The fight to defend public education is shaping up to be a key campaign against the cutback agenda of the Colin Barnett government in Western Australia. Thousands of teachers and education assistants rallied outside state parliament on September 3 in two separate mobilisations and further industrial action is planned.
The government claimed it has not cut education funding. However, the central issue is not about overall funding but the cuts to staffing levels. In August, the government announced they were planning to cut 500 education assistants and other support workers.
Also, 585 full time equivalent (FTE) teaching positions will be cut from next year, according to the opposition.
The government is trying to claim that there will not be cuts to teaching staff levels by ignoring the significant rise in enrolments expected next year due to WA's growing population.
Churchlands Senior High School is one example the government claims of a school that will be better off as a result of the school “funding changes”. However, school board chairperson Mark Lewer said this was “misleading”.
FTE teacher numbers at Churchlands are expected to increase next year. However, student enrolments will rise by an even bigger proportion. Using this year’s staffing formula, Churchlands will have four fewer teachers next year than expected.
It has also been reported that schools are planning to reduce the number of subject options for year 11 and 12. In response, the education department hierarchy has stepped in to direct schools to allow current year 11 students to complete their courses.
This move ignores the difficulty in maintaining programs when schools are not given the resources needed to do so and will do nothing to help students in future years.
Another example of the effect of the Barnett cutbacks is the attempt to close the Kulunga kindergarten in Hilton. This is a kindergarten that caters especially for Aboriginal children and provides a vital community service.
The union fightback against these cutbacks began with the two major rallies outside the state parliament on September 3. Close to 1000 striking education assistants organised by United Voice held a vibrant lunchtime rally in the rain followed by well over 1000 protesting teachers at an after-school rally.
The rallies were held only days before the federal election and the speaking platforms at both rallies had strong representation from prominent Labor figures including then-federal education minister Bill Shorten.
The state government dismissed the rallies as partisan election rallies. Incredibly, the government were particularly miffed that state education minister Peter Collier — the minister responsible for the cuts — was not invited to speak at the teachers' rally against the cuts.
Undoubtedly the union officials and Labor representatives at the rallies were trying to score points against Tony Abbott in the election campaign. However, the significant feature of both rallies was the vibrant mood and willingness to fight expressed by the participants gathered in the rain.
Since then, the State School Teachers Union has begun plans for industrial action that is expected to begin in the next few weeks. United Voice is also planning to continue this campaign.
Another attack on education (and workers' rights more broadly) is the threat to charge a $4000 annual fee per student for children of workers on 457 visas. One effect of this policy will be to drive these workers to send their children to private schools, thereby undermining state education as a whole.
This policy also ignores the fact that workers on 457 visas pay tax while they are in Australia and deserve full access to the range of social services, including education, that are available to all members of the community.
The blatant injustice of this policy has resulted in a lot of criticism and pressure on the government. It is trying to find a way to moderate some aspects of the policy without abandoning it.
The $4000 charge on only a section of the community is a blatant attempt at “divide and rule”. It is important that the union movement as a whole defends the rights of these workers by opposing this fee as an integral part of the campaign to defend education.
The fact that Barnett is already facing pressure on a range of fronts shows that a strong and united campaign involving industrial action and community protest is capable of defeating these attacks as well.