes, reduce staffing levels, close schools and cut funds for those most in need.
The Liberal government is planning 40 school closures within the state. It also wants an increase in student/teaching staff ratio from 14.3 to 14.7. While this increase might look small, it will have big implications. Some junior primary, primary and lower secondary classes will have 34 to 36 students per class, compared with their present 28 to 30. Government plans will also lead to 422 teachers losing their jobs.
Already there has been community outrage at the attacks. One of the schools slated for closure, Fremont High, went on strike on August 30. Students and staff refused to attend lessons.
One of the most devastating cuts planned is to the School Card system. Presently over 50% of state school students hold the School Card, which provides help for poorer students with expenses like transport, excursions and fees. The government plans to abolish free transport for School Card holders, which will add a tremendous burden to those students and their families. There has been a 50% increase in School Card use over the last five years.
Cuts are also planned to the early childhood sector. A typical kindergarten with three staff will go from having between 56 and 65 children a day, to between 62 and 71 children a day.
Janet Giles, SAIT vice president, outlined the strategy SAIT has adopted to combat the attacks. She said that SAIT had been pushing for federal award coverage for teachers. This would protect teachers from any moves towards enterprise bargaining, which would inevitably lead to cuts in wages and conditions.
The state government has attempted to play teachers off against the community by promising a 2% pay increase for teachers, but funding this by a 2% cutback to education spending in other areas! SAIT has emphatically rejected this divisive proposal.
Giles claimed that the government has been forced to pull back from some of its plans because of SAIT's pursuit of a federal award. However, she also warned against false security: "The legal strategy is not enough. Political and industrial action is crucial in ensuring we defeat these attacks."
Gail Shepparton, a coordinator at Aberfoyle Park High School, gave a passionate feel for the effects of the cuts on one school. She said that up to 25 subjects could be taken out of the school curriculum because of staff losses. Increased class sizes would also have great implications for occupational health and safety.
Shepparton pointed the finger directly at the corporate world. "This government was held to ransom by big business. Big business is the author of this budget!"
The meeting finished by unanimously adopting six motions. These condemned the Brown Liberal government for its reduction in funding for education and called on members to oppose the implementation of any new employer-initiated policies which seek to remove staff from face-to-face learning and teaching.
SAIT members will ban initiatives that increase workloads out of the classroom. These bans will include systematic data collection, limitations on after-hours meetings and support staff working to allocated hours. Members in the early childhood and TAFE sector will work to allocated hours or a 35-hour week respectively.
The meeting also decided to consider conducting an industrial campaign including stoppages, and to continue to forge alliances with parents, unions and community groups.