The Coalition has no plan to fully fund public schools. There is not a single public school in the country that is fully funded, and the Morrison government will do exactly nothing about this if re-elected. In fact, you’d be hard pressed to find a public school anywhere in the country that is fully staffed, let alone fully funded. Some independent schools, however, which have fees upwards of $30,000 a year, are being overfunded by more than 200% on the dime of the public purse. Currently, public schools are only 88% funded.
As the federal election looms, the extent of the Coalition’s misspending has been revealed in a report authored by economist Adam Rorris and commissioned by the Australian Education Union. The Rorris report found $6.5 billion in funding neglect for public schools, as well as $10 billion in cash handouts for private schools on top of the more than $20 billion in recurrent funding already being funneled into private schools by the government. The report’s findings state that the purpose of the Choice and Affordability Fund was to provide a ‘blank cheque’ to private schools underwritten by the taxpayer ‘by exploiting the tragedy of bushfires and drought as the cover story.’ The report also supplied forensic evidence of ‘accounting trickery’ perpetrated by the Morrison government.
So visceral is the Morrison government’s contempt for public education that the Acting-Education Minister Stuart Robert recently referred to the crisis in public education as being the result of a system rife with ‘dud teachers’ that wouldn’t be seen in an independent school. The Morrison government has firmly buried its head in the sands of ideology and refuses to acknowledge the correlation between declining outcomes in public education and the billion-dollar shortfall in funding, entrenching educational disadvantage as a result. These comments earned rightful widespread condemnation and are a stark reminder that Stuart Robert is also the same minister who charged the taxpayer $38,000 in home internet bills. He has since paid it back, but only after he got caught. Robert attended the independent and overfunded Rockhampton Grammar School, which received $5.75 million in JobKeeper in 2020 despite recording a surplus for 2020 of $6.5 million.
The Morrison government has done nothing save for re-announcing its commitment to maintaining the role of the Australian government as the majority funder of non-government schools. So how have they managed to get away with overspending so extravagantly on private schools? The answer of course is the Coalition’s signature pork barrel of choice: grants, grants, and more grants! The Capital Grants Program, Choice and Affordability Fund (which amounts to a blank cheque for private schools), and Local Schools Community Fund all slather the pre-existing $20 billion+ in recurrent funding to private schools in money, money, and more wasted taxpayer money. The government’s overfunding for private schools eventually reached levels of such obscenity that the Australian National Audit Office (ANAO) was compelled to investigate spending on education. Released in May 2021, the ANAO’s report found a lack of a ‘sufficient level of assurance that Australian Government school funding had been used in accordance with the legislative framework, in particular the requirement for funding to be distributed to schools on the basis of need.’ The report also discovered that the combined total spending on public education between federal and state governments amounted to a $8089 gap per student.
Source: ANAO analysis found in Monitoring the Impact of Government School Funding — Follow-up (based on 2018 data).
It’s clear that the no-plan Morrison government has got to go, but what is Labor’s plan for public education? Labor has committed to creating a ‘pathway’ to full funding for public schools but has to date not produced any detail on what this would look like or when it would happen. The Greens, however, have a policy that would see every public school fully funded by the end of 2023. The Greens also have a plan to make public education genuinely universal by boosting funding to see no out-of-pocket expenses for parents. This would come at a cost of $32 billion over a decade (not much when you consider that the Morrison government spends more than that every 12 months on handouts to private schools so they can build library-castles, orchestra pits, and coffee shops with full time baristas onsite). Finland, which leads the world in educational outcomes, has prohibited fee-paying schools since the 1970s and ensures that its public schools are truly ‘free’ by ensuring that it is the taxpayer who funds excursions, uniforms, public transport to and from school, and equipment like stationery and books. The current public education system in Australia relies on parents to fork out for uniforms, excursions, transport and equipment. In my experience, it also sees teachers paying for resources and equipment out of their own wages.
These premeditated acts of austerity by the Morrison government have been aided and abetted by the NSW Coalition Government. By keeping funding for public education in starvation mode for over a decade now, the NSW Coalition government has caused a shortage of wages and workload reform. The flow on effect has been a rapidly deteriorating teacher shortage.
As the old adage goes, you reap what you sow. In 2011, the NSW Coalition government sowed a year-on-year wage cut for public school teachers in the form of a 2.5% wage cap. Teacher wages haven’t matched inflation since the twentieth century, but a number of factors have accelerated the decline in recent times. These include a Coalition wage freeze in 2020, and the failure of the NSW Coalition government to retain casual teachers—the backbone of its teaching workforce during Covid-19 lockdowns.
As a casual teacher, I haven’t taken a booking ‘the morning of’ since June 2019. I’m booked every day of the school week well in advance. If a teacher calls in sick at the last minute, or comes down with Covid, there are simply next to no casual teachers available to cover anymore. There was a shortage of teachers before the 2021 Covid lockdown in NSW. However, the predicted peak of the shortage was arguably brought forward by years thanks to the NSW Department of Education unceremoniously emailing its entire casual teacher workforce at the start of lockdown encouraging us to seek a payment from Centrelink. The Department forgot about its casual teachers for the whole of Term 3, and then when lockdown lifted and with schools now fully operational again in 2022, the NSW Government and Department of Education have the audacity to wonder where all their casual teachers disappeared to.
Information obtained through an FOI request has put a dollar figure on the short-term savings the Department collected from the wages of the casual teachers it booted out during the 2021 Covid lockdown.
Casual teachers lost between $38-$56 million in wages that the Department would have spent anyway if they hadn’t chosen to dispose of them during lockdown. Crucially, this also means that the Department saved $56 million from the unpaid labour of temporary and permanent staff, who had to take on the extra labour in the absence of casual teachers.
Compounding this impact is the fact that the government has decreased the sick leave loading for casual teachers year-on-year throughout the pandemic. The 5% sick leave loading component of a casual teacher’s daily pay rate has remained unchanged since 2016 and has not been updated to accommodate the circumstances of the pandemic. The pay change for teachers in January 2022 of 2.04% was even smaller for casual teachers, since our wages and sick leave loading were combined before the 2.04% was calculated. In real terms, this means that casual teachers are earning less in 2022 than they did in 2016.
None of this is surprising from the government whose advice to casual teachers through its recruitment contractor since the start of the pandemic has been to ‘sell your things’ and drive for Uber during unpaid school holiday periods.
In Term 1 this year, the NSW Teachers Federation suspended the industrial action it commenced in December 2021 as an act of good faith to give the government time to come to the table and directly address the underlying cause of the teacher shortage: uncompetitive salaries, unmanageable workloads, and underfunded public schools. The government has refused to come to the table, so we will strike for 24 hours on Wednesday 4thMay. The union has also placed a ban on all new Government (Department and NESA) policies and initiatives due for implementation from day 1, Term 2.
In an historic action, the union has instructed teachers to walk off the job should any government MP enter school grounds. ‘The failure of Perrottet Government Ministers and MPs to represent the interest of students, their parents/carers and teachers in their electorates renders them not welcome in our schools,’ said the NSW Teachers Federation in a statement. ‘Effective immediately, should Perrottet Government MPs seek to enter our schools, members are authorised to walk out for as long as they remain on site.’
In the week following the union’s announcement of industrial action, teachers walked out of at least three schools after government MPs appeared on site, including the Education Minister and Premier.
The reason I went back to casual teaching is one of the reasons I am striking on May 4th: workload. Forced to choose between the precarity of casual teaching and the slightly-less-precarious situation of a full-time teacher on a temporary contract with no work-life balance, I chose life. As a full-time teacher, I would do 60 hours on a quiet week, and upward of 80 hours on a busy week. Everything after the 35th hour was unpaid. A full-time primary school teacher is only given two hours a week off-class to do all the preparation, programming and assessing required to do their job effectively. The Department hides behind its wage cap as the reason wages haven’t been raised, but there is no legislated cap on release time. Despite this, the government refuses to increase release time, even though they could do so tomorrow. But the problem isn’t the lack of release time alone, it is also the sheer magnitude of an overwrought workload pockmarked by a litany of low-value tasks that has decimated every teacher’s work-life balance. In the grand scheme of things, fully funded public schools, increased teacher wages and a reduced workload are small line items, which is what makes it clear that the unabashed strangulation of public education is driven by ideology. The government’s ideology is outdated and out of touch, and as we will see on May 4th, it is an ideology that is outnumbered.
NSW public school teachers will be taking industrial action by striking for 24 hours on Wednesday 4th May 2022.
Dan Hogan is a writer and public school teacher from San Remo, NSW (Awabakal and Darkinjung Country).