State Education: The School of Hard Knocks!

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Across the country, students and workers in all sectors of education are organising against cutbacks, increased costs and a “reform” agenda that is turning education into a servant of industry. Last year, Queensland teachers took strike action against cuts, Canberra secondary school students organised militant walkouts to protest reduced staff numbers and academics held a national strike. South Australian teachers stood their union president in the state elections to show their disgust at both the incumbent Labor government’s performance on education and the Liberal Party’s plans. But the biggest education battleground is Kennett’s Victoria, where state education has become the issue around which competing class forces have gone to war.

In the 1950s and ‘60s, expanding Australian capitalism needed a mass education system to provide a literate and skilled workforce which could be employed straight out of school and topped up with a bit of specific on-job training. Access to education for all was also an important ideological cover. We were told Australia was the “lucky country.” There were opportunities for clever children who would knuckle down, work hard at school and conform to the expectations of the system. Even though the majority cannot realise this dream, their failure is assessed as an individual responsibility!

But decaying capitalism ‘90s style has different needs. Companies are jockeying for the biggest share of the global market. Workers of all countries are pumping the lie that universal belt-tightening is in the “national interest.” It is a case of defending the market share of “their own” companies against the nasty multi-nationals. The fact that every company is up to its neck in the global trade war – whose casualties are its employees’ jobs and living standards – is neatly glossed over.

The result of this frenzied global competition is unemployment, lower wages and worsened working conditions, coupled with draconian public sector and welfare cuts. The over-supply of trained labour makes it possible – even “desirable” – for governments to scrimp on training. For capitalism, this becomes dangerous. Young graduates will start questioning a system, which has an obvious social need for their skills but refuses to give them work. It’s better not to educate them in the first place.

Educational institutions are slavishly implementing the recommendations of two influential national reports, named after committee chairs, Finn and Carmichael. (See “Finn and Carmichael Offer No Solution for Capitalist Crisis” in Australian FS Bulletin #?) The implicit assumption behind these reports is that job training will lead to economic recovery. This farcical conclusion implies that lack of relevant skills is the reason for unemployment! In reality, the “clever country” slogan is little more than a shabby attempt to blame an over-stretched education system.

We are witnessing an intensive drive to privatise education and tie remaining public education to the corporate sector. The funding priorities of federal and state governments reinforce this trend. For every $1 of Ffederal education grant money that goes to state schools, $4.20 goes to private schools. While the Kennett government is engaging in the most vicious slash-and-burn attack on public education, it was able to find an additional $24 million in state funding to give to private schools in its 1993 mini-budget!

The New Corporate Arena

Advertising executives now routinely incorporate children into their marketing plans. Children’s toys have become little more than advertising for other products, and even school programs are becoming part of their repertoire. An attempt by Macdonalds in New South Wales to sponsor school sport in return for plastering their logos all over the uniforms met with an outcry from parents and unions.

Educators are worried that the system adopted by some US school districts of broadcasting advertising via satellite dishes, “generously donated” by business sponsors, is on the horizon in Australia. American school districts sign a contract for programs – which include advertising – to be beamed into every classroom, and it is a sacking offence for teachers to turn it off! For workers in the Australian Technical and Further Education (TAFE) system, the client is no longer students but industry. The number of final year Victorian school students studying history, literature and politics is declining, while enrolments in business management have gone through the roof. Even kindergartens in Victoria are being forced to seek sponsors and become “entrepreneurial!”

The same corporate and vocational push has made its way into Australian universities. The funding base of universities is changing as more money comes directly from industry. This private resourcing is influencing the curriculum offerings and research priorities. Postgraduate students have complained about their research findings being suppressed when the outcomes have not pleased the corporate backers.

University access has tightened up. Thousands of qualified students miss out on places. Those who do get a place find less support in the harshly competitive, dog-eat-dog corporate university of the ‘90s. Students pay dearly for the few services that are available. All but the wealthy few leave university saddled with an enormous Higher Education Contribution Scheme (HECS) debt. Although more women than ever are now going to university, they do not get equal access to prestigious programs. Many more men than women study at postgraduate level.

TAFE is widely believed to be the golden education sector that gets all the funding. But the rhetoric and the reality don’t mesh. TAFE Colleges, Skillshare, neighbourhood houses and fly-by-night private providers scramble to undercut each other in tendering for federally funded programs. The lowest bidder wins the contract.

No prize for guessing how they keep those tender costs low: the entire TAFE system is increasingly being staffed by super-exploited sessional and contract workers. The vast majority of these workers are women. They are expected to develop courses within tiny modules suitable for a diverse student population and to deliver them in absurdly low class contact hours. Many TAFE students must now complete huge segments of their courses by working their own way through “self-paced” materials and interacting with a computer!

In Victoria, TAFE funding is calculated according to the number of student contact hours each college provides. This formula ignores the special needs of many students and forces classes size up. At some colleges, there are not even enough chairs to seat students in the classrooms. When the students inevitably vacate these non-existent seats, teachers are witch-hunted over the high attrition rates! College bosses appoint “Quality Provision” managers to investigate this “mystery” and ensure “standards of delivery” are met! But workers in the system, who know the answers, are not even consulted!

Fed starve states

Although Victoria is the clearest example of an education squeeze, the phenomenon is national. Simon Marginson explains why in his analysis of the federal Labor government’s rightwing agenda (See Frontline, November/December 1993). Marginson documents how federal Labor’s fiscal record is economic rationalism perfected. The governments of Hawke and Keating have reduced taxes on high incomes and cut government spending in order to bring down the deficit. They did this by offloading debt onto state governments. By reducing Commonwealth general-purpose grants to the states in every federal budget (except one) since 1984, federal Labor has forced them to absorb the shortfall. In the past decade, the payments to the states fell from 22.4% of the federal budget to 12.9%.

As federal funding is the single most important source of state revenue, short of breaking with the whole rotten system, the options have been limited to cutting spending or raising revenue either through increased borrowings or state taxes. The Kirner government pursued a combination of cutting, taxing and borrowing. Consequently, the last years of Labor in Victoria saw cuts to education of 5.2%. Kennett is going all out for cuts to balance his books.

Meanwhile the federal government is continuing to urge the states, who carry the main funding responsibility for education and welfare plus much of the responsibility for health and housing, to cut a further $3 billion from health and education through a process called “benchmarking.” This benign sounding scheme requires all states to slash their funding in order to meet that of the lowest spender, Queensland  — ironically the only state which still has a Labor government!

Marginson’s figures show that both the Kennett and Keating governments are to some extent complicit in the wholesale attack on Victorian state education.

Victorian battle zone

The severity of the assault leaves the majority of Victorians reeling. Photos of teachers and students in tears as their schools were closed provides the human face of the horrendous figures. In a little over a year, we’ve seen all school cleaners lose their jobs and 8,000 — or one in five – teachers gone from the system. At the end of 1992, 55 schools were closed. Minister for Education Don Hayward told The Age that this was a “one-off move.” He said, “People will have security for the future … We are not looking to close any more schools.” In 1993 he closed another 210! The most recent round of cuts overwhelmingly hit small rural communities.

Very few were fooled by the farcical Quality Provision Task Force (QPTF) process — set up by the Kennett government to provide cover for implementing its predetermined closure program — despite Hayward’s crowing that some of the closures were recommended by the task force, and therefore “voluntary.” That the majority decision of a task force can be overturned by its chairperson, a government appointee, makes it remarkable that so many QPTFs did not deliver Hayward’s predetermined outcome! The Quality Provision process got “voluntary” outcomes in the same way that the Directorate of School Education managed to get many of its so-called “voluntary” redundancies. (see interview with Karen Sellenger.)

The government’s Education (Amendment) Act 1993 has more stings for state education. It has imposed fees for overseas students. This is the way fees were first reintroduced into universities. It severely curtails the role of school councils. Their responsibilities have increased without a corresponding commitment from government to adequate resourcing. Councils cannot instigate legal proceedings without the written permission of the Minister, and closed schools are expressly prohibited from appealing or challenging the decision in any Victorian court, tribunal or at the Equal Opportunity Board. School councils are now little more than an arm of the Directorate of School Education.

The cut to education budget already amounts to $240 million. A further $145 million has been cut from the 1994 budget and another $100 million over the next two years.

Victorian kindergartens have also had their funding sliced in a new financing arrangement, which has seen many kinders cut to half-time or closed. The new arrangement is likely to result in even more closures by sending kindergartens bankrupt. (See interview with Peter Yates.)

Willingness to fight

Although many Victorian workers and students are shocked and demoralised by the viciousness of the attacks, beneath the surface is a seething anger and willingness for a real fight. The almost general strike on 10 November 1992 is evidence of this. Many teachers who had never struck before abandoned their classrooms to march that day. There was exhilaration and enthusiasm to resist the entire Kennett agenda, including the assault on education.

Ten days later, Hayward announced the first round of education job cuts and school closures. Union officials carefully contained workers’ anger. Ten years of “consensus” politics under the Prices and Incomes Accord has left unions in a poor state and trained rank-and-file workers to view unions as service organisations: we pay, they deliver a “result.” Grassroots activism has withered and democratic structures have closed down. Instead of telling workers the truth about the need to fight in a new way, union officials cling to the only method they know: “Talk to us,” they pleaded with the government.

When the Keating government eased the transfer from state to federal Awards for Victorian workers thrown into contracts, the sigh of relief was audible from union officials, who now had an out from waging a fight. Officers in the two Victorian teachers unions, the Victorian Secondary Teachers Association (VSTA) and the Federated Teachers Union of Victoria (FTUV) embraced the Federal Award “strategy” with gusto. Enormous energy went into pursuing the snail’s pace procedure of achieving a Federal Award. They dangled it under the nose of union members as the way in which teachers would be “saved” from the ravages of Kennett. Some gains can be achieved through the Federal Industrial Relations Commission, as the reinstatement of the three public holidays ripped off by Kennett shows. Yet Federal Awards come at a price. The cost is a union’s independence and capacity to wage struggles outside the pro-capitalist frameworks of the Commission. Class-conscious workers don’t deride the IRC as the “bosses court” for nothing!

For the Victorian teacher unions, the price has indeed been high. Education workers struck on 5 May to attend a mass meeting and then join 60,000 public sector workers protesting the systematic attacks on the entire public sector. Teacher unionists voted that day to participate in 74 days of rolling strike action. Within a week, teacher union officials suspended the industrial action, fearful that the actions would jeopardise the quest for that holy grail: the Federal Award! This story was repeated throughout 1993. Strikes and bans were called off and struggles hosed down while the interminable hearing continued.

Out there at the chalkface, schools closed down, jobs were lost and working conditions decimated. Those teachers declared “in excess” struggled in misery as Short Term Replacement Teachers. Meanwhile, the emergency teachers they replaced got no work at all!

With the union leadership giving only ‘moral’ support to small groups prepared to mount a fight, work places are fragmented and demoralised. Standard union movement slogans such as “an attack on one is an attack on all” have become antique phrases of a bygone era, and the word “solidarity” has gathered dust through lack of use! The absence of a centralised and co-ordinated fight has resurrected the survival-of-the-fittest mentality. Teachers scramble to find their own individual solutions to the crisis around them.

Some have been able to keep their heads low and find a tolerable way to get by. But for the most conscious, many suffering multiple oppression, there has been no choice but to fight. Increasing numbers of teacher unionists are seeking explanations for what the hell has gone wrong. Workers are eager to hear the debate at mass meetings, and speakers critical of the official strategy are frequently voted an extension of time. At a mass meeting held on 6 October (the day working people marched to protest a year of the Kennett Government) VSTA member, Tess Lee Ack, received widespread applause when she criticised the reliance on Federal Award and pointed out how Enterprise Bargaining will further weaken Award protections. She calculated how many times teachers had stopped work since Kennett’s election and asked unionists to think about how much more effective an all-out strike to defeat Kennett’s anti-working class agenda would have been. Increasing numbers of unionist know this is right.

Inspiring beacons

While education union officials have preached the Federal Award panacea, some school communities have seen through this sham strategy and mounted a fight for survival. The rebel schools, Northland and Richmond, are beacons. These two schools, which refused to close, are symbols of resistance and a reminder of the depth of the betrayal. Victorian state education has sustained the most brutal body blow in its history, and individual school communities have been left to fight alone.

Located in working class communities, both Secondary Colleges provided an education to young people with special needs. Both schools were located on prime real estate.

At the heart of the Northland Secondary College fight was the school’s acclaimed Koori education program. The Koori Program’s whole school approach meant that it could not be ripped out of its context and placed into another setting, as the Minister argued.

Aboriginal students, education workers and parents led the fight to save the school. The successful Equal Opportunity Board case highlights the blatant racism of the government which wants to destroy schools unfettered by EO concerns. The Government stands well and truly exposed. They spent $360,000 fighting the claims of discrimination lodged by a young Koori man and woman.

The Board’s finding that the decision to close Northland did discriminate against Koori students is an important victory and shows how limited EO laws can sometimes be useful tools. This highlights the need not only to prevent further erosion of EO law but to extend and strengthen its coverage.

Although the Government has legislated to prevent other closed schools from using this strategy, the ruling moves Northland a step closer to reopening. The State Government’s announcement that it will appeal the EOB decision in the Supreme Court is not surprising. This costly exercise shows that Kennett has plenty of tax payers’ money to fritter away in the quest to close schools. The rebel school must receive strong ongoing community support. Unionists must take strike action to get the original EO board ruling implemented, should the State Government win its appeal.

The long and bloody battle to save Richmond Secondary College is an inspiration. The 360-day, 24-hour occupation mobilised many new forces into active struggle against Kennett’s program of vicious attacks on the working class.

The occupiers demanded that school re-open as a co-educational secondary college. In an attempt to fracture support for state education, the government announced that Richmond Girls High and Malvern Girls High would be closed and amalgamated as a new Melbourne Girls College on the Richmond Secondary College site. This tactic failed when occupiers insisted that the issue was the provision of co-educational secondary education in Richmond, not a squabble over one site.

On 7 December, police entered the school and forcibly removed all the occupiers. (See interview with Kim Corless). The campaign entered a new stage. Contractors were brought in to renovate the site, but these scabs had to contend with a 24-hour picket, endorsed by Trade Hall. Government attempts to sow divisions amongst the occupiers and picketers through crude red-baiting failed.

The function of the police force was unmasked when images of cops viciously and systematically beating demonstrators were beamed into lounge rooms around the world. The state certainly wanted to scare the picketers, who were attempting to prevent scab contractors from entering the site. But the Police Minister failed in his attempts to suppress this graphic news story. Like the video of the Rodney King beating in Los Angeles, the film footage of police brutally bashing demonstrators over the head with batons did not lie. The outrage was swift, and community attitudes rapidly polarised.

Instead of isolating the picketers, numbers swelled, and support for the Richmond Secondary College campaign grew. As the word spread, it looked like we were in for a long, hot summer of struggle – and ultimate victory.

Enter Trades Hall Council

The strength of the Richmond Occupation Committee finally forced the government to the negotiation table. But in a smart move by Don Hayward, the Kennett government began wheeling a deal with the middle caste bureaucrats.

A fractured group comprised of Trades Hall Council, the VSTA, FTUV, Richmond Council, Richmond Girls High, Malvern Girls High, the new Melbourne Girls College and the occupiers was cobbled together. Through a circuitous routine, the Richmond Occupation Committee got news about the negotiations’ progress.

When the Occupation Committee finally got a government offer, they were forced to make the decision with a gun at their head. Trades Hall Council had made the decision to immediately lift its endorsement of the pickets, and Richmond Council was ready to move in and remove the tent city. Weakened by this duplicity, the Occupation Committee decided to accept the deal but impose conditions. If the conditions weren’t met, wildcat picketing would be reimposed.

John Halfpenny, the Trades Hall dealmaker, showed that his real agenda was to shut things down for Christmas, just as he had done in December 1992, when he suspended the union campaign against Kennett’s individual employment contracts. To make sure no one was confused about his intentions in removing Trades Hall endorsement before discussion of the deal, he put out a disgraceful statement – blatant in its red-baiting – which instructed trade unions not to observe any pickets. Those Richmond Occupiers who had successfully argued for the imposition of conditions were branded as “political fringe dwellers” and “parasites” who “latch onto struggles” but don’t initiate anything themselves! This is a bit rich, coming from a bunch of bureaucrats who rode in to the save the day in the final month of a year-long struggle! With these comments and his claims that the militants do not have the support of “genuine trade unionists,” Halfpenny has signalled to the state government and its police an open season on the Richmond picketers.

This manoeuvring was the role of Halfpenny. But what of the settlement itself? The deal involves a number of positive features. First, although Melbourne Girls College will be set up on the former Richmond site, the school will be required to open its enrolments to all girls who live in Richmond and Malvern. Winning this demand was crucial: it undermines the planned élite nature of the College as a select entry school. However advertising for Melbourne Girls College, showing only well-dressed Anglo Saxon girls, did not inspire confidence that the proposed school would cater for the diverse multi-ethnic working class community of Richmond. Second, Lynall Hall Community School, a small co-educational alternative school currently located in Brunswick, will be re-located to Richmond and housed in improved facilities. Third, a co-educational annexe of a high school in a neighbouring suburb will be in central Richmond, ready to start classes at the start of the 1994 school year. A community committee will also be established to study the educational needs of Richmond.

These gains are important. Without the heroic occupation of the Richmond Secondary College site, it is unlikely that the prime piece of real estate would have been retained for state educational at all.

However, the settlement has serious flaws. An annexe is not a school. Control will rest with a school in a neighbouring suburb, not with the community of Richmond. The deal only agrees to staff the annexe according to existing staffing formulas, which, for a school with small enrolments, is woeful. There are also limitations on the categories of students eligible to enrol at the annexe, which will ensure that, at least in the short term, it remains small. But the most serious flaw in the settlement is that it does not include the dropping of a writ for $1.2 million of damages issued to six of the leaders of the occupation. This is a terrible betrayal. Negotiations would never have occurred without the fight inspired and maintained for a year by the leaders of the occupation committee. No witch-hunts. Defend the Richmond Secondary College Six!

With friends like these …

The leadership of Trades Hall Council were not the only ones to play a treacherous role. The leadership of the FTUV and VSTA have a lot to answer for. In line with the do-your-own-thing approach, teacher union officials mouthed their support for the Richmond occupation from the start, but did little to mobilise members.

For 12 months, militant members pushed for strike action on Richmond and Northland. Mass stopwork meetings carried several resolutions that the unions stop work immediately if the Richmond occupiers were evicted. A number of well-organised school union branches, outraged by the police raid on Richmond, stopped work the next day – protesting without any mucking about.

Meanwhile, when the police dragged the occupiers out of Richmond, the unions’ executives dutifully passed motions, which sounded fine if you didn’t read the fine print. They called for a teachers’ strike and mass rally outside the Richmond site two days after the raid. But in a gutless act of sabotage and buck passing, union officials merely authorised branches to decide to stop working. They did not call out the membership! This meant that when branch representatives received a FAX the day before planned strike, they were not able to immediately organise their members to stop. They were merely instructed to call a branch meeting to discuss if the branch would stop. For large TAFE colleges and multi-campus secondary colleges, a meeting cannot be organised at such short notice. Some branch officers decided it was all too hard. Others took the decision and called their branches out. But when dissenting members called the central union offices to find out the status of the strike, they were informed it was optional! It is therefore no surprise that the strike and rally was small.

This is the state of the teachers’ unions. Leadership abstains from making the hard decisions and instead makes decisions, which fragment strong branches and undermine class-conscious members.

Fighting program

Militant, class-conscious trade unions which promote mutual solidarity must be rebuilt from the grassroots up. Union democracy is crucial to this process. In many unions, including the education unions, debate has withered completely.

To go forward, we must conduct a thorough analysis of the catastrophic consensus decade and chart a new course. Political education about the deepening capitalist crisis is crucial.

The systematic dismantling of state education is provoking widespread revulsion. The impact of the education cuts goes right across the community. The attacks have forged a solid unity of students, education workers, parents and the wider community.

The majority believes that access to free, quality education is a right. But it is a right that is being ruthlessly taken away. The fight around education has enormous power to — and actually is — radicalising whole new layers of the population. Our task is to raise concrete demands, which make sense to people and then point the finger at the decaying capitalism system when it won’t cough up.

We demand:
No forced closures!
Fund education, not big business!
Free quality state education for all, from Kindergarten to University!
A living wage for all students and education workers!
Needs-based staffing!
Integration for students with disabilities!
Diverse curriculum, including multilingual studies and education about oppressed people’s struggles!
Free childcare in all schools and tertiary campuses!
Equal Opportunity in all academic and vocational fields!
Community, teacher, parent and student control over schools and universities!

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