A comment by a parent of a child with a disability has stayed with AEU President Correna Haythorpe long after a lobbying visit to Canberra with parents and children to ask the Federal Government to commit itself to realistic levels of disability funding.
“It’s shameful,” one mother in the group said, “that I, as a parent, have to come to Canberra and remind these politicians about their fundamental responsibility to fund these children.”
“We’re going to remind them all the way up to the federal elections,” Ms Haythorpe promised Annual Conference, pointing out that teachers have “massive community support”.
She said federal Education Minister Christopher Pyne had thrice evaded requests from the Senate to disclose statistics on unmet need for disability funding that the government had been collecting.
Ms Haythorpe said Mr Pyne and the Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, had made a commitment that a disability loading would be in place in schools this year; that commitment was first delayed to the start of next year and then to halfway through next year, and it was possible even that deadline would not be met.
“The disability loading in schools is being put back again and again because the government does not want it to become an election issue,” the AEU President said.
Some light had been thrown on this crucial issue by figures released by the South Australian government that said 16.3 per cent of school students nationally suffered from some form of disability but that only 5 per cent of students were receiving disability-funded support in school.
AEU research showed the need for disability funding was real and dire: four in five principals whose schools had received Gonski funding said it had made a “significant difference” and the same number stressed the need for more teacher assistance to meet disability needs.
Ms Haythorpe said it was important for Federation to note that 63 per cent of student teachers had said their training had not provided them with the skills to teach students with disabilities.
“We are in a fight to protect our students, their families and our communities,” Ms Haythorpe said. “We are in a fight to protect public education. There is just one thing standing in the way of Pyne and Abbott and that’s us, our union, our capacity to campaign.
“And I’m sure that that will be reflected in the stories that you’re collecting in respect to the Gonski campaign.”
On TAFE, Ms Haythorpe congratulated Federation members for creating growing community awareness of the pitfalls of the Baird Government’s privatisation of vocational training that has seen teaching jobs lost and student learning prospects dashed in order that private training providers make millions of dollars.
The public system, “which does a lot of the heavy lifting in terms of trade skills and helping disadvantaged students” was being ground down in favour of “a network of private companies each trying to cherry-pick students with lowest-cost courses”.
“Students are being saddled with huge debt burdens,” Ms Haythorpe said, quoting a government report that envisages a 75 per cent hike in VET Fee-Help loans, going from 128,000 this year to more than 225,000 in 2018–19 — equal to $4.4 billion in student debt.
Ms Haythorpe detected growing concern in federal parliament about the changes to the VET sector.
“The national conversation is happening around TAFE,” she told conference delegates, urging Federation to keep up its campaign.