Working conditions for 77,000 staff in Victorian government schools, and the learning conditions of our 650,000 students, are being renegotiated. As we pass the 30 April expiry date of the current Victorian Government Schools Agreement, it’s important that school staff are familiar with the main claims of the Australian Education Union. We need to discuss what sort of action will be needed to win these claims, and be confident to argue that there is plenty of money available to pay school staff.
Here are some of the most important claims from the union:
Reduction in teaching hours to 18 per week, from 20 in high schools, and 22.5 in primary. For teachers, workload is the issue. Surveys show that Victorian teachers work an average of 53 hours per week during term. This means that many teachers are doing an extra two full days of work, every week, on top of a standard working week.
Australian teacher workloads are extreme by international standards. Apart from the issue of unpaid labour, this overwork grinds many teachers down and has negative effects on health and wellbeing. Extreme overwork limits the time teachers can spend with students, and makes it harder to work effectively with other educators and school staff.
The current agreement, negotiated between the union and Victoria’s Labor government four years ago, introduced four “professional practice days” per year. These extra days are much needed, but they are no substitute for reducing the weekly teaching load. For teachers’ wellbeing and students’ education, it’s crucial that we don’t retreat on the claim to reduce teaching hours to a maximum of 18 per week.
There are also claims to include all meetings in workload planning, to limit meetings to one per day, and to have no meetings in the first and last weeks of term and in the weeks of parent-teacher interviews. Many schools abide by these common-sense measures already, but having them written into the agreement would make this standard in every school.
Significant pay increases for education support staff. Education support staff have always been grossly underpaid. The union log of claims includes lifting all support staff from the current range one classification to range two, which would increase starting salaries to $57,514, equivalent to a pay rise of about $10,000. It also includes a paid 45-minute lunch break and a 15-minute morning tea break for all support staff (the current agreement has only a half hour unpaid lunch break), and 10-minute paid break for every hour spent assisting a student. (Currently, support staff have no dedicated time to write up the reports they are required to submit.)
If all these demands were met, support staff would still be poorly paid, earning well below the median wage and in many cases stuck working part-time hours. The claims should therefore be considered a minimum to be achieved, not an ambit claim to be negotiated away.
A pay rise, not wage stagnation. Essential workers, including teachers, had promised pay rises snatched away last year by the Liberal government in NSW and the Labor government in Queensland. We shouldn’t accept this. It would be a slap in the face to all of us who worked hard to educate kids in incredibly difficult conditions through the pandemic. The last renegotiation in Victoria included a headline wage rise of 3.25 percent per year and also moved many teachers up an increment. But because teachers on the top increment don’t benefit from this arrangement, a larger flat increase or healthy percentage increase is a preferable approach.
Mandatory funding for schools to pay staff as per the agreement. This claim is unglamorous but crucial. Many school staff are told that there simply isn’t money in a school budget to pay for entitlements—even when the entitlements are written in black and white in the (supposedly legally binding) agreement.
School-level budget constraints are a product of policies implemented in the 1990s by the right-wing Liberal government of Jeff Kennett, including the devolving of responsibility for hiring and budgets to school councils and principals. This policy has not been reversed by Labor in the decades since. It puts enormous pressure on principals to get rid of experienced teachers on higher pay grades to allow the hiring of less experienced—and less expensive—teachers.
The union’s log of claims doesn’t dismantle this model, but includes a clause that would reduce its disastrous effects by giving an enforceable entitlement to full funding:
7 (3) Employment conditions and entitlements provided for in this agreement will be fully funded by the State of Victoria at the actual cost of provision, including the allocation of funds to each school based on the actual cost of employing the staff engaged at each location.
Union rights and consultation. Even if we win improvements in the agreement, we’ll still need strong local enforcement. So the claims to do with union rights and consultation are important. They include: that union and staff representatives comprise a majority of school consultative committees; that each representative on these committees is released from 40 hours of work time per year; that union representatives are collectively released from 145 hours of work time per year; and that health and safety representatives have full access to Edusafe reports. There are plenty of other worthwhile clauses in the union’s log of claims, including:
- Capping class sizes at twenty at all year levels, with a maximum of eighteen in tech classes and ten in specialist schools (compared to the current maximum of 25 in years 7-12, and “an average” of 21 in P-2, and 26 in years 3-6).
- A new model of ongoing employment for casual relief teachers, employed in ongoing roles in sufficient numbers on a regional basis to enable vacancies to be filled.
- Employers to take “all reasonable efforts” to place staff declared in excess in suitable alternative positions. This would wind back some of the damage done to the concept of permanent employment in the 2013 agreement.
- Infectious disease pay—which would provide for full payment for staff required to self-isolate, without running down sick leave.
- 16.5 percent superannuation.
- Automatic progression.
- Acknowledgment that “employees are not expected to read or respond to emails or other work related correspondence outside working hours”.
The money is there. In last October’s Victorian state budget, the total wages bill for the Department of Education was projected to be $8.67 billion. That’s a lot of money—until you look at the sort of cash that the richest in our society have piled up in the past year.
An Oxfam report released in January this year found that 31 Australian billionaires have increased their fortunes by nearly $85 billion since pandemic began. Maybe read that again. $85 billion piled up in extra wealth for the already obscenely wealthy.
Meanwhile, teachers work ridiculous hours under enormous pressure and support staff scrape by on meagre wages, all of which cuts into the quality of students’ education. And our governments cut taxes on business and cry poor.
There is plenty of wealth available for better teaching, working and learning conditions. But it will require a hell of a fight to get it flowing to government schools. Strikes and protests have always been essential to challenging the priorities of the rich and powerful. We have to prepare for these—starting with the widest possible publicity about our claims, why they matter and how we’re going to organise to win them.
Our working conditions are student’s learning conditions. It’s up to us to use the current bargaining round to win dramatic improvements, for ourselves, our fellow school staff and our students.