Schools VGSA: Stepping up the action

AEU members have resolved to escalate the industrial campaign for a new Schools Agreement with a 24-hour stopwork and mass meeting in Term 1 if the Victorian government does not adequately address our log of claims, specifically the key issues of workloads and salaries.

The Joint Primary and Secondary Sector Council unanimously passed a resolution authorising the action, sending a strong message to the Department and to government that AEU members are serious about achieving a new Victorian Government Schools Agreement (VGSA) that recognises and values the work of principals, teachers and education support staff in public schools.

The union’s video advertisement – which highlights excessive workload and the underfunding of our schools – has been welcomed by members, and puts additional pressure on the government as we continue to build engagement and support for our campaign from parents and the broader community. Currently, Victorian public school students are the lowest funded in the country – $1,354 behind the national average.

AEU representatives also made a visit to Treasury Place on 14 December to deliver a Christmas card and thousands of letters from members written to Education Minister James Merlino, calling on him to support school staff by offering manageable workloads and salaries that respect the profession.

As we count down to the end of the year, AEU representatives are continuing to negotiate almost daily with DET officials in the effort to reach a new Agreement. While progress has been made, the Department is yet to adequately address our key claims on workload and salaries, caused in part by chronic funding shortfalls in the state’s public education system.

AEU sub-branches have taken up the VGSA campaign actions with enthusiasm and determined solidarity in the face of the Andrews government’s failure to make a reasonable offer after months of negotiations. And it is making an impact, with meetings between the union and the department intensifying in Term 4.

‘Thanks’ is not enough. It’s time for the Andrews government to solve the workload crisis in our schools.

The Department of Education and Training (DET) used World Teacher’s Day on 29 October to call on Victorians to “thank teachers” by posting a message on social media. Hundreds of AEU members and supporters responded to the department’s feelgood exercise, with personal messages directed at the Premier Dan Andrews, Education Minister James Merlino and the department, leading the #ThanksVicTeachers hashtag to become the #2 trending topic on Twitter in Australia on the day.

As these messages made clear, ‘thanks’ is not enough. It’s time for the Andrews government to solve the workload crisis in our schools. The AEU used the opportunity to highlight the fact that public school students are the lowest funded in the nation – $1,354 less per student than the national average, with the system’s workforce having to work longer and harder to make up the shortfall, in part through excessive amounts of unpaid overtime.

In other campaign actions, more than 1,000 passionate ES members penned letters to Minister Merlino, making a powerful case for greater respect for the complex work undertaken by education support staff in schools. These were delivered to the minister, along with around 9,000 signatures to our Megaphone petition calling for better pay and recognition for ES staff.

More than 100 PCA members have contributed to a photo of AEU principals holding signs calling for better conditions for school leaders. Principals urgently need lower workloads, so they can focus on educational leadership rather than the overwhelming burden of administration and compliance measures. These messages were shared at a meeting with Minister Merlino, where three AEU principals spoke about the impact of excessive workloads on their capacity to tackle the most important aspects of their role.

Around 320 casual relief teachers have also written to Minister Merlino, detailing the importance of their work and the need for protection from underpayment by labour hire agencies.

The government has not done enough to address the “spiralling and unsustainable workloads” of staff in public schools, only amplified by COVID-19.

Since 97% (or more than 23,000) of participating members voted ‘yes’ to taking industrial action, campaigning has been energetic, sending the strongest possible message to government that the AEU is serious about ensuring the next VGSA adequately addresses our demands. The campaign has gained increasing media attention, with AEU leadership explaining the need for taking action – for the sake of school staff and their students.

AEU deputy branch president Justin Mullaly says that pressure is being felt. “The work of union campaign hubs has seen many government backbenchers express their support for our claims. But we must be prepared to keep campaigning until a fair and decent agreement is achieved. Together, we achieved important measures during the pandemic. We need to show the same solidarity and commitment to keeping pressure on the Premier and the Education Minister to deliver an agreement that respects our work and deals with issues that have long pre-dated the pandemic.”

As AEU Victoria president Meredith Peace has been telling the media, the government has not done enough to address the “spiralling and unsustainable workloads” of staff in public schools, only amplified by COVID-19. “We cannot reach an acceptable agreement without those workload pressures being addressed through genuine and sustained measures.”

Survey results show almost one-third of public school teachers are thinking of leaving the profession. “This should concern every parent in Victoria,” Meredith says. “Exhausted teachers with excessive workloads, teaching large classes, can’t deliver the support our children need and deserve.”

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