Schools Overworked and undervalued: workload in the spotlight

As the AEU continues negotiations for the next Victorian Government Schools Agreement (VGSA), workload is the central focus of the AEU’s campaign to achieve a better deal for principals, teachers and education support staff, who are struggling to meet the needs of students amid snowballing demands.

Top of the union’s list is a reduction in face-to-face teaching hours to a maximum of 18 hours per week, with a further 12 hours set aside for planning, preparation and assessment. Salary increases of 7% per year, improved leave entitlements, time-in-lieu for outside-of-hours work, and greater job security are among the other major claims. 

The pressure on government to address the issue of unsustainable workloads has been steadily building throughout negotiations. For all its challenges, last year’s pandemic had the unexpected advantage of giving the broader community unprecedented insight into the volume and complexity of the roles performed by principals, teachers and ES. Education experts, public commentators and – perhaps most importantly – parents are joining the AEU and its members in stressing the urgency of the situation.

Jane Caro described a public education system forcing teachers to “drive themselves into the ground”.

In February, the final report from an independent inquiry chaired by former WA premier Dr Geoff Gallop declared a “crisis” in public education caused by escalating workloads and uncompetitive salaries. ‘Valuing the Teaching Profession’ found that the “scale and intensity” of change to teachers’ work had outstripped any similar investigation into an area of ‘work value’ since 1970, while the average pay of Australian teachers has been on a continual slide compared with other professions.

The report concluded that while the dedication and commitment of teachers remained high, there had been profound changes to their roles, to the detriment of teachers’ core responsibilities of teaching and learning. Constant policy changes, new compliance measures, increases in student need, rapid changes in technology, curriculum reform, administration, data collection and reporting responsibilities, as well as higher community expectations, were all contributing to unsustainable workloads.

In 2016, the Victorian School Workload Study found that principals were typically working a 60-hour week, while teachers were working an average 15 hours of unpaid overtime. This situation has only worsened, according to the Gallop Inquiry, which recommends a reduction in face-to-face teaching to create more time for collaboration, preparation and planning, along with significant increases in salaries.

In the same weekend as Gallop’s report reached mainstream media, Jane Caro was driving home a similar message in an article for The Guardian, where she described a public education system forcing teachers to “drive themselves into the ground”. Caro quotes Sydney University professor Helen Proctor, who says of teaching: “There is almost no other profession that works with such intensity, day in day out, has such day to day unpredictability and of which is required such a broad range of skills.” And yet, Caro writes, while the job has become ever more complex and demanding, its status has been falling and the “emphasis has moved from what happens in the classroom to data collection and analysis”.

Responding to the Gallop Inquiry, the Grattan Institute said the report’s findings should be “a big wake-up call to state governments” across Australia, which have made teaching far more challenging while stripping away essential support services. “It is extremely hard to teach well with the support and time currently available,” Grattan Institute’s Julie Sonnemann and Jordana Hunter wrote in The Age. “The upshot is that our teachers feel overworked, undervalued, and less prepared to teach effectively.”

Time to win a better deal

Together, we need to persuade politicians, parents and the broader community that the next Schools Agreement must deliver solutions to the major issues of workload and salaries, with backing from the Andrews government.

Now is the time to build on the increased community recognition of the value of work done by our members in schools – ES, teachers, assistant principals and principals – to enhance the status of the profession. 

We will be using the responses gathered from members over the past fortnight in our State of Our Schools survey to paint an up-to-date picture of the key issues confronting school staff. 

The AEU is also establishing campaign hubs across Victoria. We will be calling on all members to join their nearest hub and get involved in local actions.

Campaign hubs will be seeking meetings with local MPs and finding forums for members to educate our communities about the challenges they face at work. 

Your story is the most potent persuasive tool you have. We need government politicians and the broader community to understand the impact of excessive workloads on members’ lives, on your feelings about your work, and on your capacity to meet the needs of your students. 

Collectively, we can build a powerful voice for change and win better lives for members.

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