The exceptionally cold return to a new school term reflected the chilling political winds that continue to blow across the education landscape in Australia and abroad.
As preposterous as it sounds, the very concept of government funded, free, secular and universal public schooling is being questioned and undermined by corporate marketeers and the politicians who back them.
It was no accident that Prime Minister Abbott and Federal Education Minister Pyne recently flew the kite on parents paying fees for public schooling. Changing the discourse from ‘free’ to ‘affordable’ public schooling is another step in the push to break public school systems into stand-alone schools, operating as self-managing, autonomous business entities in a marketplace of winners and losers.
We have seen the damage done to our public universities and public TAFE system by policies that reduce government investment, privatise education delivery and shift the costs to fee-paying students.
Successive Australian governments have spurned the great democratic tradition of ensuring every citizen’s right to a free, high quality public education. They have contended that this is no longer affordable yet Finland and other countries have proven otherwise.
Politicians in recent decades have abrogated their responsibility to be honest with the Australian people about taxation revenue. They have not had the gumption to admit that providing high quality public education, public health care, public transport and other public services requires a commensurate government revenue base.
For too many years, governments from both sides have not sufficiently taxed the corporations that can and should contribute to the provision of the public services that underpin a civil, productive, just and democratic society. (Sceptics may wish to do an internet search on “corporate tax avoidance in Australia”.)
In this context, it is encouraging to report that significant heat and light were generated by delegates to Federation’s Annual Conference, held over three days in the winter school vacation.
The Annual Conference policy decisions combine a number of significant, interconnecting priorities into a broad, coherent strategy for the years ahead.
Continuity with our state election campaigning earlier in the year was evident in the range of issues addressed: securing the full Gonski funding to better meet student needs; protecting TAFE from privatisation; raising the salaries and status of the teaching profession; maintaining a school staffing agreement to protect class sizes, permanency, transfers and staffing entitlements; and increased investment in capital works and maintenance.
Presentations by distinguished academic Professor Stephen Dinham and eminent Aboriginal singer, songwriter and activist Kev Carmody were met with wide acclaim. While they presented in contrasting formats and styles, both speakers eloquently reinforced the importance of Federation’s commitment to high quality public education for all.
The strategy to increase and protect the overall level of government investment in public education, and to apply that funding to the pursuit of higher achievement for all students, was evident in the decision on the salaries and status of the teaching profession.
Federation reaffirmed its commitment to working with public sector unions and Unions NSW to overturn the State Government’s unjust public sector wages policy that caps increases to 2.5 per cent a year, and denies the right to pursue an independent hearing of a work value case in the Industrial Relations Commission.
Beyond this approach, a strategy that draws on the successful schools funding campaign was endorsed. The Gonski reforms were achieved by community based campaigning that reached deeply and widely across society, to transform the way people think about schools funding.
Annual Conference determined that a similar campaign should be enacted to positively change the way people think about and value teachers’ work. The aim is to raise the status of the teaching profession through a direct and sustained focus on achieving higher standards in five key domains: entrance to university teacher education courses, qualifications, accreditation, performance and development, and school leadership.
If successful in building stronger community understanding and support for this ‘higher standards agenda’, a professional salary may be achieved that truly reflects the importance of teachers’ contribution to the education and life opportunities of students, and the social, cultural and economic wellbeing of the nation.
In endorsing such a coherent and progressive policy platform for the future through democratic debate, Annual Conference reaffirmed that we are a union of teachers, by teachers, for teachers.
We are a union that continues to stand and fight against all those who would use deregulation and privatisation to undermine, diminish and dismantle our great public education system, and all that it means for a small child or a large nation.
It is teacher unionism for the times.