KBates-tn.jpgThe NSW experience – the devil’s in the lack of detail

QTU President Kevin Bates comments, 13 March 2012

On Sunday, 11 March, the New South Wales Education Minister Adrian Piccoli announced massive changes to the employment conditions of teachers and principals in that state.

Key points are increased devolution of managerial responsibility and financial accountability to principals and the removal of teachers’ incremental salary increases – a negotiated award condition.

The question now is: what other award conditions will the government axe? And where can NSW teachers go to seek industrial protection, given that the O’Farrell government has passed legislation to bind the NSW Industrial Relations Commission to government policy, and there is now no independent industrial umpire?

The announcement itself looked harmless enough – many of the “school-based decisions” now available in NSW have long been available to principals and teachers in Queensland. (For example, NSW principals will now “be free to make more local decisions for purchases up to $5000” and “schools will have more opportunities to use local contractors”, neither of which would represent more ‘freedom’ in Queensland schools.)

The NSW Liberal/Nationals announcement focused heavily on school autonomy, with the Minister claiming the changes would put “principals and teachers back in the driving seat – allowing them to exercise their professional judgement and making them accountable for their decisions”. It might sound good in theory – but so many critical questions are unanswered and so many broader implications remain unmentioned that the practice is likely to be highly destructive to the NSW teaching profession and public schools. It’s not much good being in the driving seat of a vehicle if petrol tank’s been siphoned and the wheels have fallen off.

The real concerns lie not in what was announced, but in what has been left unsaid.

Evidence does exist that the changes could have a catastrophic impact. For example, the policy has been implemented on the basis of a pilot in 47 public schools. The final report on that pilot  notes that “a majority of the pilot investment was in shaping new temporary roles in schools” and “a total of 289 temporary appointments were made in the pilot; 118 additional effective full time appointments and 171 temporary appointments were made to unfulfilled establishment positions within the pilot schools” (our emphasis). That means an average of four permanent positions in each school were effectively turned into temporary positions – multiply that by the 2200 public schools in NSW and consider that schools will “determine the mix of permanent and temporary staff to meet local needs”, and the potential impacts on the teaching profession become apparent.

The industrial implications become even more worrying when you drill down into the context of this announcement. The O’Farrell government is basing policy decisions on a Commission of Audit – interestingly, the Queensland LNP has said it will undertake the same sort of process if it wins power. A Commission of Audit basically frees an incoming government from all pre-election promises.

The NSW Commission of Audit “Interim Report: Public Sector Management” recommends: “the Government should review the Industrial Relations Act 1996, to ensure that it is responsive to the needs of a modern public sector and that it is not inconsistent with the federal legislative employment landscape that applies to the private and not for profit sectors”.

Does that mean throwing out all state-based awards, such as that which protects the conditions of teachers in NSW?

It also recommends “the development of mechanisms to decouple positions from a narrow classification and appoint employees where appropriate to a substantive remuneration band level, to provide greater flexibility in staff deployment within an agency or cluster”.

Does that mean classifications and associated pay that have been negotiated under enterprise bargaining are also thrown out the window? It would seem so. The NSW government has already legislated to cap public servants (other than police) wage increases to 2.5 per cent per annum, and has now tied teacher pay increases purely to the “attainment of professional standards”. There is no information on how teachers will be evaluated against these standards, and no mention of positions that equate to Queensland’s guidance officers, heads of departments, heads of curriculum or specialist teachers.

Other questions remain unanswered about funding. The NSW announcement says schools will be allocated funding according to need, but serious doubts remain over what the actual amount will be. What will be the total funding from which this “share” is drawn? The NSW Teachers’ Federation has grave concerns about major funding cuts to public schooling.

Given this uncertainty on the adequacy of funding for individual schools, it is hard to see how making principals more responsible for their school spending will help them deliver quality education. Neither is it evident how making principals responsible for more hiring of staff (up to 50 per cent of the total) and other day-to-day managerial matters will free them up to take on a more focused education leadership role.

The NSW government has tried to sidestep the obvious dangers of a single-line school budget to cover all expenses – by proposing a ‘two-line budget’, one for staffing and one for all other expenses. While this means schools can’t be pressured to trade off staff for equipment, it still means principals struggling to manage tight budgets can sacrifice more expensive experienced, permanent staff for cheaper temporary staff, or for unqualified staff. It will also mean, as the inevitable budget cuts are applied, principals will be forced to cut basic services and supplies to pay for qualified staff or pay incentives to attract them to hard-to-staff schools. There would be nothing to prevent a principal from spending the money allocated for IT equipment or building maintenance on that much-needed guidance officer.

The biggest question for QTU members is: how could this affect Queensland teachers, principals and schools?

The truth is we simply don’t know. The Queensland LNP’s “Independent public schools” policy certainly has many similarities to the NSW “Local schools, local decisions” policy, and the Queensland LNP has also announced it will undertake a Commission of Audit in its first 100 days if it wins government. LNP leader Campbell Newman has refused to sign the Queensland Council of Union’s Charter for Working Queenslanders, which includes a commitment to upholding the independence of the Queensland Industrial Relations Commission.

To see more details of the NSW changes, visit the NSW Department of Education and Community's website.

Kevin Bates
QTU President