Schools Acting up for change: AEU members become local campaign hub leaders

Clockwise: ES member Chris Tricker is an AEU campaign hub leader for Gippsland; Sandra Tobias is heading up the Maribyrnong hub; AEU Inner North hub leaders Euan Morton (left) and Stuart Bracecamp.

Passionate members from across Victoria have been training up as campaign hub leaders to coordinate local actions in the push for a better Schools Agreement.

For Stuart Bracecamp, AEU rep and campaign hub leader at Brunswick North Primary School, the fundamental issue in the next VGSA is easy to pinpoint. “It’s about workload reduction to try to get those 60 and 70-hour weeks down.”

Another major issue is conditions for education support (ES) staff. “ES are so valuable. There are a number of key issues for us. But it all comes back to workload.”

Stuart has seen changes in the 12 years since he started working at Brunswick North PS. “Our school has changed demographically. It used to be families from a lower socio-economic background, for whom English wasn’t a first language – and, aside from parent interviews, we didn’t have a huge amount of contact. But fast-forward 12 years and you have a very different cohort – very academically minded, high achievers, and with high expectations of teachers, wanting to communicate with us regularly.”

Despite – and because of – these workload pressures, Stuart committed to campaign hub training. He is among a passionate group of AEU members who have taken on the task of leading VGSA campaign actions within their local communities. As we move towards potential industrial action, without a reasonable offer on the table from the state government, these hub leaders will play a vital role in organising members to get active in campaigning.

“Writing student reports, we had done something like 500 hours of overtime in our sub-branch!”

Sandra Tobias is the AEU rep at Pascoe Vale Girls College and the hub leader for Maribyrnong. “For our sub-branch, we put in our log of claims: reduce class sizes, and better working conditions. A big issue is working conditions for ES staff – they are significantly disadvantaged, with no planning time and without proper lunch breaks.”

Sandra has worked in the public system for more than 20 years, and also taught in the tertiary sector and overseas. During that time, she has seen a steady erosion of conditions and she has become passionate about the need for change. “Those conditions really need to be returned. We are educating for the future,” she says.

“We need to put money into our public school system. The facilities are crumbling down around us. There are not enough technicians. We need to reduce class sizes. Reduce face-to-face time. We are administrating so much more than we did. There are also deep student health and wellbeing issues coming up, and we are providing this support.”

Sandra says the amount of unpaid overtime staff are working across the system was demonstrated by the data her sub-branch collected for the AEU’s report writing action. “Everyone was shocked when we added up the hours. Writing student reports, we had done something like 500 hours of overtime in our sub-branch!”

Since doing the hub training, Sandra says she feels stronger in collective bargaining, collaborating with others, and going to consultative meetings. “My voice feels strengthened.”

Artwork by Sandra Tobias

“A friend left teaching and became a paramedic with 14-hour shifts and says it’s still less stressful than teaching!”

Henry Croft, hub leader and AEU rep at Oberon Primary School in Geelong, agrees that this VGSA is all about workload and work/life balance. “Many of us have young families with preschool-aged children. We are missing out on time spent with our kids and partners. It is not sustainable.”

Growing up with parents who were teachers, Henry once saw teaching as a family-friendly profession. “But, the reality is, these days that’s not the case. Once the kids are in bed, more work needs doing.”

Henry also identifies ES staff wages as a major issue. “Some ES staff have second and even third jobs, just to make ends meet. A friend left teaching and became a paramedic with 14-hour shifts and says it’s still less stressful than teaching!”

As a teacher whose own children will soon be attending the local state school, he is particularly conscious of the flow-on effects for students. “I don’t want their teachers to be overworked and stressed. Staffing instability is bad for schools, staff, students and parents. Teachers are voting with their feet,” he says.

“We’re looking at canvassing school councils so that parents can write letters to James Merlino expressing concern about workload. The general public are a bit unaware of the work teachers and ES do, but these surveys, the data and COVID-19 – it’s all helped people know the extent of the work we do.”

For Henry, the hub training was empowering. “It’s good to be surrounded by motivated, like-minded people. You know you’re not going it alone. You feel supported,” he says.

“When John Howard wanted to introduce Work Choices and my penalty rates would have been taken away, I realised it was because of union action that I had penalty rates at all, and that’s when I knew the union movement was so important. We mustn’t lose these rights, as it’s a big loss when they’re gone, and it’s hard to get them back.”

He is thinking about everyone’s future, including his own. “I’m 39 this year and, if the workload doesn’t change, I can’t imagine I will still be teaching at the end of my career. We need to change something now.”

“We believe every child deserves the best – that’s why we’re in the public system. But we’re being taken advantage of.”

Hub leader Robyn Donoghue works in the library and as IT support at Tucker Road Bentleigh Primary School. She identifies the core issues for members in her sub-branch as being overworked and undervalued, and the school being underfunded.

“Being an ES who has spent 26 years in a system that has under-employed, undervalued and underpaid me is grating. I have to work many unpaid hours just to keep afloat.”

Members of her campaign hub have been visiting local politicians to tell their stories. “We will visit MPs again with the results of the State of our Schools survey and a report card detailing our log of unpaid hours. This term’s ‘Dear James’ letters are a great way for all ES to tell their story and have it delivered directly to James Merlino. The Megaphone petition is also a great way for all other staff and members of the community to get behind ES,” she says.

“We’re at breaking point. The system is failing all of us, because the gap between private and public funding is too big. We believe every child deserves the best – that’s why we’re in the public system. But we’re being taken advantage of.”

Robyn says that it has been interesting learning the theory behind how campaigns work, specifically how to use your voice and experiences to motivate people and bring about change. “I’ll be having one-on-one conversations to encourage people. Go loud and proud! I’ll be right at the forefront, wearing red.”

“Every matter we talk about in schools is a union matter.”

Chris Tricker, learning technologies coordinator at Grey Street Primary School in Traralgon, talks fondly of the principal class team at his school. “Principals basically had a pay cut in July because of the way changes affected their superannuation. Workload for principals is a big issue, as it is for all of us. It’s been normalised, all the extra time outside of work hours.”

He points out the inequality between conditions for ES versus teachers, who have a paid lunch break. “It’s as though there’s a perceived class difference. The average ES salary is below national minimum wage. Single parents really struggle.”

There is evidence that some ES staff were receiving a higher wage while on JobKeeper than on their normal salary. “We need to reclassify some ES roles,” Chris says. “It will be the difference between someone living below the poverty line and being able to just survive, and being able to actually live. I don’t know how a single parent would survive.”

As the other hub leaders have said, public school staff really care about their students – but this often comes at the cost of their own wellbeing. As one of many examples, Chris says, “The welfare officer started a breakfast club and that starts at 8am, but staff don’t get paid till 8.45am, even though they’re helping kids. It’s time just volunteered. Otherwise it won’t happen.

“This campaign is important because we are really getting more member input to support the claims. On our Wear it Red day, we had 60 to 70% participation rate. That’s huge! If we don’t all act together, nothing will change. Every matter we talk about in schools is a union matter.”

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