Linda Wishart was working as an integration aide in a primary school in Bendigo in 1995 when difficulties arose with her principal. Unsure how best to navigate the situation, she turned to her partner Don, a sub-branch rep with the AEU. He suggested signing up; she got the assistance she needed. The rest, as they say, is history. “That’s when I realised just how important it was that we joined the union,” she says.
Moving to Gippsland, where Don became the local organiser in 1996, Linda became a sub-branch rep at Warrigal North Primary School, but encountered resistance in signing up new members. “They were very suspicious and uneasy, because they felt that if there was an issue between a teaching member and a support staff member, the teacher would be looked after.”
Her own experience told her that that wasn’t the case, so Linda took it upon herself to write to the AEU. She knew the union had to allay their fears and win greater conditions to boost membership. “There was a lot of convincing to be done.”
“When people finally joined the union, they felt that they had some power.”
Linda became the AEU’s first elected councillor representing the profession we now know as Education Support – an accomplishment she remains proud of today. Determined to affect real change, she convinced then-AEU president Mary Bluett to create an Allied Staff Organiser position. In 2001, around the time ‘Allied Staff’ became ‘School Services Officers’ (SSOs), Linda landed the job, quickly growing membership numbers and conference attendance.
Linda collaborated enthusiastically with her fellow organisers. “Everyone was working towards the same goal. When people finally joined the union, they felt that they had some power.”
As the membership grew, so too did that power. “The SSO Conference went from about 50 people to around 150 every year,” Linda recalls. “It was providing them with professional development that they’d never had before.”
When membership ticked over 1,000 within six months, it was a game-changer. “I’ll never forget that. It was a real moment where I thought, ‘this is going to work’.”
When Kathryn Lewis applied to take on the role that Linda left in 2006, she went into the interview with one mission. “I had concerns that the union wasn’t doing enough for ES, and I knew that the leadership team would all be at the interview, so I wanted to be heard and to tell them to pull their socks up a bit.” They gave her the job. “They wanted fight and ambition.”
For Kathryn, negotiations for every Schools Agreement since have built on the wins of the previous one for education support staff, starting with the historic shift to a single agreement for all schools staff in 2013. “It was absolutely amazing, though many of our members didn’t necessarily see the benefit initially,” she recalls.
“They thought we would be swallowed up by the teachers. But I kept saying, ‘No, it’s the collective strength’.”
“People don’t realise how important education support is to every aspect of running a school.”
The AEU’s role in the Victorian Inquiry into the Labour Hire Industry and Insecure Work in 2016 was another key milestone. New clauses in the VGSA 2017 led to thousands of ES members gaining secure employment the following year. Kathryn believes the move in the proposed VGSA 2022 to translate all support staff currently employed in Range 1 to a new Range 2 will be life-changing for ES members.
“In 2020, during lockdowns, ES in Range 1 were going to work every day and making less than JobKeeper. Many could get better-paid jobs, but they love their schools and their students, and wouldn’t get the same job satisfaction elsewhere. By contributing to public education, they are building a better society. Putting pressure on Range 1 wages places more value on the ranges above, too.”
Now retired, Warrnambool-based ES member Helen Farrell joined the AEU in 2007 and was part of the AEU’s 15,000-stong march to Parliament House that brought Melbourne to a standstill in 2012. When she signed up, she was frustrated by how few ES colleagues were unionised. Meeting Kathryn inspired her to take action. “It was like I fell in love. She answered all of my questions about what the union was doing for us.”
Becoming an ES rep, Helen set about recruiting as many new members as she could. Working alongside Kathryn was a dream-team scenario, but Helen notes that one of the main challenges in representing ES members is the vast diversity in their roles. “It’s such a disparate group.”
“ES members have been undervalued and exploited for decades, and we’ve been fighting hard to change that.”
That’s something ES member Katrina Tenson picked up on when she joined the union in 2005. “People don’t realise how important education support is to every aspect of running a school, from the library to the science wings, the classroom to the office to the garden. Without support staff, schools would grind to a halt.”
After attending a training session run by Kathryn, she put her name forward to join the council representing ES. As she recalls it, the main battle at the time was under-employment and pushing for minimum hours. “It was about respect.”
Too often, it felt as though respect was in short supply. Katrina worked at a special school and was called on to support students with a complex range of medical needs. “Without support staff, these children wouldn’t have had an education.”
She argues that ES staff still don’t get the recognition they deserve, but there have been significant improvements. Buoyed by securing paid maternity leave, Katrina was part of a working party set up in 2018 who worked tirelessly on revising the ES Dimensions of Work. “This has helped immensely, because if you know the dimensions, you know the level at which you should be getting paid.”
Revising the Dimensions of Work to better reflect the scope and complexity of ES roles has been one of the endeavours Katrina remembers most fondly. “We were passionate, and we were loud. Kathryn had trouble keeping us in line, but our concerns were listened to and we felt part of something bigger. There’s still a way to go, but we’re on the right track.”
Kathryn agrees. “ES members have been undervalued and exploited for decades, and we’ve been fighting hard to change that. The latest agreement builds on the previous one – and will benefit future ones, too. We never get everything we want, but slowly and steadily we’re inching our way up.”