On Tuesday morning, ACT teachers will stop work from 8.30 to 11.30am and rally outside the legislative assembly to demand better pay and conditions. While this reflects fierce disagreement between teachers and the Government, the one thing everybody can agree on is that the disruption of normal classes is highly regrettable. Canberrans, especially parents of school-aged children, will no doubt be wanting to know how it has come to this.
The centrepiece of the teachers’ claim is pay parity with their NSW colleagues. Currently, classroom teachers at the top of the pay scale earn $6000 a year less than their counterparts in NSW while deputy principals earn $15,000 a year less. Relief teachers earn $35 a day less in Canberra than they do across the border. No matter what level a teacher is at in the ACT, they earn significantly less than they would in the equivalent position in NSW.
Poor teacher pay is undermining the quality of education provided to ACT children. Each year, fewer and fewer applicants are seeking to join the teaching profession in Canberra. Schools can’t find relief teachers when staff are absent. There is no counsellor provision at over 20 Canberra schools. Those counsellors that are in the system work across multiple sites and are stretched between a massive number of students. There is 1 counsellor for every 918 students, far in excess of the recommended ratio. As Glenn Fowler from the Australian Education Union (AEU) told ABC Radio recently: “There’s been an effort to recruit them from all over the world, it has failed… There needs to be an attractive proposition for people to come into that and not go into private practice or other government agencies.”
The last time a pay agreement was negotiated, back in 2009, it was the height of the Global Financial Crisis. In the circumstances, teachers acted responsibly and settled for less than they would have liked. In return, there was an informal understanding that this restraint would be recognised in the next pay negotiation. Rather than honouring that understanding this time round, the Government offered annual pay increases that would not even have kept up with forecast inflation. In other words: a cut in real wages.
In the face of this intransigence, over 2000 Canberra teachers stopped work for four hours on September 1 to demand real investment in our public education system and the professionals that are its lifeblood. The Government reconsidered its position and on September 9 made a new offer which included pay parity with NSW for classroom teachers. However, under the offer, executive teachers and deputy principals would still lag thousands of dollars behind their NSW counterparts. Nothing serious has been presented to address the chronic shortage of counsellors in our system. Relief teacher pay would still be more than $20 a day less in Canberra than in Queanbeyan.
To fund pay parity with NSW for classroom teachers in 2011, the Government is now demanding teachers accept annual increases of just 2.5% in 2012 and 2013 . These would not keep up with growth in the cost of living and do not equate to increases enjoyed by other public sector workers.
Given that the September 9 offer, though unsatisfactory, was a move in the right direction, teachers cancelled planned rolling stoppages and sought, in good faith, to negotiate a deal with the employer. Additionally, teachers have tried to influence the Government with bans that have a less direct effect on students and their parents, like refusing to use personal cash or vehicles for work purposes. Unfortunately, the Government continues to refuse to commit to the serious investment our schools need and our students deserve.
As well as falling short in this fundamental respect, the Government is failing to win public support for its position. A majority of respondents in a Canberra Times online poll support the strike action. An even greater majority support the principle of pay parity. As P&C Council president, Jane Tullis, has said: “step up Mr Barr and let’s see you reward teachers for the high standard of service they are providing.”
Tom Greenwell is a Canberra teacher and a member of the Australian Education Union. The views expressed here are his own.