Aussie Teacher Trouble


Australia ‘s teachers’ unions are like philandering husbands: they’re impotent when it counts, absent from important events, and they put it about frequently and consistently where it’s not needed. Unlike some marriages, though, it’s still in all our interests if they come good in the end. A glance at last month’s education scene proves the point.



ANU’s Andrew Leigh and Chris Ryan hardly conservatives have highlighted some of the consequences of a teaching system that does not have merit pay.

What is the union response? To complain, as Maree O’Halloran of the NSW Teachers’ Federation did, backed up the NSW Parents and Citizens Association, about how teacher’s salaries tail off very quickly from the reasonable starting salary they attract. An interesting observation except, isn’t this the very system the Federation has assiduously campaigned for, in opposition to alternatives based on merit pay?

But it is the private school sector that takes the cake in defending a salary system that should be renamed the ‘I can’t be bothered anymore (so give me a pay rise) comfort zone.’

The Independent Education Union (IEU) is urging its members to refuse a deal that offers starting salaries of $76,000 to new teachers. Apparently, giving up 10 days leave for development training in return for this bounty is too much to bear. The IEU says these new private school pay proposals will disadvantage experienced teachers. The rest of the world says it only disadvantages poor or unambitious teachers.

In the UK, teachers’ pay ranges from AUD$48,000 to a whopping $250,000 across 90 per cent of schools “ the 90 per cent that pay least, that is. This, in a country where the average salary for all full-time jobs is AUD$52,000. The UK payscales are a desperate attempt to address what is a serious problem the likelihood that without such desperation, the UK won’t be able to compete in the flatter, fairer, more global marketplace of ideas and labour that is emerging.

‘The dishonesty in the way it [the pay deal]is being presented to teachers is mind-boggling,’ says Dick Shearman of the IEU. More or less ‘mind boggling’ than the process which saw trade unions move from fighting for an eight-hour day to defending 12 weeks of annual leave for their members, I wonder? Most mind boggling is how a conservative cohort of private school principals has found themselves cast as the accidental Robin Hoods of the school system by campaigning to reward those with the energy and drive to actually lift education standards. One wonders whether the pay deal is not so much ‘mind-boggling’ as ‘common sense.’

The truth is that 12 weeks annual leave was never a right, and nor is it sustainable in the 21st century. Indeed, those not paid a lot of money tend to want to be paid more when offered it and do not find this choice particularly ‘mind-boggling.’ They do see the point in trading excess leave for cash, especially at a rate of $2,000 a day.

Contrary arguments contain a faint odour of desperation, and not of the kind seen amongst the UK’s education leaders instead, this one is driven by a union’s fears that it might be irrelevant in an environment that offers such good terms and conditions.

Set against these examples of dogmatism, it is refreshing to have recently come across a renegade UK education union with the mantra of ‘putting children first.’ I use ‘renegade’ in a comparative sense because the UK’s Professional Association of Teachers (PAT) is decades old and 35,000 members strong.

PAT’s annual conference in August discussed concepts ranging from how a teacher’s voice affects the learning of their students, to preventing ‘clever’ students being stigmatised. Like almost all Australian education unions, PAT does not contribute funds to political Parties but, unlike Australian unions, its belief in putting the interests of children and students first extends to never striking.

It would certainly be interesting to see whether an Australian equivalent of PAT would provide some much-needed competition in our education union field. Judging by the lack of meaningful contribution by the education unions to Julie Bishop’s and John Howard’s recent History Summit and the surrounding debate, a new union competitor wouldn’t go astray.

While we will now have to adjust to new politically incorrect ‘narratives’ of history thanks to the lack of practical progressive alternatives aired at the Summit, I remind you what was occupying teacher unions at this time … keeping ‘grades’ out of students’ school report. Now, there’s a strategy for beating Howard!

The Federal Government’s new requirement for teachers to issue grades (from A to E) to primary school students may be too comprehensive in that it starts with six-year-olds but it is hardly ‘unsound’ in general, and is certainly a politically unwinnable issue for unions. According to the NSW Teachers Federation, nearly 1000 schools and 16,000 teachers have sent resolutions to the State Education Minister, Carmel Tebbutt, expressing opposition to the new grading system. Noticeably fewer parents and schoolchildren have done the same.

If we were not part of a world with onerous university entrance exams and day-to-day life which relies on things like prices and clocks and distances, then I could see the point of avoiding ranking children on skills such as maths and science. If we did not live in a world where some children have to resort to good grades as a means of boosting self-esteem as I did, while being punched at lunchtime for being a ‘poof’ then I might wonder if there wasn’t a better way to describe a child’s progress.

But we do not live in such a world. And I suspect that most parents in most parts of the country would agree.

The underlying point in all this is: Bishop and Howard do their homework, while all the other kids/unions in the playground are too busy pulling each other’s hair and asking for lollies before cleaning up their bedrooms.

I think we all know how our mothers sorry, I mean voters, respond to those old tricks.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.