The Australian Education Union and state teachers unions’ have backed away from a confrontation with Julia Gillard over the NAPLAN tests. But the battle to stop league tables, and the tests themselves, is far from over.
Teachers across the country were ready to ban the tests despite court orders and Gillard’s intimidation campaign that went on for weeks.
It was Gillard who blinked—offering the AEU the small concession of a seat on a working party to discuss the contentious MySchool website.
But the concession is token and there is no guarantee that the working party will stop NAPLAN data being used for league tables, the AEU’s key demand.
Calling off the action was a mistake; the bans should have gone ahead.
Despite unevenness across the country, the ban had enough support nationally to make the test results useless. In far North Queensland alone, 3500 teachers were set to participate.
In New South Wales, the state government became so desperate in the face of teachers’ determination that it sent in its bureaucrats to seize boxes of NAPLAN test papers. There was outrage at state governments’ attempts to recruit relief teachers or use backpackers to break the ban.
Earlier, the NSW Federation of Parents and Citizens Associations expressed opposition to Julia Gillard’s plan to use parents as strike-breakers, saying, “such action can only lead to a wedge between the key partners in a child’s formal educational experience, the parent and the teacher”. Other parents’ groups across the country backed up the comments.
All this was despite rulings from state Industrial Commissions and Fair Work Australia that the ban would be considered illegal industrial action and individual teachers could face fines of $6600 fines, while unions faced fines of up to $33,000.
In Victoria, principals were implicitly threatened with the loss of their job, or the loss of school funding, if they let the ban go ahead. But schools across the country were prepared to defy the courts and support the ban.
The bans would have been a major blow against Labor’s neo-liberal education agenda and against the Rudd WorkChoices Lite laws that have left so many of Howard’s anti-union and anti-strike provisions in place.
Confused Union strategy
The AEU’s strategy from the outset was confused. Despite the AEU’s policy, which is critical of mass testing, union leaders emphasised that the dispute was not about NAPLAN tests as such, or the MySchool web site; but was only about the use of NAPLAN results to construct league tables.
Then, while teachers were geared up for a fight to unequivocally stop league tables, the officials’ public statements increasingly stressed the unions’ aim was to start negotiations with Gillard.
The confusion meant some schools in Victoria and Queensland were preparing students for the tests, while also preparing to ban them. The insistence that the data was “needed” meant it was hard to maintain commitment to the ban from some teachers.
NAPLAN tests are part and parcel of the neo-liberal approach that informs league tables (see page 16).
British principals have recently voted to ban their equivalent mass-testing regime, SATS. This occurred after 20 years of tests where results were used to justify school closures and turning schools into elite “academies”. We cannot allow NAPLAN to do the same kind of damage here as has been done in Britain.
But Labor’s education revolution is on the same failed path—and, disgracefully, Gillard was even prepared to train armies of scabs to push it through. The Queensland government alone was going to spend up to $4 million on labour hire.
But Gillard is under notice. The willingness of teachers to fight was obvious. Hundreds of Queensland teachers cheered as the QTU president told the Labour Day teachers’ contingent that the union would defy the Queensland industrial court and not to worry about the fines. The NSW Teachers’ Federation at first voted against the proposal to call off the bans when the national union (the AEU) put it to state unions.
Despite this setback, the fight against NAPLAN isn’t over. Sydney’s Inner City Teachers Association has called a rally today on the first day of the NAPLAN tests. NSW officials have discussed further industrial action around October if, as is highly likely, Gillard’s “working party” fails to deliver results.
Teacher activists need to be doing everything they can to prepare for the next round in the fight to ban NAPLAN and defend public education.
By Amy Thomas