Public school teachers across the Northern Territory will strike this coming Tuesday in opposition to cuts by the Giles CLP government, estimated by the Labor opposition at $47 million next year. The Australian Education Union (AEU) has called a 24-hour strike after 92 per cent of members voted in favour of the union taking industrial action to force a change in policy.
The main thrust of the campaign is to reverse planned staffing cuts. Earlier this year the government decided to decrease staff-student ratios in secondary schools, leading to dozens of teaching positions being lost, and limiting student elective options in senior years.
More recently it was announced that a further 71 support positions such as ESL specialists, school counsellors and IT staff would go. These numbers might sound small but bearing in mind that the teaching workforce in the NT is only about 3000, proportionately they are very large. In typical Orwellian fashion, the government sold this change as “reducing bureaucracy”, as though the staff in question were lazy paper shufflers, rather than acknowledging the vital role support and specialist positions play in making effective classroom teaching possible.
Of greater significance for remote Indigenous schools is changes in the way staff are allocated based on student attendance rather than enrolments. Schools with low attendance will be punished, even though it is precisely the low attendance that means remote schools need more support to get students to school and engage them in learning. An additional concern is a review underway into Indigenous education, which is likely to recommend the closure of all remote Indigenous secondary schools, with students to be sent to boarding school.
The government has attempted to play down the size of the cuts, saying only 35 positions will be lost due to changes in staffing ratios, plus the 71 support positions. This contradicts education minister Peter Chandler’s earlier admission that more than 180 jobs would go.
The exact number is difficult to determine because the government is being so slippery. However, an audit carried out by teachers in the Arnhem region has found at least 50 teacher and support positions will go. Extrapolating to other remote regions, this means hundreds of positions gone, including many Indigenous assistant teachers – one of the few stable sources of employment for Aboriginal people in remote communities.
Treasurer Dave Tollner told East Arnhem community paper the Arafura Times that union fears about hundreds of job losses were “wild speculation”. He went on: “What is not wild speculation is that we have the worst educational outcomes in the nation, probably in the developed world. It’s not about teachers; it’s about people not attending school. We’ve got to get the numbers on schools up; we’ve got to get people turning up to school, and we’ve got to get parents involved to make sure their kids do turn up to school.”
Just how does Tollner expect schools to improve the current parlous state of affairs with less resources?
Given Tollner’s admission about the terrible state of educational outcomes in the Territory, the proposed cuts are dumbfounding. Data released by COAG (see graphic below) shows that school attendance in the NT, coming off a shockingly low base compared to the rest of the country, has continued to decline since 2007.
Due to the cuts, displacement procedures have already begun, with excess staff shunted from their schools and forced to look for work elsewhere. The knock-on effect has begun, leading to uncertainty among hundreds of permanent but “unattached” staff (including myself), as well as contract teachers, about where they will be teaching next year, if at all. Among teachers I have spoken with there is anger, but also fear about the future and demoralisation.
To improve educational outcomes in the Territory, what is needed first and foremost is stability and certainty. Instead what we are getting is chaos and insecurity. These cuts exacerbate the already chronic problem of high teacher turnover in remote regions.
A potential bright spot for NT education is the Gonski reforms. Over the past several years federal funding has flowed from national partnerships such as Closing the Gap to address disadvantage. Gonski would roll these agreements into ongoing guaranteed funding based on a new resource allocation model. Due to its high proportion of disadvantaged and Indigenous students, the NT stands to gain more per capita than any other jurisdiction.
A recent federal AEU statement linked the COAG data cited above to the importance of implementing the Gonski recommendations in full: “One of the particularly worrying results is that amongst Indigenous students, no improvements in attendance, and few in student performance were reported over the past five years. Gonski would provide six years of funding certainty for schools to deliver consistent support to Indigenous students to help turn these results around.”
However, the Giles government had already announced in June it would not sign up, baulking at having to put up $100 million to match the Commonwealth’s offer of an extra $200 million over the next six years. As AEU president Angelo Gavrielatos put it, the announcement amounted to a “double whammy”: a refusal to sign up for Gonski and an insistence on carrying through with the cuts.
The latest reports are that Peter Chandler is now in negotiations with the new Abbott government, even though it’s highly unlikely any deal will be substantially different to what was offered by the previous Labor government. And Chandler has refused to back away from the planned cuts, which begs the question of how the NT government can meet its end of the Gonski pact.
It is very clear the Giles government is on the defensive over this issue. Several weeks ago, more than 500 people rallied outside Parliament in Darwin, one of the biggest protests Darwin has seen. The issue is dominating the news cycle in the NT, adding to the pressure on an already weak and divided government, which knifed chief minister Terry Mills last March, less than a year after being elected. Recent federal election voting trends indicate that were an election held now, it could lose many seats, including the four predominantly Indigenous bush seats that went to the CLP last year. The strike this Tuesday will add to that pressure, and will be followed up with regional actions and other forms of protest.
The overarching justification the Giles government has provided for the cuts is the need to balance the budget. This ignores the investment dimension of education, and the central role of education in preparing young people for the challenges of life and ensuring they are able to contribute effectively in the future. By not investing adequately now, we will pay a very heavy price later.
This post is written in my capacity as elected AEU rep for my school, and also as the vice-president of the Arnhem Regional Council of the AEU.
More information and action
- Visit the Students Left Behind Facebook page
- Sign the petition opposing the education cuts
- Read more in the AEU’s Territory Educator strike bulletin [PDF]