Public school teachers and principals in New South Wales are striking tomorrow over the government’s failure to address spiraling shortages, stagnant wages, and unsustainable workloads.
All options have been exhausted in negotiations with the NSW Department of Education. We have no other choice but to strike. The Department should be grateful that we’re doing a one-day strike in Week 10 of Term 4 and not working to rule instead. It is no secret to staff, students and parents connected to public schools that the state education system is built on the unpaid overtime of teachers. The Department’s decade-long austerity project has driven teachers out of the profession en masse, acted as a deterrent to ward off new talent and created a teacher shortage. Not only has its modus operandi of making teachers work more for less wages (or no wages at all) degraded the working conditions of teachers—it has also overseen a decline in positive education outcomes for students. The Department is yet to acknowledge the direct link between the working conditions of teachers and learning outcomes for students. And this is despite spending millions of taxpayer dollars on consultancy firms like Deloitte and PriceWaterhouseCoopers to solve its recruitment poverty.
The 24-hour industrial action comes as the state’s supply of available teachers reaches a critical low. The demand for teachers overwhelmingly outstrips the supply. As a teacher of ten years, I am not at all surprised to see a decade of austerity measures lead to this moment.
I currently work as a casual teacher in Western Sydney. I chose precarity over the slightly more stable full-time temporary contracts out there because those contracts are exploitive. As a full-time teacher, I was getting paid for thirty-seven hours of work a week but doing at least sixty, often more. In the school holidays, my hours wouldn’t change as they were spent planning but mostly double- and triple-entering the same arbitrary data across different clunky interfaces the Department is forever throwing up from its bottomless pit of impractical ideas it pays the private sector millions of taxpayer dollars to invent. That, and buying resources for my class on advice from a twelve-week, Department-sanctioned ‘professional development’ course telling us to look out for good deals on desks at Ikea during the holidays and then spend our wages on said desks. Bonus points if you can get a whiteboard desk. Same with rich texts, such as novels and picture books. This taught me that the public education system is built on unpaid overtime as well as the emotional blackmail of teachers who have their goodwill mined and exploited.
The Department doesn’t even know how hard we work. ‘We do not have specific data on the hours per week worked by a teacher at this time,’ said Secretary Georgina Harrison in response to a request made by NSW Teachers Federation on 27 August 2021. According to the Department’s own internal reporting, NSW is on track to ‘run out of teachers in the next five years.’
Despite there being 1800 vacant permanent positions going across the state, next to nobody wants the job. Compounding this is the tens of thousands of temporary contracts barely retaining a rapidly shrinking workforce. If you’re a primary school teacher, you have more chance of getting covid than permanency. It doesn’t take a million dollars paid to Deloitte interns to work out that people don’t want to go through the rigour of an education degree to find there is no work/life balance on the other side. The large and growing teacher shortage driven by exploitive working conditions is compounded by a perfect storm of increasing student enrolments, an aging workforce and 30 per cent decrease in enrolments for teacher degrees. The Department reported before Covid that a ‘high proportion of temp/casual teachers’ was negatively impacting retention.
Given most of the Department’s teaching workforce are stuck in an unending cycle of insecure contracts and casual gigs, it is extraordinary that the Department’s Deputy Secretary Yvette Cachia would email the whole workforce at the start of the state’s 2021 Covid lockdown to encourage her casual teacher employees to go on welfare payments from Centrelink. A slowly worsening casual shortage existed long before Covid and it beggars belief that, despite all the million-dollar consultancy advice, the Department willfully decided to accelerate it by locking casual teachers out of wages for four months. And where is the money that the Department saved on rorting casuals during Term 3 2021?
I have experienced the dire situation in Sydney schools emerging from lockdown. I can only imagine it is worse regionally and in remote areas. Teachers are losing their planning time because there are no casuals. Every day, classes are being split and collapsed due to this shortage. Earlier this term, I signed up for a casual gig at a school in Sydney’s Inner West where thirty-five students from Years 1, 4, 5 and 6 were jammed into a single classroom due to a lack of available teachers. One casual teacher for thirty-five students from every stage of primary education: so much for the ‘cohorting’ that was supposed to minimise the risk and spread of covid and mitigate school closures.
In a survey I ran in September across various private Facebook groups for casual teachers in NSW, 84 per cent of the more than 200 respondents reported receiving no work or significantly less work than was usual for Term 3. Despite Department directives encouraging schools to continue spending their casual budgets as per normal, this did not happen. And despite it being in the best interests of the Department and students to support the financial wellbeing of casual teachers across NSW during Covid restrictions in order to prevent the shortage from deteriorating further, the Department chose to kick them onto welfare instead. It is no wonder schools are struggling to find casual staff. This contemptuous disposal of casual teachers during the pandemic is a slur against the whole workforce.
In response to the claim that the Department did not follow its own advice to spend casual teacher wages as per normal during Term 3’s lockdown, a spokesperson for the NSW Department of Education explained the Department had outsourced its responsibilities to individual schools:
School spend on casual staff is at the discretion of individual schools and therefore this information is not centrally held. Throughout the Learning from Home period, principals were asked to maintain existing bookings for casual staff.
This is a disturbing response—as a casual teacher, I can confirm that it is the Department who pays my wages, not individual schools. In fact, the Department has a dedicated payroll department whose sole responsibility is the processing, recording, and payment of wages to all teachers, issuing payslips and income statements, calculating tax, paying into super accounts, and so on.
Either the Department truly does not know how much it spends on casual teacher wages, or is not too keen to quantify the extent to which it used the lockdown as an opportunity to withhold wages from casual teachers during a staffing shortage. Or perhaps both. To date, the Department has made no comment on what it plans to do with its unspent casual teacher wages from Term 3 2021. These savings for the Department amount to lost wages for casual teachers.
The staffing crisis comes only as a surprise to the non-teacher bureaucrats running the show on half a million taxpayer dollars a year. Ultimately, it will be the students who lose out when the vapid schemes about the ‘joy’ of teaching fail to plug the gaps in the workforce. Marketing won’t pry teacher wages from the bog of stagnation, nor will it reduce workloads and provide job security to the majority of teachers. As outlined in the roadmap in the Gallop Inquiry, there isn’t a shortage of teachers because there is a shortage of supply strategies and schemes. There is a teacher shortage because the profession has been driven into the ground by poor governance resulting in the long-term stagnation of wages, exploitive temp contracts, over-casualisation, and an overblown workload pockmarked by a litany of low-value tasks that have decimated the work/life balance of all teachers.
Gaining higher wages through industrial action would see the abolition of the government’s 2.5 per cent wages cap, which would be a huge benefit to all public sector workers whose pay and conditions are presently trapped under the cap. Currently, classroom teachers are paid for thirty-seven hours of work a week but in reality teachers work fifty-eighty hours a week, and sometimes more if doing overnight duties such as a school camp. Every hour outside of the thirty-seven is unpaid overtime. And despite prevailing nonsense out there, our hours do not decrease during the school holidays. Primary school teachers get two hours of planning time during Award hours each week and high school teachers get five hours planning time a week during Award hours. Reduced workload would mean we can focus on the core business of teaching.
The NSW government set the conditions for the slowly spreading recruitment poverty in its own public education system back in 2011, when it became the first state or territory to impose an austerity measure in the form of a wages cap of 2.5 per cent on all public sector employees (including teachers and nurses). This remarkable act of economic vandalism has overseen a year-on-year decline in teacher wages in relation to inflation and the cost of living. Teachers are presently earning the lowest wages they have since the days of poverty wages before the teacher strikes of the 1980s. In the 1990s, the average teacher’s wage could afford a house. In 2021, teachers can barely afford to rent a room in a dilapidated sharehouse.
However, it would be out of character for the same government who has spent ten years driving public education into the ground to do the glaringly obvious and scrap the wages cap and raise wages from the bog of stagnation. Instead, the Department has taken the NSW Teachers Federation to court at any opportunity to stop teachers from taking industrial action. According to the United Nations, striking is a fundamental human right. But the NSW Department of Education doesn’t care for the human rights of its workers. The Department cares more about the sport of litigation. Its attempts to strangulate industrial action taken by teachers against an openly hostile employer is a slur not only against teachers, students and parents, but an affront to democracy.
The struggle has been developing since the 2011 imposition of the wages cap. Again, it does not take an overpaid bureaucrat to work out there is a direct link between ten years of declining learning outcomes and a decade of austerity measures. The wages cap has locked in a material decline in teacher wages. The Liberal government of 2011 also weakened the powers of the Industrial Relations Commission (IRC) to gain positive outcomes for workers, effectively beefing up powers for austere public sector employers.
I’m a primary school teacher now and when I was a primary student, growing up in the working-class suburb of San Remo on the north Central Coast, I attended the local public school. Back then, San Remo was considered one of the most disadvantaged places in the country and it still is. I remember my teachers going on strike in the ‘90s for better working and learning conditions—now it’s my time to do the same. You could not pay me enough to trample on the work of the teacher activists who came before me, and who endlessly advocated for a better public education system for working class kids. This system has been stuck on a timeline of decline for twenty years, with successive governments ensuring poor outcomes in public schools through austerity measures in order to justify the existence of independent schools.
I can’t even find a pencil for my students to write with, yet the Department is able to summon the time and money to take legal action against its unionised teachers. The Department and state government need to spend less taxpayer money on useless announceables, endless PR, HR and litigation campaigns against its own teachers and more on wages, reducing workload, incentivising teacher retention and attracting new teachers, replacing long term casualisation with permanency and way more quality resources for students. PR and litigation will never remedy material decline in public education. Working conditions for teachers are the learning conditions for students. Students cannot afford any more losses.
There is overlap in the struggles of public school teachers and public transport workers in NSW. Rail, bus and tram workers in Sydney are also striking the same day as teachers. Unsurprisingly, these workers share the same wages cap and the same hostile employer who refuses to hear our voices: the NSW Government.
Tuesday 7 December is set to be a day of inter-union action against an LNP government that doesn’t care about its workers and doesn’t care about our kids. Public-school students deserve a world class teacher every day of the school year and that will never materialise under a system built on the unpaid overtime of teachers. The union has sought an extra two hours of planning a week for all teachers. Planning time for primary teachers hasn’t changed since the 1980s while high school planning time hasn’t changed since the 1950s. Despite eighteen months of negotiations with the NSW Teachers Federation, the Department refuses to bring working conditions into the twenty-first century. The government has chosen, instead, to invest in a brochure-approach to a crisis. The Department is about to learn the hard way that a glossy marketing campaign won’t convince mid-career professionals to take a pay cut in exchange for endless audit anxiety and a punishing workload.
We are striking because if the government doesn’t care about teachers, it sure as hell doesn’t care about kids. Solidarity forever, austerity never again.
Image by Feliphe Schiarolli