Schools Show some respect: government must act on workforce shortages

  • By Rachel Power
  • This article was published more than 1 year ago.
  • 5 Apr 2023

As schools struggle to manage significant workload shortages, the union is urging governments to take up its plan to attract, retain and respect our education workforce.

Staff shortages have created significant challenges for public schools across the state, with hundreds of vacancies still unfilled, associated workload pressures, and concern about teacher supply in future years.

The union has rejected the recent decision by state and federal education ministers to conduct a feasibility study investigating a one-year masters degree in education as an attack on the teaching profession. The workforce crisis will not be fixed by eroding qualification requirements and lowering the status and standards of the profession, said AEU Victoria president Meredith Peace.

“We will never accept a move that undermines Australia’s teachers. Any erosion of training standards not only affects the classroom readiness of graduate teachers, but also creates even greater workload pressures for all staff in the school,” Peace said.

Instead, the AEU has been calling for bold and immediate action by state and federal governments to address the workload crisis in our schools. In its Ten-Year Plan for Staffing in Public Education, the AEU is calling for retention payments for existing staff, properly paid practical placements, government-funded studentships for initial teacher education, and the central employment of a significant pool of graduates to ensure a supply of new teachers.

While COVID intensified the situation, the union has long warned of a looming shortage due to the number of teachers nearing retirement age plus the high levels of work-related stress. Despite a range of measures implemented to alleviate workloads, a recent report from the Black Dog Institute found almost half of Australia’s teachers intend to leave the sector within the coming year, with workload pressures the main reason cited.

“We will never accept a move that undermines Australia’s teachers.”

Meredith Peace

In terms of attracting new staff, the cost of training is proving a significant barrier. A recent AEU survey of pre-service members found that 75% had considered dropping out of their degree due to fear of debt and financial stress. As union member Oscar Jolly said at an AEU forum in November 2022: “At any time, this would indicate a broken system. But during a teacher shortage, it’s an utter policy failure.”

New analysis by the Centre for the Study of Higher Education also shows that teachers and nurses carry the largest student loan burden of any group. By comparison, male-dominated trades attract government subsidies in the vocational education system and have the capacity to attract higher wages in the longer term.

Based on Australian Tax Office data, the study found that the Higher Education Loan Program (HELP) is contributing to gender inequality, with lower-paid jobs and childcare responsibilities that take women out of the workforce prolonging their repayment periods and so adding to their debt. It is yet another disincentive for those considering the teaching profession – a role that provides an essential public service and deserves better support.

Attempts by private schools to lure teachers away from the public system is only serving to exacerbate existing staffing challenges and further deepen the inequality between public and private schools. “This is causing considerable stress and workload for principals, and puts at risk the right of every child to have a qualified teacher in their classroom and/or access certain parts of the curriculum,” says Peace.

Victoria’s public schools are only funded to 90% of the federally determined resource standard, while the majority of private and Catholic schools are already at or in excess of 100%. “It should therefore come as no surprise that private schools are able to use their abundant resources to offer financial incentives and opportunities that public schools have no capacity to match,” says Peace. “This means public schools are not operating on a level playing field and students are missing out on aspects of the education they are entitled to. The Victorian government must respond to these challenges with the urgency they demand.”

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