Teachers' historic stop work

Issue 

BY MARY MERKENICH

For the first time, education unions across Australia are planning to take co-ordinated action to protest against the pay offers to teachers and education funding policies of state governments. NSW, Victorian and WA teachers and other education workers will stop work for 24 hours on September 17. Those in other states and territories will organise support actions on the day.

Victoria's action represents another milestone — preschool teachers will join with primary and secondary principals, teachers and support staff in joint action for the first time. Delegates from each TAFE institute stop-work will attend the meeting and rally.

The unprecedented national co-ordination — never before have even two states taken joint action — underscores unionists' concern about the emerging teacher shortage, and their frustration with governments that were elected on a pro-public education platform failing to deliver.

State treasurers are colluding in an attempt to cap teacher salaries at 3% pay increases per year. All state governments have failed to meet with the Australian Education Union (AEU) to discuss the teacher shortages and their government's proposed cuts to education.

The teacher shortage is already affecting schools. In a national survey conducted by the AEU in February, almost half, 49.7%, of primary school principals reported that they have experienced teacher supply problems. For secondary principals, the figure jumped to 67.2%, with 85.7% in rural schools. An overwhelming number of principals stated that the problem had become worse during the previous year. A significant number of schools have been unable to fill positions. Additionally, in 68.7% of all secondary schools, and 85.7% of rural schools, teachers are teaching outside their area of qualification.

If this problem is not addressed, research by the Australian Council of Deans of Education points to a national shortage of 5000 teachers by 2005, rising to up to 25,000 by the end of the decade. Teacher shortages have a direct impact on the working conditions of teachers, creating large classes and increasing the number of classes they must teach. Some classes in Victoria are as large as 31 students.

Almost one third of Victoria's experienced teachers are likely to resign/retire in the next six to eight years. A recent survey of over 1000 new teachers indicated that 43% do not see themselves teaching in 5-10 years time.

To make matters worse, state governments have announced cuts to public education funding.

In NSW, 180 curriculum consultants have been told their positions have gone. Last month in South Australia it was announced that 200 education department jobs would go. And a few weeks ago, the Victorian education minister Lynne Kosky stated that at least 300 jobs would be cut from the department of education and training.

Additionally, recently outlined changes will reduce funding for students with disabilities, and probably cost some jobs of teachers and integration aides who work with these students.

On August 29, Kosky announced her so-called "reform agenda", better described as an "attack agenda". Some of her proposals made public include making teachers work longer days, reducing the summer holiday break by a week and making teachers work across different schools.

Politicians in Victoria have just received a no-strings-attached 4% pay increase. Their base salary is now $102,260. Various allowances, including an electorate allowance of up to $40,000, are then piled on top. This can be taken as extra salary or spent on electorate matters, the most common being trying to get re-elected.

The Victorian premier, Steve Bracks, gets a loading of 100%, or $204,520 total. As ministers, the treasurer and education minister receive a loading of 75%, or $178,955 total. Politicians' base salary has increased 25.7% since the Bracks government was sworn in.

A beginning teachers' salary, on the other hand, is now $40,983 in Victoria, an increase of 14.9% under Bracks. The highest public teachers' salary is $55,828, or an increase of 13.6%. A year ago the beginning teacher salary in Victoria was the best in Australia. It is now the fifth.

Contracts continue to be a major form of employment for new teachers, although the Bracks government promised to get rid of contracts during its election campaign in 1999.

The government's actions will not solve the teacher shortage. They will exacerbate it. These proposals will drive teachers away from the profession. Consequently, there will be more pressure on those teachers remaining. Students cannot remain immune from these pressures, because exhausted, demoralised teachers do not perform at their best.

During its election campaign, the Bracks government promised to improve state education. Platitudes about attracting our best and brightest to teaching are meaningless, if horrendous working conditions are made worse and pay offers are less than the rate of inflation.

A independent public education inquiry was launched in NSW in 2001. Headed by Professor Tony Vinson, it found: "Given the difficulties that daily beset the public education system, why does it work as effectively as it does? The evidence of the inquiry's field work, the public hearings and submissions received converge on one main answer to this question. The system works as well as it does because of the professional commitment of its teachers."

In recent years, there has been an intensification of teachers' work. Rapid curriculum changes have been introduced with little support. There are increased demands from assessment and reporting. There is a greater responsibility on teachers' duty of care. There are significantly more special-needs children, with nowhere near enough support staff. There is also an increased pressure to use technology with insufficient time or money for professional development.

As a result, the Vinson report called for an immediate 5% "catch up" pay increase, separate to, and independent from, the outcome of any future award payments.

The state governments have responded with pay offers that, when inflation is taken into account, are in fact cuts.

They claim these offers are based on their "capacity to pay". However, given what else they spend money on (including their own salaries), the offers are clearly based on political will. The real measure of a government's commitment to public education is measured by how much it is willing to invest.

Public education needs more spending. Class sizes have to be reduced, teachers need to be taking less classes, and working fewer hours. Schools need more support staff, including integration teachers and aides, curriculum consultants, student welfare counsellors, psychologists and psychiatrists.

Professional development needs more funds. Schools require more money for replacement teachers, so extra-curricula activities don't burden teachers with extra work and so sick leave does not create a problem for the school.

And governments should pay teachers a salary commensurate with their work, and their contribution to the community. Education is not a burden. It is a public investment.

[Mary Merkanich is a Victorian teacher and a member of the AEU.]

From Green Left Weekly, September 10, 2003.

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