TERM 2, 2021
It’s been another disrupted term for public education settings. Just when things seemed to be returning to some version of ‘normal’, the COVID-19 pandemic again plunged us into lockdown. Some members were also affected by the severe storms experienced by some parts of Victoria in early June.
Both state and federal budgets were delivered in May – offering starkly different pictures when it comes to investment in education. At the federal level, the Morrison government again showed its total disregard for public education. The global pandemic was a chance for the government to make some bold policy and investment decisions that could set up our nation for a positive and sustainable future, in part through strong support for public education. Instead, it continues to ignore the growing inequality in our school system and fails to put TAFE at the centre of the skills agenda and our economic recovery.
The federal budget contained no new funding for TAFE beyond money already earmarked for campus upgrades. Worryingly, when it comes to vocational education, the Morrison government’s focus was on extending JobTrainer to the tune of $500 million over two years, to be matched by states and territories. This ties the states to increased contestability and competition in the sector, with funding contingent on the application of a consistent pricing mechanism across all providers (public and private), which puts TAFE at a disadvantage.
On the upside, we finally saw a federal government commitment to ongoing funding of its share of four-year-old preschool. A huge round of applause to our early childhood members, who have campaigned relentlessly on this issue for eight long years! Our challenge now is to move the Morrison government’s focus to funding three-year-old kinder. We will also be scrutinising any strings attached to preschool funding once the new state–federal funding agreement is finalised, with federal education minister Alan Tudge saying that work needs to be done regarding attendance and on measuring the impact of preschool programs on children’s school readiness.
The Morrison government again showed its total disregard for public education.
The state budget delivered much more positive outcomes for Victoria’s public education system. Among the new investment is a further $1.6 billion for new schools, upgrades and maintenance. This matches the average yearly spend by the Andrews government on school infrastructure over the seven years it has been in office. By contrast, the federal government offered nothing – not a single dollar – towards capital works for public schools, while delivering billions to the non-government sector for buildings and facilities.
The Victorian government has also allocated $278m to schools to implement the recommendations of the Mental Health Royal Commission. It is also pleasing to see the expansion of the Mental Health in Primary Schools pilot – a partnership with the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute – from 26 to 100 schools, given positive feedback from AEU members about this program.
The Andrews government is investing another $400.7m for early childhood education over the next four years. This includes funding for the ongoing rollout of 15 hours of preschool for all three-year-olds, and vital investment in the early childhood workforce through meeting the costs of the new benchmark agreements, the VECTEA and EEEA. There is also additional investment in infrastructure; initiatives to attract and retain new staff; and targeted measures for vulnerable and disadvantaged children and families.
The one low point of the state budget was in TAFE. Whilst funding towards establishing the new Victorian Skills Authority is welcome, the state government failed to tackle the critical issue of inadequate funding, despite two major reviews highlighting the gap in meeting the real costs of course delivery. Victoria continues to have the lowest per contact hour funding in the country, leaving TAFEs in a precarious financial position.
In other news, the AEU has been advocating strongly for all education staff to receive the COVID vaccine as a priority. Federal politicians continue to be critical of the state government’s decision to close schools – but the Morrison government is responsible for the vaccination program, including which groups to prioritise, and it has not spoken up in favour of vaccinating education workers. Morrison’s botched rollout of the national vaccination program has now been exacerbated by supply issues, further hampering the capacity to prioritise education workers. Despite all this, we welcome the state government’s move to include any staff working directly with students with disability or underlying medical conditions in specialist schools, mainstream schools and early childhood settings in the 1b priority group.
Throughout Term 2, AEU members yet again demonstrated their professionalism and dedication to delivering high-quality education no matter the challenges. I hope the term break has given members a well-deserved chance to rest and recharge.