Investing in the future demands better resourced schools

Australia numbers among a small elite of the world’s most prosperous, stable and democratic societies.

How is it then that the New England and North West, along with the rest of NSW, can be enduring such a dramatic shortage of teachers?

It’s not that we don’t have the money. The latest budget forecasts show we are on track for state and Commonwealth surpluses this financial year.

Yet Department of Education figures released this week lay bare the scale of the challenge. They show that while economists and financial market experts focus on financial accounts, they are missing the huge social deficit that is shortchanging our kids and risking our social stability and prosperity. New England and North West schools had 132 full-time teaching vacancies in term four last year, meaning 48 per cent of the region’s 120 schools had a vacancy.

These numbers are scary enough, but they don’t tell the story of the real-world, human impact. Teacher shortages create a diabolical ripple effect. When two classes are collapsed into one, you’ve got to feel for that teacher. Lesson plans are jettisoned, and the teacher’s role starts becoming crowd control. The complex needs or potential of individual students are much harder to attend to. And those with emotional or behavioural issues get less support.

So when politicians shortchange our schools they need to realise they aren’t saving anything really, because the cost bobs up elsewhere. A child that doesn’t get remedial literacy support, for example, is less likely to develop into a full-time worker who pays taxes and contributes to the national economy. A kid with unmet behavioural or emotional needs who misses out on attention from a teacher or school counsellor could well end up getting attention from the police, and the courts.

In other words, our short-term decisions have long-term consequences. So we need to get our head around a basic premise: failing to invest in schools and teachers to make the annual budget look better inflames and aggravates the wider social and economic costs.

Yet while the Department of Education figures released this week are alarming, there is some good news. When you have a worker shortage in any area employers need to review the incentives being offered. That’s obvious.

So the salary agreement recently inked between teachers and the Minns Government is an historic advance towards ending the teacher shortage and giving all students the start they deserve in life. It increases starting and top of scale salaries for NSW teachers by more than $9,000, making NSW teachers the best paid compared with those in other states and territories.

However, this alone will not fix the teacher shortage crisis.

The problem we are addressing is the result of more than a decade of wage suppression, uncompetitive salaries relative to other professions, a blowout in precarious employment and workloads, and under-resourcing.

This requires urgent action on the part of both governments.

Work must continue to ensure teacher salaries are competitive and unmanageable workloads and insecure employment are addressed. This includes the pressing need for the Premier to deliver on his election promise to cut teachers’ admin hours. The most recent NSW People Matter Employee Survey indicated two-thirds of teachers feel they are burned out by their work and only one in five say that they have the time to do their job well.
More broadly, the disparities in our school system are stark, and must be addressed. The National School Reform Agreement has left our state grappling with a funding shortfall of approximately 14 per cent, translating to a staggering $1.9 billion. This equates to more than 10,000 permanent teachers.

Plugging this hole would be transformative. And this is where the Prime Minister needs to step up and close the funding shortfall immediately.

Increased recurrent funding and expanded staffing would mean smaller class sizes allowing more one on one time for students with complex needs. With equitable distribution, we can focus on areas of greatest need, broaden the curriculum, and provide necessary infrastructure. The status quo of private schools building equestrian centres and Olympic pools while public schools struggle with below standard facilities is wholly unconscionable and unacceptable.

A fully resourced public school system would address the needs of many, many more students, including those identified across key areas of equity (Aboriginal background, socioeconomic status background, Disability, English Language Proficiency), intersecting disadvantage and those impacted by a school’s location in remote and rural areas of the state.

Recent polling reveals the latent support and desire for public education. Nearly half of private school parents would choose public education for their children if the resources were available. There is a clear mandate for change.

School returns this week, in what may well be an election year. Properly resourced public education allows our kids to explode out of the starter blocks and make the most of themselves, their community and the nation. That’s in everyone’s interest.