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Rad Ed Review: Pre K to Postgrad: Why are educators striking?

Representatives from teachers unions share insightful thoughts on the challenges facing teachers in Australia today, highlighting the common issue of increasingly unmanageable workloads, the need for better pay, and increased social recognition of the value of teachers.

On Tuesday afternoon, four speakers at the latest Rad Ed Week event painted a grim picture of the state of the teaching profession in Australia, yet were hopeful for reform.  The speakers were Mark Goudkamp from the NSW Teachers Federation, Sarah Gardner from the United Workers Union, Anne Smith from the Independent Education Union and Markela Panegyres, a member of the National Tertiary Education Union. The talk itself was organised by the SRC, alongside the Education and Social Work Society and the Education Action Group.

One of the key challenges highlighted by speakers was the unmanageable workload. Teachers in both public and independent schools, which Smith’s union represents, face this problem. Anne was most vocal in explaining that teachers are increasingly spending more time doing administrative work and helping to look after the welfare of students, all adding to teachers’ unpaid workload outside of the classroom.  For example, Smith knows of one teacher who spent one week attending to student welfare issues resulting in all other administrative work having to be done in the evenings. These financial and emotional stressors contribute to many teachers leaving the job within the first five years. So how bad is the attrition? A NSW Parliament survey of 8600 teachers found that 60 per cent plan to leave the profession in the next few years, with many of them citing workload issues, pay, and the diminished status of teaching as reasons. Goudkamp reinforced the reality of the teacher shortage in rural areas by saying that classes were being amalgamated and teachers were teaching classes of 60 students.

Goudkamp and Smith highlighted that state governments in Australia are worried about teacher supply going forward. Goudkamp noted that the NSW government was considering recruiting teachers from overseas and other states to address the teacher shortage. But one issue with that, as Smith points out, is that NESA places onerous requirements for teachers qualified overseas to be accredited as a teacher in Australia. For example, they have to apply for approval to teach with the NSW Department of Education and may need to pass an English language proficiency test. Smith cited a teacher from Ireland who was asked to do an extra year of tertiary education to requalify as a teacher in NSW.  Her union supports teacher accreditation but believes it shouldn’t be an onerous process. Both Goudkamp and Smith believed that teachers from overseas could help alleviate the teacher shortage, but the root causes of the teacher shortage, such as the need for better pay and more manageable workloads, need to be addressed. When teachers from Catholic schools and support staff  went on strike earlier this year in June, the IEU demanded an increase in pay of around 10-15 per cent over two years. At a strike rally, NSW Teachers Federation President Angelos Gavrielatos called for the NSW public sector wage cap to be scrapped, which is currently at 3 per cent per annum. Mark also voiced support for the scrapping of the public sector wage cap. 

When it comes to pay, early childhood educators have it particularly bad. Sarah Gardner, whose union represents early childhood educators and a variety of other workers, explained that 80 per cent of early childhood educators are on a minimum wage award and many early childhood centres are experiencing staff shortages. Gardner blames the problem on a profit-driven culture of private early childhood education service providers, and believes that education should be non-profit. The exorbitant salaries of early childhood service provider CEOs are indicative of the profit-driven culture. For example, the CEO of G8 Education Gary Caroll was paid a salary of around $831,000 in the year leading up to December 2020. Despite the fact that 57 per cent of early childhood educators are paid minimum award rates, Gardner says that one argument that is used against increased pay for early childhood educators is that it risks funding being taken away from other educational institutions, which just shows how little early childhood education is valued within the education sector. 

In the tertiary education sector, Panegyres thinks that profit-driven culture is also a problem. It has led to an increased casualisation of staff at universities, who have less legal rights than other employees. Increasing proportions of university staff are casual employees, and Panegyres estimates that around 54 per cent of staff at USyd are casuals. The casualisation of staff at universities is borne out by the evidence. The NTEU estimated that around 45 per cent of university employees are casuals, while 21% of university employees are on limited term contracts. Another problem Panegyres pointed out is that wage theft has not really been acknowledged as a problem by universities. 21 of Australia’s 40 public universities were found by a Senate committee inquiry to have underpaid full time and casual employees. In the long term, the NTEU would like an end to casualisation. But in the shorter term, the NTEU demands 25 per cent of research and education roles to be filled by current casual employees and fixed-term staff, and maintenance of the 40:20:20 ratio for teaching, research and administrative work. 

Despite all these issues, some educators find it difficult to enforce moral and legal rights to strike. As Smith explained, some independent school teachers are covered by multi-enterprise agreements (MEAs), which incorporate multiple employers and under the Fair Work Act, workers under an MEA are not permitted to strike in protest against MEA terms. The IEU would like that to change. 

Both Smith and Gardner spoke about social expectations around educators considering the needs of children before teachers decide to strike, particularly if students are going through exams such as the HSC. But as Anne and Mark point out, students’ learning conditions are affected by teachers’ working conditions, and students suffer when teachers are overstretched and overworked. 

During the talk, it was clear that the speakers all passed on the same message: we need to value educators more, and deprioritise the profit driven culture of education service providers. Education is valuable and rewarding work in its own right, but it needs investment. And this is a warning that politicians ignore at their own peril, and the peril of children, parents and young adults.