Why are Victorian teachers so angry?

June 6, 2012
Twenty five thousand teachers rallied in Melbourne on June 7. Photo: ANF/Facebook

On June 7, Australian Education Union (AEU) members — primary and secondary teachers in Victorian government schools — held their first stop-work meeting since 2008. About 25,000 teachers took part in Melbourne and marched to the steps of Victoria’s parliament house.

In 2008, teachers were campaigning for their Enterprise Bargaining Agreement (EBA), which expired at the end of last year. Since then the AEU officials have been unsuccessfully negotiating with Victoria’s Ted Baillieu state government for a new EBA.

Before winning the Victorian state election, Baillieu and his Liberal team had promised to make Victorian teachers the highest paid in the country. Victorian teachers’ yearly pay is thousands of dollars behind Western Australia’s teachers. Along with many other promises, the Baillieu government has weaseled its way out of this promise too.

Last year it wiped out more than $490 million from the state education budget. In particular, the cuts targeted Victorian Certificate of Applied Learning (VCAL) courses. VCAL courses overwhelmingly attract students who find academic study too difficult. VCAL courses offer more hands-on courses, such as carpentry, hospitality and tourism, health and community services and plumbing.

This year, the government cut more than $300 million from the TAFE sector — an education sector also offering many hands-on courses. Many educational experts fear these cuts will greatly limit educational opportunities, especially for working class youth.

Teaching conditions

The AEU stop-work focused on teacher demands for better working conditions, better learning conditions, an end to contract teaching and a well-deserved and just pay rise. Teachers voted for an ongoing campaign of rolling regional strikes and some bans.

Teachers are angry about their working conditions, which have not improved for many years and have, in fact been eroded. Teachers have larger classes and more classes to teach. This means more preparation and correction, much of which is done out of school hours.

Larger classes also result in less individual time spent with each student. It also makes class management much more difficult.

Also, the education department constantly devises new tasks, which teachers are expected to carry out without any extra time given. Report writing is largely done in teachers’ own time. And with larger classes and more classes, there are more reports to write.

Contract teaching has been a big problem for young and new teachers entering the workforce for the past decade. Many teachers spend years on contracts before finding permanent teaching positions. Many give up and find jobs in the private sector or in a completely different industry.

This is an unfortunate loss of talent and skilled labour, which could be used to reduce class sizes and bring in fresh, young educators.

Surveys of young teachers in NSW, South Australia and Victoria have all revealed that many young teachers do not see themselves teaching for longer than, on average, five years. They list onerous working conditions, insecure work and poor pay as their reasons.

Another reason many teachers are angry is the state of their workplaces. Many government schools have heating systems that do not work properly or break down frequently. Classrooms are badly in need of painting and repair.

Office spaces for teachers are cramped and uncomfortable. A school in Melbourne’s west had to shut down for weeks because it had become a health and safety issue; toxic mould was growing in many areas, some ceilings were collapsing and live cables were exposed.

Funding shortfall

Successive governments have skimped on infrastructure spending. For decades, public schools have been denied the resources they require to ensure high-quality education for every child. Victoria spends the least amount of government funds per student. The average capital investment per student in “independent” schools is more than four times higher than in public schools.

The Gonski Review of Funding for Schooling said total federal and state government funding per student for private schools rose by 82% between 2001-02 and 2008-09. This compares with a 48% increase for government schools. The funding increase for Catholic schools was 64%.

Yet, as the report pointed out, public schools take 85% of Aboriginal students, 78% of students with disabilities, 83% of remote area students, 68% of students with language backgrounds other than English and 79% of lowest quarter socio-economic backgrounds.

For AEU members, there is much to be angry about. And despite his pre-election promise to teachers, Baillieu is now offering a pay rise of only 2.5% a year.

Commodifying education

Baillieu and education minister Martin Dixon have said anything higher than the 2.5% has to be funded from “productivity savings”. This would result in higher workloads, even larger classes and job losses. In fact the Liberals have also proposed to increase the workload for secondary teachers by adding an extra hour a week of face-to-face teaching.

Baillieu and Dixon also want to bring in performance pay for teachers. Such a system would pit teacher against teacher, destroying the collaborative and collective way that teachers now work. Teachers willingly share ideas and resources so that the best possible learning environment is created for students.

Moreover, teachers are allocated classes with very different abilities and academic engagement. Would teachers working in difficult areas, or simply with difficult groups of students, be denied a bonus because their students’ results — perhaps their NAPLAN results — did not meet certain criteria? What teacher would then want to teach in those schools or those classes? It is conceivable that many teachers would become resentful about teaching such classes.

The Liberals have also said they will cap the number of teachers who can move onto the next pay increment to an 80% limit, an arbitrary figure they have nominated that would fund their performance pay. They have given no reasonable explanation why 20% of teachers should be prevented from moving up the salary scale to the next pay increment. Principals’ increments would depend on their success at carrying this out. This would be divisive and most principals oppose the idea.

The AEU has proposed a campaign comprising regional stop-work actions and possibly some work bans. It also announced that AEU members should expect a long, protracted campaign. Such statements are not inspiring or completely realistic. A poorly planned campaign will certainly be long and protracted.

Grassroots union action

To be successful, the campaign must be “owned” and driven by the membership. Consequently, stop-work meetings are a vital inclusive characteristic of the campaign because the membership can together assess what next steps are necessary. And “together” is important — it makes members strong, it gives them energy and shows the public and the politicians how determined and how strong they are.

This was a successful ingredient of the recent Victorian nurses’ industrial campaign — they regularly held mass stop work meetings. This way all nurses were kept informed and had the opportunity to give input.

If the AEU holds just one mass stop-work meeting and regional activities, the decision-making would be taken out of members’ hands. The members just become activists going from activity to activity without having a say about the direction of their campaign.

The state Liberal government is absolutely wrong but it is also very committed to its ideology, so AEU members have to plan the best, most effective, most inclusive campaign, which makes use of all members’ intelligence and ideas. Regular stop-work and mass meetings will be necessary. It will also keep the campaign in the public eye.

Many of the officials have themselves admitted that the bans and limitations available to teachers will have little, if any, effect. If teachers do not attend meetings or do not use the intranet, hardly anyone will notice and it places no pressure on politicians.

Similarly, not writing reports will only delay the inevitable and place no pressure on the Liberal government. On the other hand, if teachers ban anything that falls within their working day or is a required responsibility, they will lose pay.

Stand fast

Maximum pressure results from schools being closed, from teachers marching through the city and holding very public rallies. It results from teachers distributing leaflets to the public explaining why they are striking and showing how it is in the interests of the public to support teachers campaigning for better government schools. This puts the politicians in an uncomfortable political crisis. They will try to bully and intimidate teachers. But standing fast and challenging the politicians, as the nurses did, will win teachers support. This will place further pressure on the politicians.

Despite all the threats, no nurse was fined or jailed. The government knew that this would be hugely unpopular, given the level of public support the nurses enjoyed. Parent organisations have already publicly supported the teacher campaign, understanding that if they win, their children will also benefit.

Teachers should be able to get great public support like they had during their last enterprise bargaining campaign, especially if the key teacher demands — such as class sizes — are stressed.

[Mary Merkenich is a Victorian teacher and AEU member and a member of the Socialist Alliance.]

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