Ever an activist

Dinoo Kelleghan

Gavrielatos: If we actually want to change the world we can only do that through the power of the collective

Angelo Gavrielatos holds up his Order of Australia Medal as a tribute to the “inspirational” work of teachers in public education and tells them they must always be activists.

Federation membership is not merely as a safeguard for salaries, he said. "What I say to all teachers is that, regrettably, you have no choice but to be an activist. If you really want to achieve the very best environment for your students in the classroom you need to be an activist."

The OAM he received in January is "a great honour but more importantly it’s a great recognition of teachers' work,” the former Federation Senior Vice President and AEU President and current Project Director at Education International (EI) said.

“We are able to do what we do because of our members and supporters: what they do on a continuous basis is inspirational and motivating.”

Mr Gavrielatos is scathing about profiteers in education, his focus at EI.

“We’re seeing something quite grotesque: large global corporates backed by significant players using Africa as a laboratory to trial schooling systems that they eventually wish to upscale to the UK, the US and beyond," Mr Gavrielatos said.

He paid tribute to Professor Tony Vinson, who died last month.

"In 2001, I was elected Senior Vice President in a team together with Maree O’Halloran and Jennifer Leete, and it was during our term that we unveiled the Vinson Inquiry into the Provision of Public Education in NSW, a landmark inquiry in education not only in NSW but nationwide," Mr Gavrielatos said.

"The inquiry process itself, its findings and recommendations, helped build the Federation’s strategic direction for the better part of a decade and kickstarted the schools funding campaign, so we’re truly indebted to Tony Vinson."

Much of Angelo Gavrielatos’ professional life as a teacher and union organiser has centred in Sydney’s southwest. He grew up in Bankstown, studying at Bankstown Public School and Punchbowl Boys High School, and lives in Padstow. His first teaching appointment, in 1987, was at Miller Technology High School, which lies within the Liverpool Teachers Association.

“I became a member of the union on my very first day at Miller High School and I became a Fed Rep in my second year of teaching,” he said.

“I was always driven by a sense of trying to create a better world based on fundamental principles of social justice and there’s no doubt that teaching, and education more broadly, was a means to put that into place.

“There’s no doubt that we can express our views as individuals but if we actually want to change the world we can only do that through the power of the collective – in our case, our union.”

He became an Organiser in 1992, working in the St Marys-Mt Druitt, Blacktown and Fairfield TAs. “It was through that time that I worked very closely with our members on the ground, building and delivering activism to support our campaigns,” he said.

In 2001, he became Federation’s Senior Vice President and later, AEU Federal President, the years when the Gonski review was launched. When he retired in January 2015 to join EI, the AEU applauded him for having worked tirelessly “to get Gonski over the line”.

“It angers me – I can’t begin to tell you how much it angers me – to observe how the Turnbull government remains hell-bent on destroying the Gonski funding system,” Mr Gavrielatos said. “History will judge very harshly anyone who seeks to dismantle the Gonski Review.”

What should public educators be planning for beyond 2019, if indeed Gonski funding is maintained for its full term? Mr Gavrielatos said once the last two years of funding was secured “we’ve got to maintain it into the future, and we never forget that”.

Besides, he said, the Gonski Review only went to recurrent funding: “We haven’t even started talking about capital funding.”

“We never celebrate our successes greatly in the Federation,” Mr Gavrielatos mused. “It’s not in our DNA. No sooner is a campaign over than we start building the next one. That’s the history of the Federation. There’s always plenty to do.

“It’s a crazy world out there. Students and children are reduced to economic units and education is seen as a big money-making machine. It is currently valued at $US4.5 trillion a year and projected to rise to about $US6.5-7 trillion in a few years. That’s what they want to get access to.”

Money-making schemes are tried out in developing countries such as Kenya, Ghana, Uganda, Liberia, Nigeria and the Philippines to be extended to western countries where bigger pots of gold lie – and that could happen sooner than we think.

“Actually, a week or so ago one of these players in Africa had a meeting with the UK Department of Education and there are suggestions that they want to introduce this so-called low-fee schooling they run in Africa – private, for-profit schooling – to the UK.

“There’s nothing low-fee about these operations,” Mr Gavrielatos said. “When the fees associated with these for-profit chains are prohibitive for the bottom 25-40 per cent of the population then I ask, low fee for whom?”

Mr Gavrielatos described the edubusiness model.

In place of qualified, experienced teachers, high school graduates are employed, with two to five weeks’ training with a highly-scripted curriculum.

“They’re making money from employing unqualified staff being paid a fraction of what teachers would be paid and they make money through economies of scale by standardising everything,” Mr Gavrielatos said.

“The curriculum is read word for word off a tablet – a curriculum developed in the US and delivered in slums in Nairobi.

“They’re so scripted they tell the instructor when to pause, when to circulate in the room, when to rub the board.”

In such a situation there is no opportunity to help children who have particular learning difficulties.

“No, it’s all standardised,” the EI Project Director said. “There is no differentiation in teaching across a classroom. When you’re reading off a script word for word you don’t pause because you’re being monitored to see that you’re reading each word by the minute.

“The tablets that they’re reading off are connected to a central office and they can monitor exactly where every instructor is up to.

“You can’t make this stuff up!”

Mr Gavrielatos considers the future of public education in the US to be dangerous with the appointment of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, a devotee of the charter school system.

“It’s quite apparent that the DeVos-Trump administration will go after public education in the US and they’ve already introduced bills that would seek to shift money away from public schools in the form of vouchers,” Mr Gavrielatos said, but he warned: “This is against the traditions of the teaching unions around the world and in the US – so watch this space and watch the resistance.”

Mr Gavrielatos would not rule out the possibility that vouchers could be introduced in Australia.

“I wouldn’t be surprised,” he said. “We know that conservative governments have entertained the idea of vouchers in the past and they even experimented with some forms of vouchers with the literacy and numeracy vouchers some years ago. So they’ve entertained that notion in the past and will do so again.

“But let’s be very clear – vouchers are no more than a mechanism for taking money away from public schooling and shifting money to private schooling, and any voucher system is, essentially, education at risk.”

The drive and motivation of members gives him inspiration and hope for the battles ahead, he said.

Obituary: Tony Vinson