As your union president, I have felt immensely proud of the way AEU members stepped up in 2020 across every sector. Your dedication, resourcefulness and capacity to adapt has been nothing less than extraordinary. If there is one upside to what has been an enormously challenging year, it’s that we have proven to government and to the wider community what we already knew – that educators are among the country’s most valuable and essential workers, and that our work is highly skilled, incredibly complex and (as parents now know) all too often exhausting.
So much of what has been exposed during this COVID year adds evidence and impetus to the industrial and political campaigns we intend to pursue over coming months and years. At a federal level, the lack of investment and respect shown for public education by the Morrison government throughout 2020 has been gobsmacking. In its so-called ‘Jobs, Jobs, Jobs’ budget, the federal Coalition failed to once mention the central role of TAFE in building a skilled workforce; there was no ongoing funding for four-year-old kinder (and nothing for three-year-olds); our disability workers are still facing growing levels of job insecurity; and public schools remain grossly underfunded.
Educators are among the country’s most valuable and essential workers, and our work is highly skilled, very complex and often exhausting.
A new report by former World Bank and government economist Adam Rorris has confirmed that Australian public schools will miss out on $19 billion in funding over the next four years, with the sector completely overlooked yet again in the federal budget, while private schools continue to be overfunded by $1bn – a gap that is truly a national disgrace.
Of course, we did not need a pandemic to show us the levels of disadvantage in public education. Among the many staggering statistics that have emerged this year, we have learnt that 21% of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students do not have internet access at home. It is also clear that educators are increasingly on the frontline of managing an emerging youth mental health crisis. This year’s catastrophic bushfires, the COVID-19 pandemic and rising anxiety about the future of work has created a perfect storm when it comes to the mental health of our young people – and we know the complexity of student needs, staffing shortages and disadvantage are magnified in remote and regional settings. For too long, these challenges have required educators to go above and beyond their core duties of teaching and learning. At a time when the need for more psychologists and professionally trained counsellors in schools is at an all-time high, it was especially insulting that the only additional money for public schools in Morrison’s budget was $61.4 million to extend the school chaplaincy program.
By contrast, the Andrews government has invested strongly in Victoria’s education sector in its November budget, providing $3bn towards new and upgraded school buildings; a doubling of financial support ($1.6bn) for students with disability; ongoing stability for TAFE and fee-free kindergarten for three and four-year-olds. We welcome the state government’s investment in youth mental health, as well as the $250m Tutor Learning Program to support students whose education has been affected by the pandemic. That said, we know that too many kids are missing out every year due to a lack of funding and we will be pushing for this additional support to be sustained beyond 2021.
The recent AEU Victoria branch conference gave me an opportunity to acknowledge the many members from every sector – teachers, support staff, educators, principals, sub-branch reps and health and safety reps – who have gone above and beyond this year, from managing COVID clusters, safety plans, and OHS and DET processes, to supporting vulnerable families, on top of juggling on-site and remote provision. As ACTU secretary Sally McManus told the conference, these are the “invisible, humble, taken-for-granted people” who became our “new essential workers” during the pandemic. More broadly, the union movement has played a vital role in supporting workers in 2020. We must not forget that it was the union movement that had to drag the federal government into establishing JobKeeper, a scheme that Morrison has repeatedly lauded for saving jobs and the economy. “Our values mean that we don’t leave people behind,” McManus said. On the other pressing matter of climate change, AEU federal president Corenna Haythorpe noted that “we are proud to stand beside” our students leading the charge on climate action.
As Term 4 draws to a close and the AEU begins planning for 2021, we will be taking all that we have learnt from this tumultuous year to build campaigns that lead the push for a well-resourced public education system and demand respect for the essential work of our members. But, for now, I hope you can end the year on a high, put your feet up, and perhaps catch up with friends and family who you may not have seen for some time. This year, perhaps more than ever, you deserve a chance to celebrate a job well done!