For everyone A matter of conscience: the 1971 strike that changed teaching in Victoria

Retired Maribyrnong High teachers (left to right): Sue Bolton, David Holland, Meg Lee and Paddy Kendler.

Fifty years on, two of the activists involved in the 1971 ‘control of entry’ campaign at Maribyrnong High still have the passion in their voices.

Such momentous albums as Carol King’s Tapestry, John Lennon’s Imagine and Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On were the soundtrack to 1971, a year of extraordinary change, with political and social upheaval sweeping the globe (read our review of new Apple TV doco 1971: The Year That Music Changed Everything). Locally, this unrest saw teachers wage numerous “professional action” campaigns related to their rights, status and conditions – not least of these a long-running fight to see all Victorian students taught by qualified teachers.

While based on a statewide union resolution, it was largely up to individual sub-branches to enforce the policy in their workplaces, leading teachers at Maribyrnong High School to go on strike for 11 weeks in protest against the employment of ‘teachers’ essentially off the street, without any qualifications. It was not the first ‘control of entry’ strike – staff at various schools across the state had walked out for a few days or weeks in the months prior – but it was the longest, starting in April and ending in early July.

The teachers at Maribyrnong were particularly angry about the number of unqualified ‘teachers’ being brought into a school with mainly working-class students, many of them from new migrant families. Meg Lee, a home economics teacher at the time, is still adamant when she thinks back: “The bottom line is: it’s always about the children, and it’s about safeguarding the profession, because teachers provide an essential service.”

“There were big protests about this kind of thing in the 1970s. Class sizes. Conditions. There was a lot of direct action.”

It wasn’t personal, Meg says of the unqualified staff. “Some of these people were very pleasant. Some you felt sorry for. There was a Greek man, his English was poor, he was immaculately dressed in this blue suit, and I remember him coming into the staff room just shaking, with chalk dust marks all over him. The kids had been throwing the duster at him.”

While many of these workers had some kind of  qualification, or were part way through their teacher training, they were not fully trained and qualified as teachers. For those 11 weeks, the striking staff met daily, rotating around their homes, with regular visits from the Victorian Secondary Teachers Association (VSTA) – one of the unions that would go on to form the AEU.

“We used the analogy of an electrician – you wouldn’t use an unqualified electrician, so why use an unqualified teacher?” says David Holland, then teaching physics and mathematics at Maribyrnong High. “There was a picket line outside of the school, and it received support from colleagues from other schools. It was to put pressure on strike-breakers, and to increase publicity.”

In his book, The Best of Times, former teacher and union official Bill Hannan claims: “Between 1969 and 1971, the VSTA organised more strikes than perhaps any other teachers union in world history.” This led the profoundly conservative Liberal premier of the time, Henry Bolte, to grumble that “school teachers seemed to be on strike on ‘matters of conscience’ more than they were at work”.

It was a different era, says David. “There were big protests about this kind of thing in the 1970s. Class sizes. Conditions. There was a lot of direct action, and the VSTA were big supporters. There was a strike fund. It was all paid for. Our strike was a springboard in terms of what firm action can achieve, and people realised it could be applied to other school issues.

Photo: Archive/AEU Victoria

“There were some teachers who were just in their first year out, 20-year-olds, who had been on strike more than they’d taught!”

“The 1970s were an amazing period. The Vietnam War, moratorium marches, the Springbok tour – it was a militant time. The VSTA was active on many fronts.”

Most of those striking were in their 20s, he recalls. “There were some teachers who were just in their first year out, 20-year-olds, who had been on strike more than they’d taught!”

“We felt very strongly,” Meg continues. “I sit here quite proud, 50 years later, with what we achieved. There is no talk now of unqualified people teaching.”

But the action “took its toll,” she adds. “Other people were brought into the school to take classes in our absence. We blockaded because they were considered strike-breakers. We shut the gate, banged on their car roofs, it was rough stuff.”

David agrees. “We kept morale up. We discussed tactics in terms of how to talk to parents, but towards the end of the 11 weeks, there was unease in the group. We did all agree that the strike was the right thing, but it was hard.”

Strike-breakers were brought in to teach classes, and “that was a worry”, he says. “The staff were split down the middle. Those who didn’t go out on strike were very scathing of us, and an active group was formed against us. We had to face the split when we went back.”

The notion of unqualified staff teaching in our schools now is a distant memory, thanks to teachers like Meg and David.

Throughout the strike, these teachers were concerned about their students, particularly the seniors. “Some of the Year 12s, without proper instruction for 11 weeks – we did worry about those students, but in the end they did well. Maribyrnong High had a high ethnic population, they were very motivated, very good students,” David says.

The school community was split, and the strike was not an instant triumph. “We returned to work not having seen an immediate change or outcome. I broke down, I was very upset,” Meg says. “About nine months later they set up the teachers’ registration board and we started to see what we had achieved, but at the time we had to return to school with our tails between our legs. And the press was very antagonistic. Questions were asked in Parliament. We were named in Hansard.”

While the Maribyrnong High strike didn’t see the immediate removal of unregistered teachers from the school, by 1972 few, if any, unqualified teachers were being appointed, and the ‘control of entry’ campaign had achieved its goal.

From the perspective of 2021, the notion of unqualified staff teaching in our schools now is a distant memory, thanks to teachers like Meg and David. Their commitment to improving the standards of education for the state’s public school students was unwavering.

Ultimately, David felt vindicated. “I did what I believed in. But it wasn’t easy.”

Within a year, many of those who had gone on strike had moved to different schools. “That was for the wellbeing of the school and those teachers,” Meg explains. “It was very personal for a lot of people.”

The day the strike was over, and he returned to his classroom, David stood in front of his students and said to them: “Now, where were we?” With a smile in his voice, he adds, “Well, that got a few laughs!”

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