By KIERAN FINNANE
“I’m a humanities teacher at Centralian Senior College. I teach senior students. Not a single one is at benchmark in terms of literacy. Not one! These kids aren’t dumb, they simply lack the skills. The only way to effectively teach them is to reduce the teacher-student ratio, so that we can impart those skills.
“Of course the system must have a greater focus on the junior levels but it will take 10 to 15 years for the benefit of that to filter through. Are we going to let a whole generation of students slip through the cracks?”
This teacher was among those taking four-hour strike action today, gathered outside the college early this morning to bring their protest against school staffing cuts to the attention of motorists heading to work. They got plenty of honks in support. Today’s action followed a full day’s strike last Tuesday.
The teacher would have liked to give her name but had been told by her superiors to not talk to the media: “The fact that I’m a citizen doesn’t seem to count.”
She pointed out that it takes about $200,000 a year to look after a child in juvenile detention: “That’s two and a half to three teachers who could prevent them from being there in the first place.”
She said the cuts, in reducing the quality of public education, are going to exacerbate the divide between “the haves” and the disadvantaged, especially Indigenous students.
Minister ‘doesn’t understand’ schools
Some teachers were defiant and gave their names. Peter Atkinson teaches maths and psychology at the college. He said psychology is one of the subjects identified for amalgamation or rotation. This could mean, for instance, teaching students from years 11 and 12 in the same class. This would be difficult in itself but it would also mean more students missing that subject choice due to timetable clashes.
He dreads the prospect of larger classes especially at the year 10 entry level, with many students having a “very low” standard of literacy and numeracy.
“We do a great job at the moment supporting them, but we won’t be able to with these cuts,” he said, becoming visibly upset.
“This action is not about teachers, it’s about the kids. It’s not about pay. The numbers issue is outside of the EBA negotiations. This is the basis of our anger with the Minister [of Education Peter Chandler] and the Commissioner [of Public Employment Ken Simpson]. They have no understanding of how schools operate.”
Mr Atkinson was referring to the “lockout” of the strikers, with the Commissioner advising only yesterday that striking teachers need not return to work this afternoon as they will not be paid.
Mr Atkinson said there was no question of him and his colleagues not returning to work: they have students’ moderation packages to get ready by tomorrow for sending off to Adelaide; they have exams to supervise.
He said not doing these things would disadvantage students and admin staff. Teachers would prefer to find other ways of making the government “pay attention”.
He said there will be legal action on the lockout, whether by the union or privately – “such is our anger and resentment”.
Urgent ruling sought
The Australian Education Union has already lodged an application for a ruling by the Fair Work Commission on the Commissioner’s threat to dock teachers’ pay when the strike action had been advised with due notice. Organiser Nadine Williams says an urgent hearing with a commissioner will be conducted by video-link, with a ruling expected on Monday at the latest.
While there was anger about the government’s response to the strike action, the main focus of all teachers I spoke to was on the impact the cuts will have in classrooms and on standards.
Steve Smith, who teaches special ed and maths at the college, said the staff-student ratio has gone from 1:14 to 1:18, a 20% increase. This includes non-teaching positions. For instance, the principal has no teaching load; the assistant principal has a 20% load; the school manager, a 40% load. So class sizes will actually be greater than 18 students per classroom teacher: “There is no way we can manage to teach at the same standard in these circumstances.”
Jo Dutton teaches English and SOSE (Studies of Society and Environment) in the college’s Gateways program: “Less staff will mean fewer options for kids of different needs.” This of course includes students who aspire to go to university. The college will become non-competitive with private schools in terms of subject choices, she said: “The town is entitled to quality public education at the senior level.”
A Legal Studies teacher, who feared to be named, said NT students are moderated in the South Australian system and will become less competitive with their southern peers as a result of the cuts. Her subject will likely have to be taught in composite classes, two year levels at a time. There’s no way this won’t have an impact on quality.
She also pointed out the irony of teacher allocations being based on attendance, in contrast to other states, while the cuts to support staff – who help gets kids to school – will drive attendance down.
“We are not parents, or welfare officers,” she said. “How much do they expect us to do?”
Middle school struggling
The college staff were joined by colleagues from Centralian Middle School.
One teacher said “emails from the top” had told teachers not to speak to media and some “have been disciplined”. She chose therefore not to give her name. A science and maths teacher, she has taught around Australia for 30 years and has been in Alice Springs for two.
She said she has been “horrified by the disadvantage and trauma” experienced by many CMS students, 70% of whom are Indigenous. If teachers were struggling to meet these students’ needs before the cuts, what will it be like after, she asked.
“I have never seen anything like it in the Australian public system. With the cuts coming on top of it, I have to stand up.”
She said there is no clarity on what is happening but at one stage staff were told that all the tutors would go, at another stage, that only a proportion of them would go: “This has been very destabilising for teachers and tutors.”
She also said it is expected that one third of contract teachers may not be replaced (this is over and above the total cut of 35 full-time equivalent positions referred to by the Minister): “But we are deliberately being kept in the dark, while deals are being done behind closed doors.”
She said she thinks parents are very supportive of the teachers’ actions but “we are not allowed to contact parents on these issues, the media is the only way our voices are being heard.”
Cuts are just the start
Margaret McHugh (second from left in the photo at right, with other speakers and organisers), also from CMS, teaches in the special needs area. She has been in town for 35 years and describes the cuts as “the worst since self-government”. So far the special needs area has been immune but that is not expected to last, she said: “These cuts are just a start. They have said they are going to cut $250m from the system between now and 2016.”
Ms McHugh said she has observed an increase in numbers of students with high special needs, as a result of alcohol abuse and other problems of disadvantage. How will schools cope with them with decreased staff numbers, she asked.
The contingent from outside the college later moved off to the town centre where they joined others in a rally on the Flynn Church lawns, kicking off at 10am. There was an attempt to be upbeat, with a cupcake sale to raise money for teachers losing their jobs and Gambian-born musician King Marong leading a group of enthusiastic children and adults in drumming and chanting: “No ifs, no buts, stop the education cuts.”
Numbers of primary school teachers were there in solidarity. While the primary schools are not as impacted (yet) by the cuts, Kylie Jones, who teaches at Larapinta, was looking at the bigger picture: “We get the students ready to move into middle and senior schools and it’s hard when you see them not having the same options as other schools do.”
She is also concerned about the affect on Indigenous education: “As soon as we’re starting to see gains, there are cuts. We’ll lose the progress we’ve made.”
“I’m supporting the strike because I’m thinking about the future,” said Ashika Biar from Braitling. “I don’t think the government is thinking about the future, they’re just thinking about money.”
Both teachers are also concerned about the loss of funding for busses that pick up children from town camps. (This service has been paid for by the Commonwealth with Closing the Gap National Partnerships Funding that looks set to be cut, according to a statement today by Shadow Minister for Transport Kon Vatskalis, calling on the CLP Government to lobby Canberra on the issue.)
Good system eroded over 20 years
Ashlea Farrell also teaches at Larapinta. She took to the microphone at the rally to note the changes for the worse in schools that she is seeing after 20 odd years in the Territory. When she first came she thought she was lucky to be teaching here, amazed by the way teachers worked together, by the resources available and the support from the [departmental] office. One of the reasons she was on strike was her “sadness” at “watching it all go away”.
Mark Wilson was there from “the office”. He told the crowd that it “isn’t just a decimation”, the better word is “annihilation”: “People on contracts are being told the game is over,” he said.
Matt Skoss from CMS called on the department and the government to come clean about “the deals” and why they are being made, instead of maintaining a situation of constant fuzziness.
“To have a healthy community, you need good public schools,” he said. “If you invest in one, you get the other.”
He said the cuts will affect the quality of the community “we have chosen to live in”.
Bob Whitehead (right) from the college referred to the lack of response on the issue from the town’s MLAs. (The union reps were gong to be knocking on their doors this afternoon.)
He addressed his speech to Mr Chandler, asking why he can’t find statements from him about the importance of education, asking why he is denying the youth of the NT the resources necessary to achieve their potential.
Where to for NT students in Knowledge Economy?
In today’s Knowledge Economy education is more than ever essential for ensuring economic prosperity and advancement, he said. Mr Chandler’s proposed cuts will condemn many of our young people to “a future of poor job prospects or unemployment” and this is likely to be trans-generational, especially for those who are already under-achieving.
He referred to the Minister’s request that the union and teachers not take strike action because of its disruptive effect at this critical time of year. But what about the disruptive effect of the reduction in teaching staff over many years, he asked.
The rally also heard messages from colleagues in remote schools at Ntaria (Hermannsburg) and Yuendumu. Eleven union members were on strike at Ntaria. They expressed strong support for their colleagues, especially those at Centralian Senior College and Centralian Middle School as well as for those who will be losing their jobs. Staff at Yuendumu school reported that when they learned of their final staff allocation yesterday, their principal told them there was “no way” their current programs could continue.