The year ahead for Australian schools: escalating workloads, industrial action and COVID-19:
On New Years’ Eve in 2020, teachers around Australia looked forward to leaving behind a difficult year of lockdowns and remote teaching, and starting a new, and hopefully better year afresh. However, on New Years’ Eve in 2021, teachers seem to have found themselves back at square one. Here we are, approaching term one, and states and territories are not in agreement about who will go back and when.
So just what will 2022 bring for Australian educators? In this review, we report on emerging trends in school education across Australia’s states and territories, and the professional and industrial matters which we think may confront teachers in the year ahead.
Teacher workload and work pressures: a crisis at tipping point?
Achieving positive schooling experiences and outcomes for students depends considerably on ensuring teachers are well-resourced and supported to complete their important work. But teachers’ work has grown enormously in size and become more complex in nature.
In recent research, we synthesised large-scale surveys from over 48,000 teacher-participants to analyse teacher workload across five Australian states. The most prominent finding emerging from these surveys was the near-universal increase in teachers’ workload, perceived to be driven by the ‘heavy hand’ of compliance reporting and datafication. This has impacted teachers’ core work, with a corresponding reduced time to focus on matters more directly related to classroom teaching.
Teachers’ hours of work were found to have increased over the 5 years between 2013-2018 and were reported as being slightly higher in Western Australia, New South Wales and Victoria.
|Total average hours per week (Primary, FT)||Total average hours per week (Secondary, FT)||Hours within total undertaking work activities at home or on the weekend|
|New South Wales||55||55||11|
|Victoria||52.8||53.2||11.5 for primary teachers. 6 hours for secondary.|
|Tasmania||45.8||46.2||90% of primary teachers work 5 hours. 70% of secondary teachers work 3 hours|
|Queensland||43.9||44.1||Teachers report spending between 1-7 hours on a range of tasks ‘outside rostered duty time’, including weekends, each week|
The complexity and demands of teachers’ work has also increased nation-wide. In New South Wales, approximately 95% of teacher-respondents reported that the complexity of their work had increased over the last five years and that the range of activities undertaken in their work had increased. In New South Wales and Western Australia, over 96% and nearly 90%, respectively, of respondents reported that the volume of collection, analysis and reporting of data had increased over the last five years.
It is very common for teachers to work beyond in-school hours. Over 99% of teachers responding in Queensland indicated they used time outside their rostered hours to plan and prepare lessons. In Victoria, planning and preparation was undertaken by a large majority of respondents during evenings (93%) and weekends (83%).
This increase in workload and intensification of work has occurred at a time of governments promoting devolutionary, market-inspired policy. Previously we have argued that policies which devolve increased decision-making power to schools have contributed to the intensification of teachers’ work, resembling a ‘tsunami’ of paperwork.
However, there appears to be shifting ground around the future of devolutionary policy in schools. For instance, after a decade in operation, the NSW Government repealed Local Schools, Local Decisions and replaced it with the School Success Model after it became evident that there were no improved educational outcomes across the States’ education system from this devolutionary policy.
But time will tell the impact of this new reform on teachers’ workload. Previously we have argued that a new policy which sits alongside the School Success Model – the Quality Time Action Plan – which intends to “simplify administrative practices in schools” and bring about greater shared responsibility and accountability perhaps won’t adequately address the workload concerns and administrative burden on teachers created by devolution, as our research has documented.
Policy deliberations around school governance and devolution may signal a ‘back to the future’. Governments have previously commented that schools have been given ‘too much’ decision-making power, however we argue that policy reform should focus on the ways in which governance and accountability mechanisms can support teachers to focus on their core work of teaching and learning.
Union demands: the time to improve teacher salaries and conditions
Our research has also documented the campaigns being led by teacher unions across various states in protest against these workload pressures facing teachers, alongside calls for improved salaries and to address the worsening nation-wide teacher shortage.
In December 2021, New South Wales public school teachers engaged in their first strike action in 10 years. This action came off the back of findings from an Independent Inquiry into the NSW Teaching Profession finding major concerns with teachers’ working hours and salaries.
Elsewhere we have argued that this situation has been furnished by a challenging industrial environment, where salaries for teachers are locked in a 2.5% legislated wages cap and teachers are barred from arguing work value cases before the Commission to seek salary increases.
Victoria’s teacher union is similarly planning strike action for 2022, which would also be the first strike action by Victorian teachers in a decade. Teachers are seeking increases to pay and superannuation in addition to reduced face-to-face teaching hours and classroom sizes.
Meanwhile the Queensland Teachers’ Union has argued that more needs to be done to attract teachers to move to rural and remote areas of the state to adequately staff schools. It has even been reported that pre-service teachers are being granted waivers to teach in Queensland to address teacher workforce shortages.
Industrial action, once a prominent strategy by teacher unions to pressure governments to improve teachers’ pay and conditions, over time has been constrained. However, the groundswell of concerns is prompting teacher unions to push back against worsening industrial and professional conditions of work. Indeed, union leaders have indicated that industrial action is likely to continue this year.
It’s time to listen to teachers
It would appear that, currently, there is a disconnect between teacher workforces across Australia, and the policy-makers with power over their conditions. Teacher workload has escalated under systems of devolved governance, prompting a resurgence in industrial action from teacher unions.
Presently, many teachers are grappling with the idea of returning to face-to-face teaching in a few weeks. While some (although notably not teachers) may be arguing adamantly for this return, many of the teachers we know are hesitant about once again being asked to enter an unsafe work environment, where an existing teacher shortage will undoubtedly be compounded by the rampant spread of the omicron variant and associated sick leave fallout – an issue which is affecting the teaching profession nationally.
With no casuals to call upon, those who are able to teach will only have to take on more to share the load. Or instead we may find ourselves in the position of, for example, Kansas in the United States, where 18 year old high school graduates with a background check will be able to step into classrooms to work as a substitute teacher, to fill the gaps in staffing created by COVID-19.
And so, as we look upon the dawn of another new, uncertain, and likely difficult year in schools, it is high time that we listen to and support our teachers – or soon there may no longer be any qualified professionals left in our schools to listen to.
Meghan Stacey is a former high school English and drama teacher and current lecturer in the School of Education at UNSW Sydney. Meghan’s primary research interests sit at the intersection of sociological theory, policy sociology and the experiences of those subject to systems of education. Meghan’s PhD was conferred in April 2018. Meghan is on Twitter @meghanrstacey. Mihajla Gavin isa lecturer in the Business School at the University of Technology Sydney, and has worked as a senior officer in the public sector in Australia across various workplace relations advisory, policy and project roles.
Mihajla’s research is concerned with analysing the response of teacher unions to neoliberal education reform that has affected teachers’ conditions of work. Mihajla is on Twitter @Mihajla_Gavin