Taking on Term 2: Include teachers and education unions in decision-making

If the nation is to navigate a successful return to reopened schooling, it is imperative that teachers and their unions are given a seat at the decision-making table.”

While chaos has surrounded the start of Term 2, what’s needed is security, certainty – and much greater consultaion with teachers, writes IEUA NSW/ACT Branch Secretary Mark Northam.

The stop start approach to the closing of schools and now the sudden rush to reopen has been one of the most confusing and chaotic aspects of the COVID-19 crisis, exacerbated by a consistent disregard for the professional voice of teachers.

Many of the issues that emerged in recent months could have been averted if politicians had taken the profession, and the teachers’ unions, into their confidence during the early stages of the crisis.

Instead, confusing health advice and conflicting education decisions, made against the backdrop of what appear to have been economic imperatives, has created unnecessary anxiety for staff, students and parents, and frustrated efforts in maintaining effective education experiences.

If the nation is to navigate a successful return to reopened schooling, it is imperative that teachers and their unions are given a seat at the decision-making table.

As has become evident to many Australians in recent weeks, teaching is a complex process and teachers and support staff grapple with complex decisions every day.

Concerns about Year 12

As a simple example, prioritising Year 12 in the first wave of returns would appear an obvious move to most people, yet even this single issue illustrates the complexities of getting these decisions right.

It also ignores the well-documented health concerns for school staff. While the advice has been consistent in stating that children are a low health risk, our Year 12 students are not children. These are young men and women who have part time jobs and are paying taxes. Many are old enough to vote.

Asking teachers to return to a situation where they are once again required to teach students both face to face and remotely is unreasonable and entirely unnecessary given they had only just managed to implement a viable remote learning process.

All this is predicated on accepting the premise that Year 12 should be prioritised. Yet this decision is far from given and is merely one among the daunting catalogue of complex decisions schools face in the coming weeks.

How do we balance the competing needs of children with learning difficulties against the children of essential workers? How do we prioritise the rostering arrangements of families with multiple children at home compared with those years or cohorts whose educational needs are time critical? How do we convince thousands of kids it’s OK to sit in a crowded classroom but not to participate in their local sporting clubs? How do we keep asking teachers to accept it’s OK to spend the day with 25 kindergarten students, yet prohibit them from seeing their grandchildren?

Meanwhile, as the recent decision by Hunter Valley Grammar School to implement a full return from the start of Term 2 shows, Catholic and independent school employers are picking and choosing which directives they will follow, either state or federal – leaving staff, students and parents to make the necessary adjustments.

If the past few months has shown us anything, it is that schools have become much more important to our society than people ever imagined. Not only have schools emerged as central to maintaining social order and cohesion, it is also quite clear they are critical to the economy.

Teachers and support staff step up

A few short weeks ago, schooling in Australia was turned on its head. Advice was changing from day to day and decisions were being made that profoundly affected peoples’ lives, yet rarely were the education professionals asked their opinion. Invariably they were the last to hear.

But through it all, teachers and support staff in our schools, the majority of them union members, stepped up and are now keeping the show rolling.

Now it is time for politicians and social commentators to step aside and let the profession set the course. Teachers have been sidelined for too long. The professionals charged with getting education back on the road must be given both the resources and the professional trust to get the job done.

Mark Northam