The New South Wales Teachers Federation annual conference was from July 12 to 14. Of the many issues discussed by delegates, two stood out as big threats to public education, requiring strong union opposition: the introduction of school league tables and attacks on special education.
League tables rank the performance of schools, similar to tables ranking football teams.
But publishing such data about schools has far worse effects than posting football results. Schools do not exist in social vacuums; they are part of the wider community.
Ranking them ignores their diverse socio-economic, cultural and demographic context.
There is no fair way to compare the performance of students from different linguistic, economic and social backgrounds. Globally, where league tables have been published, they have led to the further polarisation of privilege and poverty.
They can destroy school communities, as schools are deemed to be "failing", principals are sacked and schools closed.
The "naming and shaming" of so-called "under-performing schools" does nothing to address the real reasons for their under-achievement: consistent under-funding, socio-economic disadvantage and other social and cultural factors.
League tables are part of a neoliberal agenda for education, which claims to give greater accountability and choice to parents.
Really it's about smashing the power of teachers' unions, giving more hiring and firing power to principals and shifting responsibility for education from a state system to local, atomised schools.
League tables are being pushed by the federal government as part of a funding agreement reached between the states and the commonwealth at the Council Of Australian Governments meeting in November.
In June, the NSW government tried to change state legislation that now prohibits publishing student results "in a way that ranks or otherwise compares the results of particular schools". The attempt was thwarted by a Greens amendment to the new legislation, banning the publication of league tables in state print media.
However, the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority website will still publish the data required to build such league tables. So interstate newspapers, as well as websites, can use and publish them.
At conference, the federation unanimously passed a recommendation reaffirming the union's opposition to league tables. It confirmed it would ban the 2010 National Assessment Plan — Literacy and Numeracy tests if 2009 test results were used to create and publish league tables.
Industrial action involving stop-works was also endorsed.
The NSW Department of Education and Training (DET) has announced the replacement of more than 1800 specialist teachers who work with students with special needs with a single classification of School Learning Support Coordinator.
This would mean that a whole range of people who are specialists dealing with specific areas (such as autism or Asperger's, for instance) would be expected to deal with students with a whole range of learning disorders — without specialist training!
The term "coordinator" also suggests teachers will spend less time in the classroom and more time administering and organising outside the classroom.
At the same time, DET has proposed a $25 million cut to the Integration Funding Support Program and a change in the ways funds are allocated for Autism and Mental Health Disorders. This would mean many students now funded less than $6000 a year will lose their funding altogether.
The conference voted to authorise local industrial action in the form of stop-works if affected by this proposal, or if concerns about it were not addressed. The recommendation also referred the August federation council meeting to consider whether more action was needed.
[Pat Donohoe is a councillor of the NSW Teachers Federation, secretary of Canterbury-Bankstown Teachers Association and a Socialist Alliance activist.]