Teachers in front line against privatisation


By Mary Merkenich and Norrian Rundle

MELBOURNE — Australian Education Union (AEU) members at two state schools have taken action over moves to privatise state schools. Sandringham Secondary College and Blackburn High School are in the front line against the privatisation of the state school system.

At both schools, AEU members and many parents have campaigned against the schools becoming "self-governing". In self-governing schools, undemocratic school councils, and not the Victorian Department of Education (DOE), would be responsible for hiring and firing teachers and formulating the school's budget.

School councils are structured to allow places for only a small number of teachers and no AEU representatives. This is ludicrous, because teachers are trained in pedagogy and are involved in the day-to-day running of schools.

Self-governing schools can go bankrupt. Each school would be given a certain budget, and any shortfall for teachers, resources or programs would be its responsibility. If a school miscalculates and does not have enough funds to cover its costs, the DOE will not be responsible for helping it.

The incentives for schools to follow this path are a one-off extra $50,000 and the ability to use its funds in any way the school council sees fit. Additionally, a self-governing school can seek sponsorship from local businesses and companies. In another word: privatisation.

The motivation behind such moves is to have schools run like small businesses. Most people who know anything about education reject this. A state school system should be run to maximise the educational possibilities for all children and not for profit, or even to balance some accountant's books!

Minister for education Phil Gude has talked about business managers running schools instead of principals. If schools get sponsorship from companies, then the real directors of school programs may be McDonald's or some other financial investor.

In a bid to quell opposition, the DOE has promised that all teachers employed by the department will remain its employees and retain their current pay and entitlements. However, self-governing school councils will have the power to employ new staff on contracts on lower rates of pay and fewer entitlements.

Experience in England shows that school councils overwhelming hire young teachers, because they are cheaper. This means that schools would have two classes of teachers working side by side. As older teachers leave the service, contract teaching would become the norm.

At Sandringham Secondary College and Blackburn High, there was little consultation with the local communities about the decision by the schools to become self-governing. As a result, AEU members struck with the support of large numbers of parents. Gude described them as an "ALP rent a crowd".

Forty AEU members at Blackburn High, in Melbourne's eastern suburbs, began their strike on June 7. Parents strongly supported the actions of teachers, issuing media releases, organising public protest meetings, attending the picket line and collecting signatures demanding that the school council defer its decision and consult the school community. Seven of the schools' contract teachers are supporting the action.

The Victorian Trades Hall Council supported the teachers, and other unions joined the picket line.

At Sandringham Secondary College, in Melbourne's south-eastern suburbs, teachers struck for half a day on June 16. This is to be followed by 90-minute stoppages over six days.

The two school councils are digging in their heels and, with the backing of the Victorian state government, will not be easily be defeated. Unfortunately, the AEU leadership has left the two schools fight the battles on their own. The union leadership seems to be relying on the parents and other unions to fight, under the formula of a "community campaign". All AEU members should be called upon to support the workers at the two schools.

The two schools, and others where councils have raised the idea of "self-governance", are in Melbourne's more affluent suburbs. Principals and some school council members believe their schools can gain lucrative sponsorships. In the western suburbs, most principals are opposed because they know that the chances of getting adequate funds through sponsorships are slim.

Self-governance will exacerbate the differences between schools. The danger of self-governance is serious. The AEU leadership must take it seriously and begin a serious and effective industrial campaign to defeat it.