Queensland teachers at breaking point over staff shortages

Inadequate resources, COVID-19, excessive workloads and an eighteen-month pay freeze have all contributed to a perfect storm in Queensland schools. Teacher shortages, high rates of absenteeism and a lack of relief teachers are pushing staff to breaking point. But teachers at Sarina State High School, south of Mackay, recently took a stand, voting to take unprecedented strike action.

In a letter to the school community (published on the school’s Facebook page), QTU members advised that staff would be stopping work on the morning of 17 June “unless issues are addressed by the Department of Education to ensure the health and safety of school staff”. Queensland teachers haven’t taken statewide strike action for over a decade, so this vote by union members at Sarina for unprotected strike action is a welcome development in standing up for safety and working conditions, as well as the learning conditions of students.

Since Queensland borders reopened, teachers have been on the front lines of a mass infection event in which more than a million Queenslanders have contracted COVID-19 in the last six months. During the Omicron wave at the start of the year, there were between 1,000 and 1,500 cases per day in school-aged children. Very little has been done to protect students and staff, with the mask mandate dropped, ventilation audits happening at a glacial pace and the department yet to provide a single air filter to Queensland classrooms.

Teaching has been in crisis for some time, a 2019 analysis by the Queensland College of Teachers finding that one in six Queensland teachers leave the profession within four years, many citing workload pressure and burnout as reasons for leaving.

Regional areas have been even more exposed to the teacher shortage than other areas, as there are few incentives to draw staff there. Teachers are offered a measly $7 a fortnight site allowance and have to commit to a minimum of three years’ service. The transfer system is also broken, with schools in desirable areas tending to fill positions with contract staff, meaning there’s little chance of those in remote areas looking to relocate achieving a desired transfer.

Housing is another issue—the department arbitrarily offers reduced-rent housing for some regional areas and not others. Teachers in Mirani, 30 minutes by car from Mackay, are able to access department housing, but for those working in Sarina, which is the same distance from Mackay, are not.

A survey of the Queensland Secondary Principals’ Association earlier this year found that there are no schools in central Queensland that are fully staffed, and 80 percent of responding schools across the state have teacher vacancies.

The teacher shortage is resulting in a number of different pressures on staff and students. Teachers are missing out on crucial planning and correction time, something that usually helps take the pressure off teachers’ significant workload. Staff with additional responsibilities, like heads of departments and deputies, are also taking classes. Many teachers are having to teach out of their teaching areas, which adds to stress and compromises the quality of students’ education. Classes are often collapsed, which further diminishes the learning opportunities for students as well as adding to the complexity of teachers’ work, and puts students and staff at risk as minimum supervising ratios are abandoned.

The decision to strike by Sarina staff is all the more significant because it would have been unprotected action, as teachers are currently under an agreement and therefore not entitled to take industrial action. In a last-minute decision, though, the strike action was called off under threats of punitive fines against union representatives and the union through the industrial relations commission. Given the challenges faced by staff and students across the state, however, the problems are unlikely to be resolved by a simple visit from department representatives, which has been offered instead.

The teacher shortage is a crucial issue to fight around, and would no doubt win sympathy among the broader public, as it not only exacerbates the appalling workload of teachers, but also diminishes the quality of education.

The current agreement expires in a week, after which teachers will be able to take protected strike action. It’s time to take action and demand urgent health and safety improvements for students and staff.

Read more
Jacky shines a light
Sarah Garnham

You’re just a performing fucking monkey”. A racist barb, and one of many pointed moments in Jacky, a Melbourne Theatre Company production currently playing at the Arts Centre. Jacky is about the politics of performing monkeys. It is about racism and exploitation, hypocrisy and resistance.

Historic US university strike wins
Alexis Vassiley

Academic workers at Rutgers University in New Jersey have achieved a stunning victory with a serious campaign of industrial action, centred on an open-ended strike. Their approach is a model for unionists in Australia.

Right to protest under attack in South Australia
Right to protest under attack in SA
Briana Symonds-Manne

The South Australian government has followed New South Wales and Victoria to undermine democratic rights. A bi-partisan bill has been rushed through parliament’s lower house, which proposes fines up to $50,000 or three months in jail if protesters “intentionally or recklessly obstruct the public place”.

Sydney University enterprise agreement: why I’m voting No
Why I’m voting No to Sydney Uni EA
Alma Torlakovic

NTEU Fightback, a rank-and-file union group of the National Tertiary Education Union at the University of Sydney, is calling on staff to vote No in the upcoming ballot on the proposed enterprise agreement. The campaign was launched at a forum on 25 May, attended by over 50 people. A members’ meeting on 13 June will consider the agreement. This week will probably be the first time that members are provided with a full list of proposed changes to our working conditions.

A farcical US election cycle begins
Ben Hillier

A recent NBC News poll found that 70 percent of US voters don’t want Joe Biden to recontest the presidency next year. Sixty percent feel likewise about Donald Trump. Yet the two men are currently odds-on to face each other in a 2024 re-run of the 2020 presidential election.

Allyship or solidarity?
Kerri Parke

Allyship presents itself as a way that people can show support for the rights of an oppressed group that they themselves are not a part of without “taking the space” of those who are oppressed. Marxists, conversely, argue that solidarity is the key way we can win reforms for, and ultimately liberate, the oppressed. Allyship and solidarity might sound like much the same thing, but there are important differences in these strategies for social change.