I came prepared for my last Parliamentary Committee Hearing with a fat file of public submissions to assist questioning of witnesses.
The investigation concerned NSW Teacher shortages. First up were public, and then independent teacher unions, bearing scathing criticisms of NSW Government policy. This is always expected – teacher unions are permanently at war on policy, and I suppose the other LNP MP on the Committee was trying to play that card by relentlessly interjecting during Labor’s time for questions.
The problem with this infantile behaviour is the teacher shortage issue has exploded into a full blown crisis, as evidenced by the truly alarming submissions and data we were given for the Hearing.
For the lead government MP at the hearing to be so oblivious to the gravitas of the problem, and incapable of even listening to the evidence, was mortifying.
Eventually the Committee Chair snapped and warned him ‘… that is your third or fourth smart alec contribution to the Hearing. I will not hesitate to kick you out if you continue to be juvenile and stupid…’
Let me pause here and take you through some of the data we received for the Hearing.
We ran an online survey, which received 11,299 responses – 66 per cent were teachers, 11 per cent members of a school executive and 17 per cent were parents. Rural and regional schools submitted 54 per cent of responses. This disproportionate number indicates the extreme level of anxiety in non-metro schools, because they were already harder to staff before this crippling shortage.
I knew we had a significant problem, but even so, the data was shocking: 92 per cent have experienced collapsed/merged classes; 65 per cent had classes taught by ‘out of field’ teachers (unqualified in the subject); 39 per cent had experienced classes that were not even able to be supervised; five per cent experienced schools closing early; and nine per cent groups of students were sent home. The full survey and its findings are posted with other submissions on the NSW Parliament’s Committees website (Legislative Council Standing Committee 3).
This situation is no game for politicians and posturing. The impacts of the crisis on our teachers, who are still loyally showing up, are profound – the costs to our children and their life opportunities is unconscionable. So, if ever there was an inquiry that required MPs to read the information and behave like adults, this has got to be it.
I texted my government colleagues to ask if they were prepared for questions, and was assured by one that he had been ‘briefed by the Minister’s Office and had questions’. So he had the lead.
First question: ‘Why does the federation seek to block a lot of these government initiatives to get more teachers into the classrooms? Is it a protection racket? Why don’t you guys like to actually accept that the government is trying to get more teachers into school for our kids?’
Answer: ‘… Really? Is that the type of question [you] are going to ask? Is that as good as it gets?..’
And so it continued. There wasn’t even enough time at the end to understand what is going on with our teacher workforce planning and profiles. I am not sure how this problem can be tackled without that information. I do know for sure that yelling at each other won’t help.
Next was Mark Northam, representing the 32,000 member Independent Education Union. His evidence stopped me cold. Northam pointed to the recent Queensland teachers salary agreement, with increases locked in for CPI, making them the best paid in Australia. He explained, ‘It really is a problem for NSW. I’m not suggesting there are going to be busloads of teachers exiting the State or anything like that. But, certainly in that top portion from Lismore up, people would be giving some serious consideration to it.’
I asked him during the break about our already flood-battered schools losing yet more teachers to better paid positions in Queensland? And he told me he fears it’s going to be bad. He is not aware of anybody who has thought this new challenge through, let alone has a plan for it.
My Committee experience tells me these big teacher staffing problems won’t be solved in combative political forums.
Somehow, our community needs to cut through the noise and insist our local teachers get the respect and support they need – and not feel obliged to drive across the border to higher pay, less stress and better conditions.
If NSW can’t match the Queensland offer to teachers, we need a special solution for cross border communities facing this new crisis-on-top-of-a-crisis.
If nothing is done, the 2023 school year could see our local teaching service on the brink of collapse. The most disadvantaged schools will be hardest hit. We need to acknowledge our indebtedness to every classroom teacher who keeps showing up for our children.
Families can play a direct role supporting our schools, and all of us can help by insisting our education systems make it possible for them to stay. Experience has taught us we cannot assume a cavalry will come to rescue us in a catastrophe. My big take out for 2022: is we have to take away these things on ourselves – and this severe teacher shortage is looming as another one of those issues.
Lennox Head-based Catherine Cusack has just retired as a NSW Liberal MLC.