Postcard from Brussels

A conference to advance the interests of education support staff across the globe proved too good an opportunity to miss for AEU ES Organiser KATHRYN LEWIS, even if it meant overcoming a fear of long-haul flights.

When AEU’s leadership team casually asked if I would like to go to Brussels for two days, my initial reaction was a firm, “Thanks but no thanks!” Long plane flights are something I avoid, and I felt sure that no professional opportunity could justify a trip all the way to Brussels.

Well, I was wrong!

Education International (EI), the unionfor education employees across the globe, was set to host a conference specifically for education support personnel. Due to serious concerns about support staff members across the world, EI was initiating a campaign to improve the status, rights and working conditions of education support personnel – and I had to admit this was an opportunity I couldn’t miss.

Central to the conference was the launch of the first International Day of Education Support Personnel, so education support staff can be recognised and celebrated in every school around the world on 16 May each year. That really got my attention, as I had seen the benefits here in Victoria of actively recognising the work of ES staff.

In 2000, AEU Victoria launched ‘SSO Recognition Week’, shortly after the Fair Work Commission gave us permission to represent support staff in schools. Our plan was to highlight the significant contribution support staff (then called school services officers) make in our schools, so that we could then bargain on their behalf for improved pay and conditions.

When the National AEU Support Staff Working Party was created in 2010, we learned how much sharing strategies and ideas with other states and territories improved the work we did here in Victoria. In 2015, this working party decided to take the recognition of support staff to the next level and pioneered the annual National Support Staff Week.

The working party provided the forum to compare working conditions, policies and trends for ES staff in schools around Australia. This helped us identify the benchmark conditions we could build on in enterprise bargaining. The improvements for education support staff in our most recent Victorian Government Schools Agreement 2017 are testament to the success of the working party and the increasing recognition of support staff.

In this light, flying for 20 hours to spend two days in Brussels was clearly worthwhile. The conference program promised a range of international speakers, workshops and parallel working parties for delegates to discuss working conditions, job descriptions, professional practice – and to create a declaration on the rights and status of ESP. It looked like offering genuine potential for influencing and advancing the work of education support staff here in Victoria and around the nation, so I jumped into action.

At the conference, the first guest speaker was Sean Slade from the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD). ASCD has 114,000 members, involving superintendents, principals, teachers, ESPs and advocates from more than 127 countries. It is a diverse, nonpartisan association committed to excellence in education, which projects a powerful, unified voice to decision-makers around the world.

Sean spoke of a worldwide shift toward educating the ‘whole child’. Schools are not academic factories, they are learning ecosystems where students  row, mature and learn. He spoke about appreciating the myriad of ESP roles and understanding the importance of developing each student, as well as each school’s culture and sense of community.

Parents and students can sense the culture when they walk into a school, said Sean, so it is essential schools invest in creating an inclusive, respectful community where equality and diversity are recognised. The one statement that struck home for me was: “Only when ESP are respected by teachers and school leaders will the circle be complete and the education of the whole child possible.”

Before the ESP Conference, I hadn’t realised that the International Labour Organisation (ILO) set education labour rights across the world via charters and conventions, and can call countries to account if those conventions are not followed. It was heartening to hear that the ILO’s view on contract and casual work reflects our own – though also troubling to learn about the prevalence of insecure work and its negative impact on working conditions for ESP in so many countries.

I took great pleasure in being able to report to the international conference that here in Victoria, Australia, we had just translated more than 7,000 education support staff from contracts into ongoing positions. This received loud applause from delegates and, over lunch, I was bombarded with questions about how we had achieved this outcome.

Over my 20 years as an ES member, and 12 years as the AEU ES Organiser, I have learnt a lot and been part of some remarkable union events – but the EI conference topped them all. Spending two days with over a hundred likeminded education support members and organisers, talking about the interests and aspirations of ES, was extremely affirming. 

The conference gave me countless new ideas about building strength within our ES membership – first through recruiting, then through engaging and activating members. More than ever, I saw how we can use our strength as a union to elevate salaries, improve career structures, increase visibility and cultivate further opportunities for ES staff. 

Thankfully, I can’t even remember the flight.