Why NT teachers are going on strike

Nhulunbuy Rally

Teachers and community members rally against education cuts.

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.

Fudging figures

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.

COAG School attendance

School attendance paints a bleak picture about the state of education in the NT.

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.

Gonski guarantee

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.

Yalmay bark painting

At a recent rally in Darwin, senior Yolngu educator Yalmay Yunupingu presented the government with a bark painting symbolising the importance of education.

Under pressure

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.

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11 thoughts on “Why NT teachers are going on strike

  1. Thank you for this viewpoint -straight from a remote school teacher. I have 3 questions and of course I humbly ask without expecting absolute answers. Sent from my iPhone so excuse the typos. Cheers.

    1. Why has student attendance rates decreased over the last 5 years? Almost 20% down.

    2. How does keeping the formerly employed workforce, guarantee a solution to raising attendance rates.

    3. It’s not the school responsibility to raise children at home but to educate them in school. How does a school plan to constantly hang carrots, and keep the carrots attractive in order to encourage kids to attend school?

    • Hi Kishan
      Thanks for your questions – all good ones. I’ll try to answer.
      1. I can’t say in absolute terms – however, 2007 coincides with beginning of Intervention, which was supposed to address things like this. It appears to have done the opposite. But yes it’s true as you infer in your next question that more staff and spending do not guarantee better attendance. Need to look at relevance of curriculum, issues in each context, other factors.

      2. It doesn’t, as discussed above. But cutting staff will only exacerbate problem IMO. By all means let’s talk about how to spend money more effectively.

      3. That’s one of the biggest issues I’m grappling with. Traditional incentives, be they intrinsic or extrinsic, don’t seem to work well with the kids I teach. Deeper issues there to address.

      • Kishan – I can’t help but notice your inference, in point 2, that the currently employed workforce are somehow responsible for low school attendance rates in indigenous communities. This seems to somewhat then contradict your question #3 where you state quite clearly that it is the responsibility of educators to provide quality education (and it is a parents responsibility to get their child/ren to school). I would agree with Jarvis regarding the demoralising effect of the Intervention, and would also mention the recent systematic attacks on Bilingual Education. Having said that, there were already low attendance rates and this clearly can’t be fixed with school-based incentives. As someone working currently in a parenting program, I am aware what a mirky area this is. However, slashing education resources is clearly not somewhere to start, and neither is a big-stick approach. (apologies for multiple typos – I can’t see what I’m typing)

  2. 1. Year 10 attendance would have decreased as a result of the stupid middle years policy brought in , in 2008. Another crazy government decision to spend millions of dollars on infrastructure ( e.g. a $4 million roundabout at Goyder Road) but nothing to re-train teachers and no planning to ensure middle years policies were implemented.
    Result: Disengaged students.

  3. Lets not forget other factors that contribute to this issue. Education is very important, no doubt about that. Who should care the most?- parents. Do they?- not many. The issue here is a lot deeper than just school attendance, its about disengaged society. How far are we going to go? for example with student- teacher ratio? one on one, would that help? Doubt it, would it cost? Oh yes. This issue is as complex as it is important. My view is let’s start with the ones ultimately responsible- parents. Parents- their responsibility and their accountability…..just saying..

  4. I agree with R. Fitowski that the parents are the key. The problem is that the parents are not the students, we must attempt to engage with the next generation of parents that are our students now. It is a generational thing. If we can make a little progress now in ten years we will have compounded it and we will be able to claim real results. Cutting education off at the knees with funding cuts is just going to exacerbate the problem in the future.

  5. The people responsible for this decision to cut education spending need to be ADULT and admit they may have got it WRONG and change their plans!
    Tracy Naughton Nhulunbuy NT

  6. RE: attendance issues – People seem to forget that Education in Remote Communities is only part of the bigger picture. For as long as there is terrible over-crowding, rampant substance abuse, serious health issues, no jobs and a complete lack of real will from the government to raise communities out of poverty – then school is not going to be the most important thing to local people. For many years they’ve been told to get an education so they can make decisions and get jobs. Well, every consultation that takes place ignores local people’s needs and ideas, and takes the decision making out of local hands. CDEP is gone so there are no longer jobs for people who have worked for the dole for many years, and the intervention’s promise of creating employment has been a non-event. Kids will come to school when the community can see that it gets them somewhere. Morale is very poor, domestic violence is at daily crisis levels, and no amount of white guys driving around in shiny new government prados is going to change that until there is a whole of government approach and some action for the long term. Teachers and support staff in schools work extremely hard and do the best under the circumstances the operate in – they should not blamed in any way for poor attendance. Give schools everything they need and we can make some change and keep giving positive messages, there have been many success stories which are unfortunately drowned out by the overall stats. Stripping schools down to bare minimum staff to free up money for the government is not the answer at all. We need specialist support for the huge number of kids who suffer from many kinds of disadvantage. Did you know that the education system has changed the definition of special needs so that students with intellectual impairments, Foetal alcohol/drug syndrome (FAS), and many other disabilities are no longer considered worthy of support. Many of these students can’t cope because there is no more in-class or school-wide support for them. Give schools counsellors to assist with their daily exposure to violence and abuse. Mandatory reporting barely touches to the situation. Countless children are still living in disgraceful circumstances because of the abovementioned community social situation. What happened to the “Little Children are Sacred Inquiry” that showed the widespread abuse in communities – nothing has changed. Align all government and NGO services to the bigger picture and address community issues in a more holistic manner. We should all be ashamed of ourselves that this situation continues in this day and age.

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