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Saturday, May 24, 2008

Teachers reject Iemma's user-pays education push by Noreen Navin, Sydney


Public school teachers committed to keeping a state-wide centralised model of staffing that guarantees teachers’ transfer rights and delivers equity for students and school communities voted on April 8 for a 24-hour strike on May 22.

More than 300 councillors at the NSW Teachers Federation (NSWTF) Central Council meeting on May 10 endorsed the rally and strike action that had been determined by some 20,200 teachers across NSW in early April. That stopwork discussed the campaign for a new public school staffing agreement, about which the NSW Iemma government refuses to negotiate.

Gary Zadkovich, NSWTF senior vice president, described the NSW government’s belligerent attitude like this: “The Department of Education and Training is adopting a grossly irresponsible approach on staffing policy. This was reinforced at Federation’s conference for principals last term when Education Minister John Della Bosca answered questions on the likely impact of the imposed changes. Mr Della Bosca said that schools would just have to ‘suck it and see’. No wonder principals in the audience gasped.”

Figures from the NSW Department of Education and Training (DET) indicate that, due to teacher retirements, an average of 3200 new permanent positions will need to be filled over the next five years. This increase from an average of 2700 permanent positions indicates the need for a negotiated, revamped staffing agreement. The current Permanent Employee Program (PEP), which provides permanent jobs to temporary or casual teachers, could be used as a model for coping with such an increase in the number of positions.

Any new staffing agreement should allow for a greater mix of appointments, particularly new graduates, without jeopardising teachers’ transfer rights or school needs. However, the NSWTF’s proposal to increase the number of PEP appointees was rejected by the education department. This demonstrates that the DET is not interested in refashioning the staffing model, nor in allowing principles more flexibility to determine the needs of their schools.

Instead, the department is driving the push to get principals to take over the responsibility for staffing. DET now says it will only agree to a five-year industrial agreement on condition that its changes to staffing procedures are included. Taken to its logical conclusion, the government’s push will mean that budgeting will increasingly be the responsibility of individual schools, and principals will be forced to set teachers’ wages and conditions through employment contracts.

According to Maree O’Halloran, president of the NSWTF, the government’s so-called “modest” changes will be to: “phase out teacher transfers in practice; offload the government’s responsibility for finding teachers onto schools; lead to large class sizes or unqualified teachers in some schools because they find it harder to attract and retain teachers; and establish the pre-conditions for the full deregulation agenda as in Victoria”.

Devolving school management to principals will jeopardise the development of curriculum for students in regional, remote and otherwise disadvantaged schools which find it difficult to attract and retain teachers. Teachers in rural areas, such as Moruya High School, continue to take industrial action against the government’s refusal to negotiate.

As the NSWTF south-east organiser Kyiah Angel said, “Teachers know that the changes, in effect from this term, will have a negative impact on some schools’ ability to attract and retain quality teachers. They will also have a negative impact on schools that are in favourable areas like Moruya, as principals’ workloads in these schools will increase dramatically, interfering with their capacity to effectively manage their schools.”

The teachers’ campaign of industrial action, lobbying and organising has convinced some MPs to support the federation. Facing pressure from its rural constituents, even the National Party has opposed the NSW government’s staffing changes. Teachers have had no choice but to escalate their campaign. In fact, while welcoming the action this week, many teachers are frustrated at the lack of industrial action until now.

As teachers from the Lakemba public school told the Sky Channel meeting at the Canterbury Leagues Club on April 8, the NSWTF could have been stronger from the beginning given the seriousness of the attack on teachers' rights. They said a 48-hour strike should have been waged in the first term of 2008.

By maintaining the transfer system of staffing public schools, we are rejecting the notion that chronically under-funded schools must compete against each other for the so-called “best teachers” or the “right teachers for the school”. The neo-liberal “user pays” concept of education and the idea that public schools must compete in an “education marketplace” must be rejected.

The underlying issue here, of course, is the inequitable education funding from federal and state governments that prioritises the private sector by allocating obscene amounts of public funds to private schools. We do need a sustained industrial campaign to defeat the government’s disastrous staffing changes. But to succeed, it must be supported by teachers, parents and students as well as all supporters of public education. The rally on May 22 starts at 11am at Farrer Place in central Sydney.

For rural and regional protest events visit .

[Noreen Navin is a state councillor of the NSW Teachers Federation and vice president of Canterbury-Bankstown Teachers Association. She is also a member of the Socialist Alliance.]

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