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.

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