AEU Victoria's submission to the Legislative Council Legal and Social Issues Committee Inquiry into the state education system in Victoria.
The Victorian Branch of the Australian Education Union (AEU) welcomes the opportunity to contribute to the Legislative Council Legal and Social Issues Committee Inquiry into the state education system in Victoria. The AEU represents employees in public schools and is uniquely placed to contribute insights and make recommendations about public education in Victoria.
Victorian public school communities currently face a range of interrelated challenges which governments must address to ensure that the promise we make to our children and young people to be able to access a high quality public education is properly fulfilled.
With a replacement for the current National School Reform Agreement to be negotiated between the Commonwealth and Victorian governments and to be signed in 2024, it is vital that Victoria takes the opportunity to ensure that public schools in this state reach at least 100% of the Schooling Resource Standard (SRS). Every year that the basic standard of funding is delayed continues the failure of governments to provide resources to the level which they themselves have set. This exacerbates the negative impact that a lack of resources has on every Victorian government school student, teacher, educational support employee, assistant principal, and principal, as well as the consequential impact on the wider community.
Victorian public schools are currently in the grip of a severe staff shortage. As detailed in the union’s submission, staffing shortages, especially teacher shortages, are having a devastating impact on staff and students, particularly for schools with relative disadvantage. A range of the recommendations that follow can be found in the AEU’s Ten Year Plan for Staffing in Public Education. The AEU recognises that the State Government has taken some steps towards addressing teacher shortages, but further urgent and bold action and investment is needed.
The desire for some politicians and bureaucrats, as well as some media outlets, to have simplistic student learning achievement measures as the basis on which to judge student and school performance undermines the provision of public schooling in Victoria. System measurements all too often lack the necessary nuance to capture a genuine picture of effective practice and the relationship to addressing the manifold needs of public school students.
Victoria should review its reporting regime and move beyond the simplistic achievement measures captured by NAPLAN. Reporting needs to refocus on identifying and rectifying growing equity gaps between advantaged and disadvantaged students and schools, to ensure that we achieve both equity of outcomes and excellence in public education. Geoffrey Robertson KC correctly argues that “a real revolution in education will only come when a government ensures that its state schools set the standard of excellence. Then and only then will we have equity.” The idea of equality draws on notions that all people in our society are of equal value. This democratic principle is crucial to underpinning the provision of public schooling. Only through proper and fair funding of our schools and a system focused on supporting school staff to provide the best teaching and learning programs that then we can achieve equity.
There are well-founded concerns about the mental health of students in schools and young people in general, and an increased number of acute instances of mental illness. The AEU welcomes the government’s commitment to enact all recommendations of the Royal Commission into Victoria’s Mental Health System and notes that many of the initiatives already introduced have been effective. However, more work needs to be done, and greater investment is needed to ensure that the recommendations are properly addressed, with many of the existing programs in need of expansion. While schools can be well placed to provide mental health supports to students, it would be unwise for government to assume that schools are the main platform for such services. A community wide, whole of government approach is critical so that schools are not required to be a provider of programs beyond those relevant to education provision and avoid the current situation where they are often left scrambling to find specialist healthcare professionals to meet student needs, particularly in regional rural areas where access to such support is even more difficult.
Much more needs to be done to elevate the status of the teaching profession, especially by government. For too long real improvements to salaries and conditions which reflect the important work of school employees, and which properly respects their central contribution to our community have been ignored. Not enough Victorian’s want to become a teacher, and too many of those that do leave mid-career. Excessive workloads and ever expanding administrative burdens are the main cause of increasing attrition rates, and for fewer school staff seeking leadership positions. Salaries need to be more competitive with other professions over the course of a teacher’s career, whilst education support staff need the value of their work better recognised by improved pay.
The opportunities that Victoria affords itself can be directly measured by the investment that is made in teachers – a well-supported and remunerated profession will directly lead to improved student learning and welfare, and consequential positive impacts in our community and the economy – in the shorter and longer terms. Respect for teachers, support staff, and school leaders must be at the heart of any meaningful support for public schools, not least as student needs become more complex, and staff confront more instances of inappropriate and harmful behaviour from some students and families.
Despite the challenges and the areas where there must be much need improvement, Victorian public schools deliver outcomes well above the level of investment that is made. The dedication of school employees, and their commitment to high quality education for their students ensures this, often despite funding and provision arrangements which do not provide what is needed for our public schools to thrive.