Why I wouldn't have given the Government a 'B' in education - Opinion by Pat Byrne

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I read with interest a recent report card published in ‘The West Australian’ which stated that it was “hard to fault the performance” of this State Government in regard to education.

As the president of a Union which represents 17,000 public education and TAFE staff working in every school and campus across the state, I can tell you that our members do not agree with this analysis.

For them, this term of government has been defined by funding and staffing cutbacks, the introduction of major structural reforms with little system support, an erosion of professional assistance for school staff and greater inequity within the system due to changes to staffing policies which make it much more difficult for teachers to return from country locations to the metropolitan area.

Certainly there have been some positives, such as the introduction of the Student Centred Funding Model, which principals and teachers support in principle. However, this reform was introduced at the same time as significant funding reductions to schools which has minimised any benefit, through the reduction of staff numbers and cuts to programs in many schools.

The reality is that while some schools have ended up better off during this term of Government, many have struggled.

The Government describes WA public schools as the ‘best resourced of any state in the nation.’

It’s true that per student funding is the highest in the country, but to compare our per-student funding levels with those of the eastern states is like comparing apples with oranges.

WA funding per student is higher because of the size of our state coupled with relatively small student numbers. Together this presents a unique geographical challenge and adds to the costs of service delivery. There are no large regional centres such as in Queensland or New South Wales, where large towns have populations of 80 – 100,000 people. Add to this the fact that WA has a larger proportion of Aboriginal students in remote schools than other states and we see that the dollar figures being quoted by the government do not mean that we can provide the same level of facilities as in other states.

In 2014 the state government directly cut school budgets by a total of $180 million, reducing the amount of funding each school receives and resulting in the loss of approximately 600 teachers and 400 education assistants.

The closure of District Offices and loss of up to 700 central office support staff has resulted in the less professional development, student services, operations management, professional consultancy and facilities management.

Increased administrative demands on principals, as functions once provided by central and district offices have been devolved to school level, have added hugely to their workloads while reducing the time they can devote to educational leadership.

At the same time physical assaults by students against principals and teachers have risen from 165 reported in 2014 to 558 in 2016.

Preventative strategies, professional development for staff and support for students with identified behavioural problems will reduce violent behaviour at schools, but schools need enough suitable staff to implement these necessary programs.

Ongoing maintenance issues, particularly in ageing schools, are another concern resulting from systemic underfunding.

Regional education staff haven’t been exempt either, after being hit with what can only be described as a pay cut in the form of rent increases of $60 per fortnight for Government Regional Officer Housing (GROH) tenants .

The education report card isn’t complete without mention of TAFE.

Huge increases to student fees of up to 600 per cent in some instances, coupled with funding cuts of $120 million to the training sector have seen TAFE enrolments drop by over 12,000 in just two years.

A diploma of nursing which cost $1092 in 2013, now costs $10,770! A Certificate IV in beauty therapy which was $626 in 2013, is now $7977! Even in tourism, being touted as our next big industry, the cost of a Certificate III in travel has jumped from $621 to $3587!

With many looking to re-skill following the decline in the mining sector and unemployment rates in our state higher than anywhere else in the nation, shouldn’t we be making it easier for people to access TAFE?

No one is denying that money is tight, but what we need is long term planning and investment in education and training rather than cuts. Spending billions on infrastructure projects at the expense of our public schools and TAFEs is short term thinking at its worst.

Pat Byrne

President – State School Teachers’ Union of Western Australia

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