Recent elections in the Victorian branch of the Australian Education Union (AEU) have taken place at a challenging time for public schools and teachers.
State education minister Bronwyn Pike has wholeheartedly signed onto the national policy agenda being promoted by Julia Gillard, which includes standardised testing, school comparison tables and performance pay.
These policies are modelled on the New York education system and are a deliberate attempt to impose competitive market mechanisms on public education.
They are premised on the idea that student learning will be somehow improved by placing students, teachers and schools in a competitive framework in which schools are forced to compete for enrolments.
Federal and State education ministers have announced that from 2010 all school results in the standardised literacy and numeracy tests conducted in grades 3, 5 and 7 (NAPLAN) will be published on a website to enable parent comparison of schools. This data would then be available to be published by the mass media in school “league tables”.
Schools and teachers are under pressure to boost student NAPLAN results and in some cases this is leading to a narrowing of the curriculum as teachers feel compelled to “teach to the test”—a tendency encouraged by departmental memos encouraging teachers to provide practice in exam conditions.
The Victorian AEU is opposed to the creation of school league tables but is yet to have a proper discussion about what to do to stop student and school data being used in this way.
We should follow the lead of NSW teachers and commit to industrial action to disrupt the 2010 NAPLAN unless laws are passed to prohibit league tables.
Nationally there also needs to be debate about how to stop the comparison of schools being promoted through official channels and the proposed national website.
Performance pay for teachers builds on this competitive logic by breaking down the collegiate and co-operative nature of teaching work.
Performance pay trial
A performance pay scheme titled “Teacher Rewards” is being trialled in a limited number of Victorian schools from 2010 over a two year period. The scheme, designed by Boston Consulting Group, offers an annual “bonus payment” to the “top performing teachers” in each school as selected by a panel of school leaders.
Many school principals or union sub-branches rejected the trial from the outset. At my own school, we stopped a proposal to participate quickly with a union meeting and strong resolution against backed by all members.
However the AEU state branch itself holds a more equivocal position. While formally opposed, it suggested that trial data might be used against the scheme and advised school branches that there had to be genuine consultation and agreement before any participation!
Instead the union should have advised schools to boycott the trial outright and used the process to build solid opposition to any further attempts to introduce it.
The recent union elections have enabled some discussion of the situation faced by teachers and the need for a more decisive stance. While initial results indicate that the current leadership team has been re-elected, the left “Teachers Alliance” candidates also received some substantial votes and increased their representation on AEU State Council. I stood as an independent left candidate on a clear platform of action to stop league tables and the performance pay trial and have been elected to AEU State Council, as one of five councillors representing primary teachers in the north east region of Melbourne.
The AEU is in a potentially strong position to stop these divisive policies. Active industrial campaigns over recent years have seen membership climb substantially to over 41,000.
Union activists need to open up a discussion about how to best mobilise this strength in school based action—to defeat the divisive policies, defend the values of public education and win real improvements for all.
By Hamish McPherson