Schools Driving global change for education support staff

Trish Harrington. Photo: Tania Jovanovic

School business manager TRISH HARRINGTON reports back from the Education International conference in Portugal, where she represented ES staff and the AEU more broadly.

I was very honoured and privileged to be chosen by our union to represent education support members at the Education International ESP Conference held in Aveiro, Portugal, in May. Education International (EI) is the global union federation that brings together education employees from across the world. It represents more than 32 million teachers and education support personnel in 178 countries and territories, through 383 member organisations, and works closely with the UN.

This conference, Building Union Power: Defending the Rights and Status of Education Support Personnel, was the second one specifically focused on ES, the first being held in 2018 in Brussels, where the ‘EI Declaration on the Rights and Status of Education Support Personnel’ was adopted.

On the first day, much of the discussion focused on the impact of a lack of government spending on education – an issue that is global. Most of the world’s countries are projected to cut public expenditure on education in 2022–2024, leading to austerity measures and privatisation. We learnt that $483 billion is lost each year to global tax abuse by multinational corporations and wealthy individuals, leading to cuts in public services like education and health.

We learnt that a healthy spend on education is between 4% and 6% of GDP, or 15%–20% of the national budget, depending on the need for basic education infrastructure. As a comparison, the Australian government spend in 2021 was 1.81% of GDP, with 0.66% of this spent on private schools.

At the beginning of this year, EI launched a new campaign – Go Public: Fund Education – in response to cuts to education globally, with 85% of the world’s population set to be impacted by austerity measures by the end of this year. The campaign calls on governments to invest in all education professionals now.

EI has launched a new campaign – Go Public: Fund Education – that calls on governments to invest in all education professionals now.

Many delegates remarked on how gravely affected they were by the pandemic; that many ES lives were lost and these impacts are still being felt. In a session focused on ES in primary and secondary settings, the question was asked: What would we like to see 10 years from now? The responses included: a fully funded teacher’s aide in every classroom; the capacity for classroom ES to work full time; for ES to be provided with training and development, treated as professionals and remunerated accordingly; and for ES to be respected by leadership and teachers for the vital role they perform. I made the additional point that I’d like to see permanent union networks of ES members for strength in negotiations on new workplace agreements.

Another session looked at the role of ES in fostering inclusive classrooms. While many positive ideas were raised, again it came down to funding. If schools could afford sufficient education support in classrooms, the provision of healthcare professionals, and training within work hours on inclusion strategies, then classrooms could be properly inclusive for students with additional needs and enable all to be treated with dignity.

The second day focused on sharing successful strategies, strengthening our unions and ‘where to from here’. As part of a plenary panel, a New Zealand delegate talked about the wins gained in their recent pay equity campaign, where the union negotiated pay corrections of between 24% and 70% for ES staff, based on gender inequity. They developed a very detailed points system for work across industries, men’s versus women’s, which recognised soft skills, such as nurturing, with a dollar value. These pay rises allowed many ES to drop their second and, in some cases, third jobs.

Together, delegates drafted a statement that builds on the Declaration on the Rights and Status of Education Support Personnel adopted at the first ESP Conference. Among many other points, it calls on governments worldwide to take concrete actions to enhance the status of education support staff; ensure we are recognised as part of the education community; and invest in sufficient numbers of trained and qualified ESP with respectful salaries and conditions, and quality career pathways.

I will continue to work towards these outcomes in my role on Branch Council, on the Business Manager Advisory Group, and on other ES networks.

Read the Aveiro Statement on the Rights and Status of ESP unanimously adopted by the conference delegates.

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