Public Education Under Attack

Thursday June 29, 2006

The dispute between the ACT Government and teachers is getting worse!

The 6 June Budget, crafted by Chief Minister and Treasurer Jon Stanhope, took the knife to jobs and services across the ACT public sector. The public school system was not immune from the knife as the ACT Government targeted cuts of at least 120 teaching positions in secondary schools, 15 teaching positions in primary schools and 10 itinerant staff across the system. It also flagged the loss of 90 support staff in the education bureaucracy. The announcement of 39 potential preschool and school closures has sent many school communities into a fury, and the ad hoc and destructive nature of many of the proposals has been scrutinised in the media and at public meetings.

At all of the public meetings Minister Barr has claimed that the 2020 program will lift the quality of provision in our schools and therefore increase enrolments. On every occasion he has been challenged – and he has failed to provide a suitable explanation as to how this might occur. He has also failed to explain how cutting teacher numbers can improve public education!

The Government’s focus on the need to consolidate schools has been supported by the AEU in the past on the basis that any changes are managed through a transparent, consultative program, and are based on educational needs. The current process is not transparent, and both the arguments about educational needs and the genuine nature of the consultation process are open to question. The destabilisation of the school system generated by the current closure and amalgamation process is being made worse by the Government’s insistence on staff cuts in schools and the Department’s central office. The impact of this disruption on student numbers in the public system is expected to be severe in a system that already has less than 60% of total student numbers.

The AEU has formally rejected the Towards 2020 program and called for a moratorium on closures until 2008 to allow a transparent public enquiry to take place into our education services.

Apart from issues arising through Towards 2020, the teachers’ salary dispute is still unresolved. In return for a salary increase of 4%pa over three years, the teaching workforce is expected to increase teaching contact hours by 2 hours per week in secondary and 15 minutes in primary schools and absorb the loss of the positions. In secondary schools, the loss of 120 teaching positions equates to some 10% of the workforce. In addition to the extra teaching, the workload of teachers – particularly in secondary schools – will increase through additional preparation, assessment, supervision, and other administrative and curriculum duties.

The savings made by the proposed cuts in positions will produce revenue beyond that required to fund the salary increase of 4%pa. This money will be added to savings generated by a reduction in ACT Government superannuation contributions to new entrants from 15.4%pa to 9%pa. This change to superannuation entitlements represents a remuneration cut of some 6.4% for any new employees.

Many ACT private schools currently offer employer superannuation contributions in excess of 9%pa, and will pay higher salaries to their teachers than those offered by the ACT Government from July this year. In this context, the Australian Education Union has highlighted the extreme difficulty that the public school system will face in recruiting when the private sector will be paying higher salaries and superannuation than those available in the public sector. The differential could be as high as 10% in total remuneration.

Apart from the potential damage caused to the system by failure to maintain salary packages comparable to the nearest competitors, the planned cuts to secondary staffing will also damage the system. The outcome of the proposed reduction in teacher numbers is that the ACT will be almost on a par with Tasmania, the worst performing State when it comes to mainstream school retention rates – and the state with the worst secondary staff to student ratio in the country. New Education Minister, Andrew Barr has maintained that the cuts in teaching positions will be managed through natural attrition. This would see no new recruitment of secondary staff for the 2007 school year leading to shortfalls in specific curriculum expertise as experienced teachers retire or resign. Past experience has shown that “natural attrition” rarely results in loss of staff only from areas where there is sufficient (or excess) expertise. The AEU has very real concerns that failure to recruit because jobs are being shed could lead to a lack of qualified teachers in some subject areas.

In its desperation to get its projected deficits in order, the ACT Government has decided that it needs to alienate constituencies that it has traditionally supported targeting education, health and other community services. It has pursued significant revenue increases to deal with the expected deficits for the next three years. These have included increasing fees at the Canberra Institute of Technology by 30% at a time of major skill shortages.

The Chief Minister and his colleagues believe that they need to take this action more than 2 years before the next election in an attempt to shore up their economic credentials. Their actions represent a significant gamble given the degree of ongoing alienation and disruption to be created in the ACT public sector and particularly in education.

One irony in the current dispute with the AEU and that developing with other public sector unions is the use of the new Industrial Relations environment by the ACT Government. Formerly outspoken public critics of the Federal laws, the Government has refused to negotiate on the conditions it is demanding be surrendered, namely reductions to superannuation, low level wage increases, staff cuts and increases in workload. Avenues for unions to negotiate on behalf of their members have been severely limited by the WorkChoices legislation. Options to defend existing job numbers and conditions are restricted to direct industrial action that takes weeks to put in place. No capacity exists for the Australian Industrial Relations Commission to force the Government to negotiate or for the AIRC determine a settlement.

The ACT Government’s failure to settle the salary dispute and their imposition of job cuts to teaching position numbers through the ACT Budget has led to the current industrial campaign by AEU members. Using the provisions of the Federal Government’s so-called Work Choices legislation, the AEU is currently conducting a second postal ballot of members to seek legal coverage for more industrial action in support of a fair outcome to the teachers’ salaries dispute. The AEU has gone down this path after deciding that the Stanhope Government has failed to honour its commitment to the Union to conduct genuine negotiations – a commitment made in the Australian Industrial Relations Commission. The AEU’s Council has now rejected three offers from Government, with the third offer from the Government being rejected because of the required job losses and cuts to conditions required to deliver the 4%pa increase. Such an increase is already being paid without trade-offs for Government school teachers interstate and in ACT Catholic schools.

If teachers support the next ballot for industrial action as expected, the first of what could be a continuing series of work stoppages could occur towards the middle of Term 3.

Clive Haggar
Secretary
Australian Education Union (ACT Branch)
29 June 2006

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