Emergency meeting: IEU attends Education Minister’s staff shortage talks

Teacher and IEU member Angela McDonald and IEUA Federal Secretary Christine Cooper attended the Teacher Workforce Roundtable in Canberra on 12 August. They share their impressions here.

Hosted by Federal Education Minister Jason Clare, the Roundtable was the opening session of the emergency meeting of Education Ministers.

Side-by-side with state and territory Education Ministers were classroom teachers, school principals and representatives from the IEU and the Australian Education Union.

“For a long time, teachers have not been included in major decisions directly affecting us,” McDonald said. “So this Roundtable, coming so early in the new government’s term, was filled with promise.”

Stating the problem

Unions have been warning for some years that teacher shortages are dire, from early childhood education right through to Year 12. There are problems with recruitment and retention, work intensification, comparatively low pay, and misguided community perceptions of low professional status.

School enrolments are expected to grow by 10 percent over the next decade, but the number of people enrolling in teaching degrees is falling, down 8 percent between 2017 and 2020, leading to an expected shortfall of more than 4000 teachers by 2025.

The human cost is escalating. “I’m burnt out and exhausted,” McDonald said in the post-Roundtable press conference. “My average work week would be 60-70 hours, that’s most weeks. Sometimes I treat myself and I might only work 50 hours.”

Education Minister Jason Clare had clearly listened. “Angela was almost in tears herself and almost brought me to tears,” he said.

Unpacking the causes

Participants discussed the causes underpinning the teacher shortage and strategies to fix it. “Practising teachers spoke of their love of teaching, the trauma they experience through workload stresses and not being able to find the time to do the best for their students,” Cooper said.

Speaker after speaker raised the impact of unfilled vacancies resulting in oversized classes. “One speaker said teachers were ‘crawling to the finish line’ each day or term,” Cooper said.

“They also made it clear that every national education initiative ends up on the shoulders of teachers.”

A perceived lack of trust in the profession has resulted in teachers having to prove they are qualified professionals through meaningless annual reviews and an endless search for documentational proof, which only detracts from teaching, quality resource development and student support.

We need to work on new ideas to help us attract more people to become teachers and help keep the fantastic teachers we’ve already got in the classroom. We need to create more time for teaching and take that admin load off teachers.

- Education Minister Jason Clare on Radio National, 12 August 2022

“Teachers want to teach, so we need to cut the unnecessary administrative burden,” McDonald said. “And we want to achieve work life balance.”

Rejecting performance pay

The meeting also heard how teaching is a collaborative profession that is only undermined by proposals for performance pay: it pits teachers against one another and rewards the few over the many (see ‘Putting paid to performance pay’, pp 10-11).

“All school staff should be paid more, not just a select few,” McDonald said.

Attracting new teachers

The Roundtable was warned against quick-fix internship models or shorter qualification time for mid-career applicants without considering course quality.

Schools also need to support practicum teachers without adding to the burdens of existing teachers. “Prac teachers need support from classroom teachers, but they just don’t have the time – it is a vicious downward spiral,” Cooper said.

Initial teacher education programs also came under scrutiny. “They may need some structural repair, but this can only come about through negotiation with Education Departments, employing authorities, education unions and universities,” Cooper said.

“We strongly caution against throwing money at some untested solution that may do more damage to an already stretched system.”

Looking after leadership

Stresses on school leadership were another theme. School leaders are struggling with their own mental health while they provide support to staff and students.

“This can also inhibit career progression for classroom teachers who see school leaders at breaking point and think ‘I don’t want that’,” Cooper says.

The Roundtable called for more holistic health approach to support both students and the profession. “We welcome students with complex needs, but this adds to the already high workloads because of inadequate support,” McDonald said.

“Schools and families need timely access to counsellors and psychologists, speech therapists, physiotherapists, occupational therapists and paediatricians.”

Facing the future

Representatives emerged from the meeting finally feeling heard. Understanding that there are no quick fixes, Education Minister Jason Clare promised a national plan by the end of the year.

“There are many challenges ahead,” Cooper said. “But we are positive and hold high expectations for a Federal Education Minister who is prepared to listen and work collaboratively with the teaching profession and education unions.”

“I, like all of you, will be keenly waiting the next steps from the Federal, State and Territory Education Ministers,” McDonald said. “I’m hopeful that our collective voices have been heard.”

The IEU will also be attending the Federal Government’s Jobs and Skills Summit in early September to advocate for teachers and support staff.

Christine Cooper
IEUA Federal Secretary
Angela McDonald
Teacher and IEU member
Christine Cooper
IEUA Federal Secretary