Public school teachers in New South Wales (NSW), Australia’s most populous state, are on strike for 24 hours next Wednesday, May 4, in opposition to chronic understaffing, unbearable workloads and attempts by the state’s liberal-national government to impose a pay ‘rise’ well below the rapidly rising rate of inflation.
The shutdown highlights a breakdown caused by decades of government funding cuts, exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, which amounts to an existential crisis in the public education sector. The situation is so bad that some 10,000 NSW teachers left the profession last year.
The strike was only called last week by the NSW Teachers’ Federation (NSWTF), fearing anger and dissent would get out of the union’s control. During protracted negotiations for a new industrial deal with the government, the NSWTF limited its action to a single-day strike in December, as well as localized, time-limited walkouts at individual schools.
During the first period, the union promised the government that it would not organize any strikes, as a sign of “good faith” during the negotiations. The NSWTF has since claimed that it has not held formal negotiations with the government on the new deal since last October. The government continues to insist that the agreement include an annual salary cap of just over 2%, under conditions where inflation is already at 5.1%, and that it will contain no measures to solve understaffing or workload issues.
The government has launched arbitration in the Industrial Relations Commission (IRC), effective May 9, the state-owned company-friendly tribunal likely to automatically approve attacks on teachers contained in the deal.
In other words, for about four months since the strike in December, the NSWTF has prevented any struggle against the government’s proposed deal. During the same period, the union enforced the return to face-to-face teaching, which led to tens of thousands of infections of teachers and students in the first term. Now that an IRC-imposed settlement is imminent, the NSWTF executive has called the one-day strike, to cover its own toll by making it easier for the government to impose the deal.
It is clear that the union is sitting on a powder keg of opposition. Before calling the shutdown, the NSWTF surveyed 10,000 members about their pay and conditions. Some 73% said their workload was unmanageable; 70% wonder whether or not they should stay in the profession; 90% disagreed that their compensation reflects their expertise and responsibilities; 89% said staffing shortages were very significant and 82% said it resulted in an increased workload at their school.
In addition to the strike, the NSWTF has allowed its members to leave schools if a member of the government attends them. Dozens of teachers took advantage of the opportunity at Meadowbank Public School and Marsden Secondary School in Sydney’s north-west during a visit on Wednesday by Prime Minister Dominic Perrottet and his Minister for Education , Sarah Mitchell. This follows previous walkouts at individual schools in recent months, including in Penrith, Sydney’s working-class west, and a number of regional areas.
Teachers and parents also spoke out about the conditions they face. In an article by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation earlier this month, it was revealed that at Dubbo College Delroy Campus in north-west New South Wales, 1,400 class periods were affected by the shortage of teachers in the first term only.
A parent said only two of his son’s 18 lessons the week before had gone as planned. The school’s union workplace committee reported that Year 10 students were not learning the skills needed for Years 11 and 12; lesson cancellations meant large numbers of children were packed into an oval under the supervision of several teachers; and an average of 15 staff members were absent on any given day, with reasons such as burnout.
the Guardian reported in January, before the massive COVID outbreak in schools, that 70 public schools had staff vacancy rates of 20% or more, with 3,300 vacancies statewide at the end of last year . He cited NSW government briefings revealing that some 40,000 students were taught last year by ‘off-field’ teachers without direct subject qualifications, with that number set to rise to one in eight students by 2022.
As the government seeks to cover up shortages by hiring fast-track university students with limited experience and qualifications, a study by the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership found that one in three fewer teachers 30 years old intended to leave the profession in the next few years. decade, as well as 40% of educators aged 30 to 39.
Many who leave the profession cite workload as the reason. The EduResearch Matters group found last year that, on average, teachers in public schools work 55 hours a week. This meant that they were constantly forced to work 11 to 12 hours a week over their paid hours.
Teachers are also facing the consequences of an infrastructure crisis, caused by decades of funding cuts by Labor and Liberal-National governments. There are more than 5,500 “temporary” classrooms statewide. In fact, in many schools, collapsible sheds are a semi-permanent feature. In some popular schools, there are between 18 and 40 removable pupils, which represents a significant part of the classrooms. They often lack basic amenities, including air conditioning and teaching facilities.
Demand exceeds supply, with more children in the state’s public school sector than places available. The government’s response is to increase enrolment, creating large class sizes and overcrowded schools. the Sydney Morning Herald reported in February, for example, “Castle Hill High and Riverbank Public Schools are both expected to reach over 2,000 students in 2022, despite having enough permanent classrooms for less than 900 students.”
The government also oversaw a series of mergers, creating “super schools” with thousands of students. Teachers said that in such schools it is impossible to provide students, often from working class backgrounds, with the care and educational assistance they need.
In a submission to a planned survey of school infrastructure, reported by the Guardian, a number of councils in western Sydney have warned that the public school crisis is forcing parents to send their children to private schools. the Guardian said previous research had found nine of the ten most crowded schools in the state were in Sydney’s working-class west.
The wealthiest private schools receive vast sums of government funding, in addition to the exorbitant fees they charge parents, and have infrastructure and facilities that could not be dreamed of in a public school. At the same time, the conditions of teachers in the independent school sector frequently mirror those of their public counterparts, prompting educators in Catholic schools to threaten to join Wednesday’s strike.
The demands of the NSWTF, even if met, would do nothing to resolve this crisis. For more than a decade, the union has imposed an effective freeze on public school teacher salaries, accepting the state government’s public sector salary cap to be 2 or 2.5 percent a year.
Now he is asking for an annual salary increase of 5 to 7.5%. The lower range of demand is already below official inflation and would not compensate for wages already lost. However, the cost of living rose much more sharply than the official figures, which means that the demand for remuneration would not increase real wages. Electricity prices alone are expected to increase by 20% in 2022, and by a similar amount over the next few years.
The union’s demand for an additional two hours of allocated planning time per week also amounts to a band-aid over a gaping wound. Figures that the NSWTF itself regularly cites show that teachers put in far more hours of unpaid work per week than a few hours.
Conditions in schools are also the direct responsibility of the union. For decades, he has worked with state governments as they cut funding, while striking one industrial deal after another, entrenching intolerable conditions and cutting wages.
The role of teachers’ unions is illustrated in Victoria, where the Australian Education Union is seeking to force through a deal that would limit pay rises to less than two per cent a year without doing anything to address workloads or shortages of teachers. staff. The NSWTF is no doubt preparing to do the same and will seek to enforce any requirements imposed by the IRC in the arbitration.
The Committee for Public Instruction (CFPE) is fighting for a real union and political struggle against the assault on teachers’ pay and conditions. It calls for the formation of rank-and-file committees, independent of the unions, which function as a police force of governments.
These would unify teachers across the country and abroad, rally the support of parents and other sections of the working class, and lead a political struggle against Labor and Liberal-National governments seeking to cut wages and impose the burden of their state debts on teachers and other public sector workers.
Authorized by Cheryl Crisp for the Socialist Equality Party, Suite 906, 185 Elizabeth Street, Sydney, NSW, 2000.