On May 22, 40,000 public school teachers in NSW took 24-hour strike action in opposition to the Labor state government's refusal to negotiate with the NSW Teachers Federation (NSWTF) over the way teachers are allocated to public schools.
For the last 10 years a negotiated staffing agreement ensured that public schools are staffed by fully qualified teachers. This, in turn, provided broad curriculum options for students, particularly in rural and remote parts of the state, as well as difficult-to-staff areas.
Without an agreement that guarantees teachers' rights to transfer from one school to another, teachers face the prospect of having changes foisted onto them by the director general of the Department of Education (DET), Michael Coutts-Trotter, or the NSW Minister of Education, John Della Bosca.
This first wave of DET changes allows principals up to six options on how to staff their schools. It is the beginning of a raft of changes that will lead to the complete devolving of staffing to schools. This will mean that principals will have the power to hire teachers and schools will be forced to compete with each other to attract and retain teachers.
Under previous procedures, teachers were able to accrue transfer points and use the points to move around the state. Some schools awarded higher numbers of points than others, depending on location and other factors.
A system of incentive points ensured that teachers would opt to work in certain areas that are hard to staff or are isolated. Those teachers would accumulate a higher number of points per year and then be eligible to transfer to locations of their choice.
The loss of this particular component of a staffing model will inevitably result in some schools not being able to attract teachers. This will lead to an increase in class sizes, and a limit on subjects offered. By contrast, wealthy schools and communities will be able to attract teachers and maintain lower class sizes, broad subject areas and experienced teachers.
This division between the "desirable" and "less desirable" schools will exacerbate the gap between the economically advantaged and disadvantaged schools and communities.
Teachers are also worried that as schools find it increasingly difficult to get teachers to work in difficult-to-staff areas and rural and remote schools, principals will resort to employing unqualified teachers or para-professionals or reducing teaching qualifications.
The DET claims it will not allow unqualified teachers into schools. But in a unilateral move, foreboding what might happen in schools, the DET downgraded the teaching qualification for permanent teachers in the TAFE sector last December 21.
TAFE Teachers Association president Rob Long pointed out on April 10 the contradiction between state and federal governments' priorities. "Deputy Prime Minister Julia Gillard has been quoted stating, 'Australia's economy needs higher level skills' and states that we can increase 'productivity through supporting employees to realise their potential'. However, in NSW, Minister Della Bosca and his chief, Michael Coutts-Trotter, try to achieve the opposite by downgrading the education qualifications for permanent TAFE teachers."
"The TAFE system is centred on the permanent qualified TAFE teachers developing and delivering curriculum and learning resources for a wide range of vocational disciplines. To remove the professional qualification of TAFE teachers takes a vital element out of the teaching and education environment", Long said.
School teachers are concerned that if these measures can be imposed on TAFE, schools will not be exempt especially given the lack of an industrially enforceable staffing agreement.
In a show of solidarity between the two educational fields, TAFE teachers joined their school colleagues in huge numbers at the Farrer Place protest on May 22.
A teacher from a school in the far west of NSW told the rally that on her first day at work the union delegate was collecting for Boeing workers in Victoria then on strike for a collective agreement. "It reinforced the importance of union solidarity and it's strengthened my commitment to the union", she said to loud applause.
Part-time TAFE teacher Sibylle Kaczorek told Green Left Weekly, "It was inspiring to see so many school teachers taking industrial action for the future of their students and public education. But the industrial campaign in TAFE and in public schools for quality public education has to continue."
NSWTF deputy president Gary Zadkovich told the protestors that rolling industrial action will escalate in June if the DET still refuses to meet with the union for negotiations. The NSWTF state council meeting on June 14 will decide on further industrial action in term 3.
[Noreen Navin is a state councillor in the NSWTF and vice-president of Canterbury Bankstown Teachers Association.]