Professional Unionism and Resistance to the My School website in Australia

Year: 2017

Author: Vandenberg, Andrew

Type of paper: Abstract refereed

The efforts of the Australian Education Union (AEU) have not sufficed to turn the trajectory of education policy towards the social-democratic direction of education policy in Finland but it has managed to divert Australian education policy from some of the harsher aspects of competitiveness-oriented, neo-liberal education policy in American and England.

This paper builds on Andrew Spaull's history of the emergence and early years of the AEU, which does indeed expand beyond teachers' self-interest to represent teachers' interest in wider issues around their profession. The analysis abandons both Australian and American approaches to the study of industrial relations among teachers in favour of Michael Freeden's approach to analysing ideology.

Why did the Australian Labor Party develop the My School website to enhance and expand an existing regime of national testing of students? It was partly a matter of the Australian Labor Party pursuing a form of socially oriented neo-liberalism advocated not only by New Labour in Britain but also leaders of prominent, global "edu-tech" corporations, including News Limited and Pearson Education. It was also a matter of institutional "momentum" from past political decisions that made it, and continue to make it, difficult to switch to a more social-democratic trajectory in education policy.

Interviews with teachers and parents at two public high schools, located outside of greater Melbourne, reveal that many people have no idea about My School, many people know about it but have never actually used it, and that the people who have used it had recently moved into the area from overseas. These findings largely concord with national survey data about visits to the My School website but provide more depth on opinions about the context and implications of the website.

How has the AEU managed to chalk up some success in resisting the My School website? Following Al Shanker's original ideas and disputing Kerchner and Mitchell's sociological interpretation, I argue that "professional unionism" operates within social-democratic assumptions about industrial democracy and social justice, and this offers a means of resisting the market-orientation of My School. Building on the Australian Council of Trade Unions' waterfront dispute in 1998 and the campaign against Work Choices in 2005-07, the AEU has resisted the entrenchment of NAPLAN and PISA testing.

Despite slow progress with better funding for disadvantaged schools, the AEU has persuaded many teachers that My School implicitly assumes that teachers' laziness or incompetence is a widespread problem. Professional unionism, by contrast, assumes that auditing teachers' work is the problem because it both distracts teachers from their professional responsibilities and makes it more difficult to teach children well.