Our second post on the NSW Teachers’ strike
It has been 10 years since NSW public sector teachers have taken industrial action.
Within that decade, workloads for teachers have exploded, salaries have become uncompetitive, and the teacher shortage in NSW has worsened.
The education sector is at a tipping point.
NSW public sector teachers are currently renegotiating a new award to protect and improve their salaries and working conditions. But the findings from the Independent Inquiry into the NSW Teaching Profession chaired by Professor Emeritus Geoff Gallop released in February this year found stark evidence of a profession in crisis.
The evidence we presented to the Gallop Inquiry painted a picture of worsening working conditions for the profession and highlighted that urgent change is needed.
Why working conditions need improving
Working hours are unsustainable
Teacher workloads have reached an unsustainable level. Our research of over 18,000 NSW public sector teachers has highlighted that teachers are now working an average of 55 hours per week. Increased data collection requirements, constant curriculum changes, and more complex student needs have contributed to this.
Our research also found the average teachers’ work undertaken at home is consistently between 11 to 12 hours per week, indicating that work in schools is too great in volume to be undertaken on the school site.
During school holidays, teachers also work excessive hours, on average 10 hours per week, but up to 40 hours in some cases.
Overburdened with administration
Most teachers who responded to the survey (91%) reported that administrative demands impacted their core work of teaching. Teachers reported they were coping with the challenges of this major administrative load by working longer hours. In NSW, over 96% of teacher-respondents reported that the volume of collection, analysis, and reporting of data had increased over the last five years.
If these statistics aren’t concerning enough, the voices of teachers speak to the challenges they face:
“I am currently on leave from the head teacher position and am working as a classroom teacher. This decision was due to excessive work hours, averaging 80-plus hours per week in term and 50-plus hours in ‘holidays’ as a head teacher for six years. The stress of this unsustainable workload left me physically exhausted and mentally drained.”
“The paperwork and administrative work has increased enormously.”
“The administrative demands and all the other useless busy work are detracting from the ability of school leaders and staff to engage creatively and to be innovative in the delivery of teaching and learning.”
One teacher recently tweeted his litany of mandated non-teaching tasks. We note it is not exhaustive:
Precarious work is on the rise
Teachers are not only working harder, but undertaking their job in more precarious conditions than ever before. Fixed-term contract teaching is a growing feature of the NSW public education system. While the category of ‘temporary’ teacher in NSW was established in 2001 in response to growing concerns around casualization and a need to ensure greater employment security for, in particular, women returning to the workforce after having children, today it constitutes an enhanced dimension of precarity within teaching.
Around 21% of the NSW teaching workforce currently work in temporary roles. Although temporary teachers do similar work to permanent teachers, they often feel as though they work harder. Many perceive they need to ‘do more’ in order to keep their contracted jobs.
Teachers told us that:
“I feel there is an unspoken pressure for temp teachers to ‘do more’ in order to heighten their chances to get work for the next year.”
They are “at the whim of principals who pick and choose according to who toes the line.”
Student results are worsening while teacher shortages increase
The evidence from the survey suggested that negative impacts on students were likely to follow if current trends continued. Sadly, this is the situation that has played out with results of Australian students continuing to decline by international comparisons in particular broad-scale testing regimes.
Alongside the workload problem is the worsening teacher shortage in the State. Enrolment growth, an ageing profession and fewer students enrolling to train as teachers means the profession is at risk of “running out of teachers in the next five years”.
Poor pay plus increasing hours and intensity of work will make addressing a teacher shortage extremely difficult. Lifting pay is critical for the sustainability of the profession and is a signal of the increased attention and respect that is long overdue for teachers. Addressing teachers’ current working conditions is also critical to how shortages can be addressed.
Why strike action is on the table
There is no doubt that it has become more difficult for trade unions to legally engage in industrial action, with the parameters for legal industrial action now being so narrow.
Indeed, after the NSW Teachers’ Federation announced its intended strike action for 24 hours, the NSW Department of Education (successfully) sought no-strike orders from the NSW Industrial Relations Commission.
Teachers are not a militant profession but have a profound sense of care for the students they teach and the work they do in their communities. This is why industrial action is so extraordinary.
Strike action is often a last resort. But our research has found that teachers can engage in such action when they feel that policies and political decisions are deeply and significantly threatening their core industrial and professional conditions of work, intensified by an uncooperative or dismissive government. The teachers’ union has said teachers feel this way.
Striking is most successful when teachers are collectively aggrieved about multiple deficiencies in the system brought on by the policies of managerialist governments, like poor job security, increasing class sizes, undermining the professional status of teachers, increasing workloads, and bureaucratic models of performance management.
An uncooperative government can also activate teachers to mobilise when governments are either openly hostile towards teachers and their union, or fail to consult with them on policies that affect their conditions of work.
There are few occasions in history where NSW teachers have flexed their industrial muscle to take a stand against marketization and managerialism that eroded teachers’ working conditions. In one of the largest demonstrations in Australian labour history, some 80,000 teachers descended on The Domain in Sydney on 17 August 1988 to protest against the Greiner/Metherell cuts to public education funding and market-driven policies.
The suite of pressure points currently facing the teaching profession brought on by a challenging reform environment sets the scene to rival the success of the 1988 strike. According to Buchanan, “today’s teachers would need a 15 per cent pay rise to restore them to their wage status three decades ago alongside comparable professions”. Given that, the demands seem very reasonable.
Teachers’ voices must be heard now. If not, it will be too late.
From left to right: Rachel Wilson is Associate Professor at The Sydney School of Education and Social Work at the University of Sydney. She has expertise in educational assessment, research methods and programme evaluation, with broad interests across educational evidence, policy and practice. She is interested in system-level reform and has been involved in designing, implementing and researching many university and school education reforms. Rachel is on Twitter@RachelWilson100 Susan McGrath-Champ is Professor in the Work and Organisational Studies Discipline at the University of Sydney Business School, Australia. Her research includes the geographical aspects of the world of work, employment relations and international human resource management. Recent studies include those of school teachers’ work and working conditions. 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 is a 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