From the President: Fighting for the next generation

Investing in public education not only helps our children but supports equity, democracy and hope for the future. Properly funded public education is key.

This article was originally published in the Spring 2022 edition of the Australian Educator.

As Term 3 continues, COVID normal and the flu season, on top of endemic teacher shortages, are having a devastating impact on schools across the nation. The day-to-day realities for many schools are escalating staff shortages, combining of classes, school closures and staff and student illness. The same problems also affect preschools and TAFE, which had endured staff shortages, work uncertainty and instability prior to the pandemic.

We have known a crisis was coming – historically austerity and underfunding of public education have had devastating effects on the prospects of millions of students over generations. This shows clearly that Australia has failed to grasp the economic and productivity benefits of properly funded public education. By diverting an additional $10 billion to private schools, the previous Coalition government deliberately ignored the warning bells that have rung for the past decade.

Nobel laureate professor Joseph E. Stiglitz told the inaugural Carmichael Centre lecture in July that growth in inequality was undermining our democracy and our economy, while also undermining economic performance. He reinforced the economic importance of strong unions, which leads to higher productivity and stronger economic performance. And, with collective action being critically important to ensure the provision of education, health, infrastructure and childcare, it is unions that provide that collective action.

Teacher shortages and education crises also echo around the globe. Education International has long said quality education is at risk due to inequity, injustice, economic crisis, coronavirus, and harsh cuts to public education. The alarm has been heard by United Nations secretary-general António Guterres, and the need for governments to invest in public education will be urgently discussed at the UNESCO-hosted Transforming Education Summit in New York in September.

The AEU has responded to the Albanese government’s invitation to submit our priorities to transform education in Australia – this includes full and proper funding for public schools, increased resources for students from disadvantaged backgrounds, restoring respect for the teaching profession, workload relief and increased pay commensurate with the huge importance of the role.

For the AEU and its membership, the past two and a half years have been very difficult. The impact of the pandemic on public education has been compounded by the need to ensure we can continue to organise and campaign in a manner that supports our membership and highlights the deep inequality in public education that has widened after nine long years of Coalition cuts to public education.

Our membership has grown to almost 200,000 members and AEU branches and associated bodies have continued their industrial campaigns in each state and territory. At the national level we have fiercely campaigned for early childhood education, schools and TAFE – but there is much work still to do. It will take the collective action of our members, stakeholders and supporters to achieve our objectives for public education. 

The national teacher shortage has been building for years, and AEU members experience its impact daily. Employment projections produced by the National Skills Commission in 2019 showed that demand for teachers was expected to increase by 10.2 per cent (or 42,600 new jobs) over the five years to May 2024. In addition, the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership estimates that non-retirement attrition among teachers could be 14 per cent over the next 10 years, meaning it is likely closer to 70,000 new teachers needed within the next few years.

In early childhood education, governments must act to improve pay and career progression for educators. They must implement the new national early childhood education and care workforce strategy to support the recruitment of the 16,000 educators and 8000 teachers identified as being required by 2025.

We need proper workforce planning, effective attraction and retention programs, and promotion of the status of the teaching profession. Teachers need job security, manageable workloads and fair wages that acknowledge their skills, knowledge, education and the value they offer to our society.

In a significant change to practice from the previous Coalition government, new Minister for Education Jason Clare announced a teacher workforce round-table focussed on tackling the nationwide teacher shortage would be held prior to the ministerial council meeting in August. As a result, a taskforce, which includes the AEU, has been set up to oversee the development of a national plan to address the crisis that is impacting the teaching profession. This plan must be backed by action from the Commonwealth, state and territory governments. To do nothing will have a devastating impact on public education.

We need to urgently and immediately tackle educational inequity. Full and proper funding for public education is the solution to access, to knowledge, to pathways for Australian students, to attraction, to retention, to acknowledgement of our profession and to inclusion, equity and democracy for our society.  

Correna Haythorpe, AEU Federal President