Words by: Mandy Moe Pwint Tu
“Have you walked around here recently? It’s like a ghost town!”
These words were uttered to me last year by one of my most beloved lecturers at Canning College, Mr Arthur Benko. Mr Benko had returned from his well-earned holiday to find that the subject he had been teaching for more than a decade, Modern History, had been taken off the curriculum due to a significant lack of students.
Mr Benko had been reduced to teaching two classes every week and spending a significant amount of his Mondays in the Learning Centre, which was where I found him. Things are better this year, although Modern History still hasn’t made a comeback.
“If you had asked me two years ago when I would retire,” he told me, “I’d have said, not for a long time yet, because I love doing this, I love teaching. But now, I don’t think I’m going to stay for very long.”
Unfortunately, the issue of subjects being taken off the curriculum is not the only problem facing WA schools today.
In early 2014, the Barnett government amended the Public Sector Management Act, making it easier to fire public servants who could not be redeployed. A budget estimates hearing about a week ago revealed that more than 560 Education Department staff will wake up one day and find that their jobs are registrable. This means that if another suitable position is not found in the department, then staff members with registered jobs may find themselves out of a job within the next six months.
Did I mention that the 560 figure includes 338 education assistants, 131 teachers and 93 administrative or support staff? Well, now you know. I think you’ll agree that is a lot of a people.
The Education Department’s executive director of workforce, Cliff Gillam, attempted to soften the blow by saying that no one was presently registered as a redeployee and that there was no intention to cut jobs in the next six months. He continued to say that the Department was legally obliged to inform employees when they became registrable, and, if it should chance that no other job could be found within the public sector in the next six months, “we can move to involuntary severance.”
Sounds a bit harsh, doesn’t it? He continued:
“This is an absolute last resort and would be well into the future.”
“Our priority is to ensure that students are supported and educated by the right staff in the right locations, so we are continuing to seek suitable jobs for these 562 employees.”
“These 562 employees are just over 1 per cent of our total workforce and the lowest number of staff surplus to requirement in many years.”
I think these statements were meant to be somewhat reassuring.
These amendments to the Public Sector Management Act have understandably sparked outrage in the WA opposition and in the unions, giving rise to more problematic issues. Opposition Education spokeswoman Sue Ellery said:
“This is terrible news for the school staff involved and terrible news for student learning. The Minister will say that WA schools are the best resourced schools in the country, but these figures show the real picture of education in WA.”
According to Sue Ellery, the budget estimates hearing also brought another issue to light. As of February this year, the Department of Education did not have information on the whereabouts of 927 students. Ms Ellery said that in June 2014, that figure was 835. Couple this with the fact that the number of students who are attending school less than 60 percent of the time have increased in four of the eight education regions across WA, and you’ve got yourself an issue that by all accounts should have been addressed by now, instead of further expanding it.
Ms Ellery articulated: “It is a concern that while the Barnett Government has cut over $200 million from schools the number of children whose whereabouts were unknown by the Department and the number of students not attending school have both increased.”
United Voice assistant secretary Kelly Shay said the potential loss of so many staff would have a devastating impact on school communities, fixating on the fact that hundreds of schoolchildren will be impacted, whether it is the loss of their education assistant, their class teacher or their support staff. Ms Shay went on to say that the Premier had guaranteed United Voice members earlier this year that changes in the Workforce Reform Bill would not impact on them.
The president of the State School Teachers’ Union of WA, Pat Byrne, has said that the Government has already cut hundreds of staff from public schools, putting increasing pressure on remaining teachers, who have suddenly found their workload mounting with less and less support.
“We are very concerned about the effect that these continuing staff cuts are going to have on the education of our students,” Ms Byrne said.
There is no indication as to the length of time staff would have before they became registrable, and consequently, be declared redundant. Ms Byrne added: “This is going to make staff extremely anxious, as they simply won’t know what their future holds.”
Ms Byrne also wrote an article for the West Australian in which she details the obstacles that have been ungraciously thrown at the WA school staff. The budget cuts have led to the sacking of hundreds of education assistants and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander education workers who assisted teachers in the classroom, resulting in principals having to cut attraction and retention programmes, literacy and numeracy support, professional development programmes and several other initiatives.
This means that class sizes are now larger than before, with teachers having to help students at educational risk without the assistance of education assistants and other support staff and programs. Some high school teachers are having to teach different subjects to Years 11 and 12 students in one classroom at the same time.
All of this, coupled with the fact that the education system is fast heading towards using national professional standards as a primary reference for guaranteeing that teachers and principals always aim to develop their work, has teachers barely keeping their heads above water.
In research for this piece I stumbled across an article written by Astrid Higgins, a mother of three, whose youngest son has been diagnosed with autism and who, in two years’ time, will be in school and most likely without access to an aide in the classroom due to the effect that government cuts will have on the school.
She asks: “How can this be happening in a state that has been so economically strong – and can find money for projects like the $400 million Elizabeth Quay development, and a new football stadium?”
Good question, Astrid. Good question.