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Issue #1558      1 August 2012

NSW Teachers defending public education

Over 50,000 NSW teachers took strike action on July 27. They committed to an extended campaign to defeat the O’Farrell Liberal government’s Local Schools, Local Decisions policy for the re-organisation of public education in NSW. Principals, trainee, temporary and permanent teachers attended enormous public meetings on strike day and expressed united and determined opposition to the state government’s plans to rundown public education and undermine teachers’ working conditions under the cover of devolving power to school principals.

The Local Schools, Local Decisions rhetoric is creating the illusion that the proposed changes, passing over to principals the responsibility for 70 percent of their school’s budget, whereas they now have 10 percent, and the power to hire and fire (the state-wide Staffing Unit will become redundant), will get rid of centralism and bureaucracy in the NSW public education sector. Many in the community and in the profession agree on the surface this sounds good but dig deeper, behind the rhetoric and the marketing speak, the intention is to savagely cut spending and reduce government investment in public education by cutting programs and reducing permanent staffing positions.

Behind the double speak

There is clear evidence for this. Firstly the government has flatly refused to sign the Putting Schools First Charter, which was developed by the NSW Teachers’ Federation to seek reassurance from the state government that the proposed “reforms” would not impact on student learning opportunities. The Charter asks for guarantees on class sizes, students’ continued access to specialist programs and specialist teachers and the maintenance of existing levels of permanent teaching and executive staff.

Secondly, on May 30 the state government, without consultation or negotiation, announced a radical restructuring of the Department of Education as part of Local Schools Local Decisions. Severe cuts were announced to every part of the Department supporting schools and students. The Curriculum Directorate has been lost just when the Department is planning to roll-out of the new National Curriculum. There is now only one position to support K-6 English and two positions for Years 7-12 for the whole of NSW, (similar cuts in the other Key Learning Areas)! Altogether 200 positions were cut from head office across a broad range of programs including New Scheme teacher support, ESL, Equity Programs for Disadvantaged Schools, Professional Learning; the list goes on. This was not cutting fat but the amputation of limbs.

Who will take on these now redundant roles? The answer is principals and teachers together with a steadily reduced state education budget. We know this because the education sector will not be excluded from Treasury plans to further cut public sector expenditure which was announced in the June 12 State Budget by the O’Farrell government, (15,000 public servant positions all in all will go). The new funding formula proposed by Local Schools Local Decisions will open the door to further cuts in funding for public education as there are no guarantees forthcoming that education budgets will be maintained in real terms.

The funding con

The present funding formulas for staffing NSW schools are based on student numbers. It is known as the school’s “entitlement”, and is a teacher-student-ratio which is currently legislated. The Department is responsible for a state-wide staffing system which ensures all schools have trained teachers and teachers can transfer between schools. Temporary teachers can apply for advertised permanent positions and principals can appoint new staff by advertising or by taking teachers from the top of the staffing list.

Devolution of responsibility for school budgets will give principals a “budget” or pot of money from which principals will pay most of the bills. The size of the pot can be varied by Treasury at any time. There has been little consultation and not many details have been provided to principals about the changes.

The changes are being slowly introduced and it is becoming clear that the intention is that principals will become the scapegoats for the running down of public education in NSW. They will be placed in the invidious position of having to do more with less and having to make the hard decisions about what to cut and who to employ at the local level. They will have to make the stark choices such as those between the less expensive inexperienced teacher or the relatively more expensive experienced one, the librarian or the ESL support program, maintaining class sizes or employing less teachers.

Local Schools Local Decisions, will mean state-wide staffing will disappear and hard to staff rural and disadvantaged schools will be left struggling to find qualified staff. Would this be tolerated in wealthy urban areas? What we are witnessing is a flagrant attack on teachers’ job security (won through hard struggle) and the right of all NSW children to a properly qualified teacher. Temporary staff will become more commonplace as permanent positions will be lost through attrition and there will be an increasing requirement for a “flexible” workforce which can” fit in” with shrinking and uncertain budgets.

Casualisation of the teaching profession will make teachers more vulnerable employees subject to the unrelenting pressure to increase “productivity” i.e. do more with less and give up hard won rights for fear of losing your temporary job. The Teachers’ Federation will find it more difficult to represent its members and to protect conditions as well as defend public education. The teaching and learning environment will be greatly impacted and it is more than likely even more parents will look for options in the private sector. Double win for Mr O’Farrell and the NSW Treasury.

Undermining the Gonski Review

The long awaited federal government Gonski Review into education funding in Australia was released earlier this year. The review highlighted the present dysfunctional and inequitable school funding arrangements which favour the private system and further disadvantage the disadvantaged i.e. public schools and students. Gonski advocated for a massive injection of funds into public education in Australia to redress years of neglect and underinvestment by successive governments.

O’Farrell’s Local Schools Local Decisions thumbs its nose at the findings of the School Funding Review Panel. We could ask, is O’Farrell taking advantage of the likely extra funding that will flow from the federal government as a result of the Gonski Review? Will this extra federal funding (if and when it is forthcoming and that cannot be taken for granted), be used to prop up public education in NSW to paper over the gaps which are being deliberately made by O’Farrell and NSW Treasury? If so this is still a no win for NSW public education students who will miss out on what was meant to be funding to redress the existing disadvantage and neglect. The cynicism and deceit seems to have no end.

Less centralism should not equal less money

Principals and teachers want less bureaucracy and centralism to improve student learning outcomes using local knowledge and local needs, not this cynical cost-cutting, blame shifting exercise. Unfettered by any meaningful opposition Mr O’Farrell is confident his conservative agenda can be railroaded through. He may need to think again as a result of the recent teachers’ strike – teachers voted to fight these regressive changes with a an ongoing campaign and into the long-term if necessary.

Defending public education and teachers’ working conditions is about the kind of society we want and stopping the further push to a two class education system we have been witnessing for a number of years. The US and Britain have already gone down this path and their negative experience bears witness. We all need to speak out and act now to support the teachers and the NSW Teachers’ Federation. They are standing strong despite vilification by media and politicians who are trying to represent this struggle as one which is about teachers’ narrow minded rejection of change and the union wanting to hold onto its power.

Support the teachers and their union and reject the O’Farrell government’s class agenda. It’s about equity, ensuring we have a high quality public education system which is potentially available to all and meets its legal and moral obligation to be a universal provider of education in this country.

You can go to the NSW Teachers Federation website to sign petition and get involved in the public campaign.

This article was contributed by a teacher.  

Next article – Human Rights Commission says dump mandatory detention

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