Catholic systemic support staff: Time to get equal

Anyone who works in a school knows it cannot function without its dedicated support staff. Now these staff in Catholic systemic schools are striving for pay parity with their state school counterparts, writes Monica Crouch.

“We’re all in this together” is a refrain we’ve heard frequently throughout 2020, and nowhere did this prove more crucial than in schools. When the coronavirus pandemic forced schools to close at short notice earlier this year, teachers and support staff united to set up and manage online learning. Since re-opening, support staff have been central to keeping them safe.

Yet support staff in Catholic systemic schools, who are crucial to the proper running of countless schools throughout NSW, are paid substantially less than their counterparts in state schools.

In 2019, support staff in state schools had quite a win: the state government acknowledged it had been undervaluing them, and finally decided to correct it. After wages adjustments and some changes to the classifications structure were applied some received significant pay rises.

But this raise wasn’t the result of government largesse. “It didn’t come out of nowhere,” said IEU Industrial Officer Carolyn Moore. “It was the result of more than six years of hard work by the Public Service Association and its members to have their work properly valued.”

It's a fight the IEU has taken up in 2020.

Teachers join the cause

Perhaps unsurprisingly, support staff in Catholic systemic schools have a key factor in common with their state school counterparts: most are women. Recognising this, IEU members at John Therry Catholic College (JTCC) in Rosemeadow proposed a motion at their regular chapter meeting on 6 November 2020:

“The JTCC Chapter of the IEU calls on Wollongong Diocese to immediately address the pay imbalance between support staff working in Catholic education and their public school counterparts. The JTCC Chapter recognises the invaluable contribution support staff make and calls on Wollongong Diocese to rectify the historical undervaluing of support staff based on gender grounds.”

The meeting was attended by 57 teachers and support staff and the motion passed 57-0.

“No employee who chooses to work in Catholic schools should be at a financial disadvantage to their state school counterparts,” said IEU Rep Craig McKenzie. “Matching the pay increases given to support staff in government schools is the right and just thing to do and acknowledges the invaluable contribution support staff make to the education of students in our care.”

Collaboration between teachers and support staff at John Therry is a consistent theme throughout the sector, and unity is vital in progressing the pay parity issue. “As teachers, we absolutely could not do our job without the unwavering assistance of our amazing support staff,” said Elizabeth Dadd, a teacher at John Therry. “They are at the forefront of everything we do in the classroom. Without the support staff, our students would be incredibly disadvantaged. It is imperative that they receive pay parity.”

The IEU couldn't agree more.

Devil in the details

But here’s where it gets a little complicated. In contrast to teachers in government and non-government sectors, the classification model and pay structures for administrative and support staff in the public sector are markedly different to those in non-government schools, which means simply applying wage adjustments is not straightforward.

So this year the IEU formed a joint working party with the Catholic Commission for Employment Relations (CCER) to determine equivalencies between support staff in Catholic systemic schools and those in the NSW government school sector. The aim is to undertake a comprehensive review of the classification structure and comparative wage rates of Catholic school support staff and determine how they align with their public sector counterparts.

The IEU invited relevant support staff members to take part in a survey and a series of online meetings to discuss the issue, gather granular details of duties, and ensure the working party hears their voice. The union also invited support staff to submit diaries of their daily tasks as part of this process. Their responses are a real eye-opener.

Along with their official duty statements, support staff find themselves doing everything from supervising students in sick bay to arranging for a broken window to be fixed, projecting student numbers for strategic planning, coordinating staff communications, managing 'difficult' parents and community inquiries, scrutinising bank reconciliations, arranging Zoom music classes, setting up school photographs and handling enrolment inquiries. They are often the first port of call for a distressed student.

Then there’s all the coronavirus pandemic has thrown at them, including constant sanitising and supporting online learning.

Uniting for a good outcome

In October and November, teachers and support staff voted on their enterprise agreement, cementing a pay rise of 2.28% in January 2021. So now it’s time for progress on parity for support staff with their state school counterparts.

“Now that the Catholic Systemic Schools Enterprise Agreement has been voted on and endorsed by employees, the union has written to the CCER seeking to set up an initial meeting of the Working Party before the end of the year,” Moore said.

“Support staff responses to our targeted survey have provided invaluable information and lots of material to for us to work with, with many members volunteering to consult more directly with the Working Party over the next six months. The union will provide regular updates in Newsmonth and on its website.”

Throughout Catholic systemic schools, there is strong appetite for this overdue shift. Support staff have long supported teachers – the clue is in their title. Teachers are now returning it in kind. “Teachers and support staff uniting in the fight for pay parity shows that the value of support staff is being recognised in our schools,” said Katrina Robinson, a support staff officer at John Therry.

“And it is time this quality work was acknowledged with quality pay.”

Monica Crouch.