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Giving with one hand: Education still strained as governments take with the other


NSW has managed a pay rise for those in education, but only before announcing more cuts and freezes to an already underfunded industry.

 

Every year, Nine Media runs an Independent Schools Guide in its newspapers. It showcases private schools in its editorial and features many advertisements from those same schools. It has been an annual irritation for those of us who support public education for decades now. As an ex-advertising practitioner, I understand that the use of glossy supplements in newspapers is a good revenue raiser. They focus on particular areas – travel, real estate, wine and food, for example. The newspapers sell them to those industries, perfectly legitimately, as a good way for advertisers to target readers who are interested in what they have to sell. Advertisers also expect that the editorial in such supplements will be industry positive.

This year’s Independent School’s Guide was a bit different. It included a full page ad from the NSW Department of Education extolling its public schools which featured the headline “The Best Schools Money Can’t Buy”. According to the Daily Telegraph (not a Nine publication) this caused feathers to be ruffled in the independent school sector and Nine had to make amends.

In a way, this reaction is poignant. Public schools and their communities get so little unequivocal positive support that this ad felt almost revolutionary.

The reaction from those in the public education community was very different. The explosion of delight from staff in public schools at seeing their own schools promoted in such an environment was evident on social media. The DOE got more than its money’s worth for the ad given the way it was shared repeatedly by teachers, parents and anyone with an interest in education. And even quite a few without such an interest, but who enjoyed the chutzpah of the ad and its placement. In a way, this reaction is poignant. Public schools and their communities get so little unequivocal positive support that this ad felt almost revolutionary. Nevertheless, I regard it as the single greatest morale boost from the department to its employees I can remember seeing and I congratulate everyone who had a hand in it.

The recent pay rise to teachers in NSW, making them the highest paid in Australia, should also have been good for morale – even though it had to be fought for and took a chronic and worsening teacher shortage to force the government’s hand. However, as I wrote about at the time, at the eleventh hour, when the Teacher’s Union believed the deal was done and dusted, the NSW government wobbled and tried to set a 2.5% ceiling on any wage rise. This time teachers exploded with outrage, to such a pitch that the original deal was quickly reinstated. But the damage was done. The wobble meant that teachers felt, once again, whatever they had gained not only had to be fought for but was also given grudgingly.


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As any half-decent manager knows, if you are going to reward staff with a pay rise, do it whole-heartedly, particularly if your aim is to hang on to those employees. The way the Minns government handled the pay rise was a case-study in how not to do it. The teachers did not feel grateful for their increase in pay. They felt angry and suspicious.

The ad, by contrast, helped undo some of the damage to teacher and public-school morale, at last. If politicians, of every stripe, had set out to systematically drive down the morale of the teaching profession, especially in public schools, over the last thirty years, they could not have done a better job. Little is more harmful to the educational prospects of Australia’s children, especially the most vulnerable.

Yet, until COVID, the teachers largely hung in there. Not for love of their employers, but for the kids they teach, their colleagues and their belief in the fundamental value of what they do. COVID simultaneously revealed how vital teachers are in our society and chased many of them out of the profession.

We have been left with a mess. Every public school in Australia, bar a handful in the ACT is currently funded below its agreed School Resource Standard (SRS). Put simply, the amount they need to do an adequate job. Every private school is currently funded above it, except for a handful in the NT. Public school teachers and students are confronted by this basic inequity daily as they walk past often luxuriously resourced so-called private schools, or dodge behemoth buses emblazoned with the name of St Posh or Privileged Ladies College on their way to their own increasingly under-resourced schools.


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The Minns government along with all other state governments except WA and the NT, won back a bit of ground by pushing the Federal government to cough up the extra 5% that would take public schools closer to full funding. It hasn’t happened yet, mind you. No one, as yet, has tackled the remaining 4% shortfall, courtesy of the Morrison government’s loophole that allows non-educational spending to be counted in public schools SRS, falsely inflating their funding.

However, true to its form of doing the right thing, quickly followed by doing the wrong thing, thereby losing all the positives gained, last week the Minns government announced it was cutting public school budgets by 1.25% and freezing discretionary funding, as well as forcing deputy principals to add a day’s teaching to their already onerous workloads.

Say what? An already overwhelmed and under-funded system, which teaches increasing concentrations of the most needy (and, therefore, the most expensive to teach) kids, is going to lose more money? Taken from it, mind you, by the very same government that insists it is fighting shoulder-to-shoulder with teachers to get full funding from the Commonwealth. My mind is reeling!

Every public school in Australia, bar a handful in the ACT is currently funded below its agreed School Resource Standard. Every private school is currently funded above it, except for a handful in the NT. Public school teachers and students are confronted by this basic inequity daily as they walk past often luxuriously resourced so-called private schools, or dodge behemoth buses emblazoned with the name of St Posh or Privileged Ladies College on their way to their own increasingly under-resourced schools.

No wonder some public school enrolments are falling. No wonder teachers are increasingly fleeing classrooms. It’s not rocket science. We cannot continually ask public schools to keep producing more with less. And every time the government – any bloody government, because they all do it – penny pinches funding for its most disadvantaged schools, morale falls further, and they worsen the very problem they keep telling us they are trying to fix.

Fixing teacher retention is not hard. Pay teachers properly – NSW is doing a reasonable job of that but, as I said, destroyed the potential morale boost by doing so grudgingly. Respect their professionalism and expertise – stop telling them what they should do in their classrooms. Give them decent workplaces that don’t leak, smell, or freeze in winter and boil in summer. Give them time to do more of what brought them into teaching in the first place. Take away busy work done to cover the arses of administrators and governments. Give them the support and the resources required to help their neediest students. It is soul destroying to know what could help a child who is struggling, but be unable to get the resources you need to do it. Stop over-funding already over-funded schools and fund only according to evidence-based need.

And, at the very least, stop giving with one hand while taking away with the other.

 

 



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