WA teachers strike over wages, workload and staffing

May 3, 2024
WA teachers rejected an inadequate offer from the Department of Education. Photo: State School Teachers’ Union of Western Australia/Facebook

After rejecting an inadequate offer from the Department of Education (DoE), the State School Teachers’ Union of Western Australia (SSTUWA) held a half-day strike on April 23.

The profession is at breaking point, or past that point. The union is making 98 claims that boil down to four areas: wages; workload reduction; staffing; and addressing complex behaviour.

For many, the problem of inflation eroding wages began when the pandemic hit. But for public sector workers, this has been discussed since 2017.

WA Labor has built its mammoth surplus of $3.3 billion, in part, by capping public sector wage rises at $1000 from 2017 to 2021.

Wages were already falling behind inflation rises before the pandemic, but it effectively meant that the 3% annual “pay rises” after 2021 were pay cuts.

After the DoE’s offer of a 10.75% pay rise over three years was rejected, it returned with an insulting offer of 11%.

Even in fully-staffed schools in areas where socio-economic factors are not contributing to additional complex behaviour, the workload is massive.

The marking, red tape when planning excursions, lesson planning, record keeping for every interaction with a parent, and management of escalating student behaviour, is too much for many.

In some schools, the impact of the large teacher shortage accompanying the rise in complex behaviour is destroying teachers’ capacities to even teach.

Over the past two years, I have taken relief for classes that have not had a dedicated English teacher for two terms. I have taught in a school where the principal and deputy principals were teaching classes, since no relief teachers could be found.

I’ve taught math classes that have not had a qualified math teacher for two years.

The internal relief that teachers are given in such schools destroys what little planning time is given, contributing to the cycle of burn out followed by drop out.

It is not surprising then that there is a massive teacher shortage.

Even Jason Clare, the Minister for Education, admitted as such, saying: “Of those who do start a teaching degree, only 50% finish … And of those who finish it, 20% are leaving after less than three years.”

Inadequate mental health services, both inside and outside schools, and the general economic downturn which is leading to severer rates of financial stress, contributes to a rise in everything from disruptive (but harmless) behaviour to violent behaviour.

Teachers are expected to manage this, without proper support, training, funding nor time.

This of course badly impacts students, both those with the greatest needs and those who are losing educational opportunities because of disruptions to their learning environment.

For these reasons the SSTUWA called a strike: 12,000 union members joined across the state, with 3000 spread from Esperance to Port Hedland and the rest joining in Perth.

There was a positive response to the SSTUWA’s plan of action, announced after a march from Windan Bridge to Perth Stadium: If an acceptable offer is not made by May 10, teachers will undertake further industrial action.

While no member wants to forgo another half-day or full day’s pay, to quote a speaker at the rally: “Every single person who becomes a teacher chooses this profession because they want to make a difference in the community.”

The only way we will be able to do that is by ensuring that our education system works.

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