An inquiry has found that poor infrastructure and school safety are linked to poor teaching quality and difficulties retaining staff.
That’s only one of many concerning findings of a report from a Legislative Assembly committee which looked into recommendations made by an earlier Auditor-General’s report into teaching quality in public schools.
The investigation found some principals were told to reduce reports of occupational violence and school leaders had also been refused funding for workplace safety issues.
The union’s submission to the inquiry said, in some cases, teachers were told not to report incidents by their direct managers. The union described workplace health and safety and occupational violence as “critical issues”.
Other unsafe practices included requiring staff to continue engagement with abusive parents and returning students to class after they have physically assaulted a staff member without consulting them.
The committee said it appeared that many work safety issues are due to – or at least exacerbated by – failures to implement, police and evaluate work health and safety policies in public schools and to a lack of investment in occupational safety.
Ultimately, the committee recommended more resources should be invested in workplace health and safety at schools, and the Directorate boost the number of allied health and social workers in schools.
The latter would mean teachers could focus entirely on their teaching responsibilities.
The report comes just days after the delivery of the 2022-23 ACT Budget which included a million dollars to put together a task force to probe safety at public schools, beginning with a series of reviews of the system.
It also follows the highly publicised saga of the ACT’s work safety regulator stepping in earlier this year and barring Calwell High School Year 7 and 8 students from attending campus after inspectors found issues of bullying and violence were rife, and staff shortages were chronic.
Damning documents released to the Canberra Liberals under Freedom of Information showed violence at the school was so frequent and extensive that the school was partially or fully locked down 10 times in one term.
School leaders tried to engage external support to manage behavioural issues at the school, but emails between them and the Education Directorate show there were concerns about this.
A special review of the school found it was managing high staff turnover and low levels of experience which the panel concluded had led to a loss of strategic focus.
It also found there was too much focus on managing behaviour and too much low-level negative student behaviour impacting teaching and learning.
It was later revealed WorkSafe ACT attended five public schools in Term One.
In line with the watchdog’s usual operations, it was unable to comment on whether any of these school visits had led to ongoing investigations, whether notices of any kind were issued, or even if it had been called in specifically or not.
More recently, parts of Dickson College were issued with prohibition notices due to infrastructure issues.
Education Minister Yvette Berry has repeatedly argued that ACT public schools are “for the most part” safe and violence is rare.
But the teachers’ union noted that 1600 incidences of violence had been reported across public schools in the first three months of this year and violence was more widespread than Ms Berry was willing to admit.
Earlier this year, the government did heed calls from the union and the Opposition to create a task force to find out how many teachers are needed in the ACT. This follows an earlier task force being established in 2021 to address teacher shortages.
Further recommendations from the committee said school leaders needed more guidance on formal performance management so that underperformance could be addressed before a teacher was moved to another school.
It said there should be a more even distribution of experienced teachers across the system and the government should facilitate professional learning communities across school networks and within individual schools.