Public schools in Victoria as we have known them for so long no longer exist. I never thought I would see the day when that fundamental and unique pillar of strength of the public education system, systemic collegiality and team work would be dismantled. It devastates me to see the growing evidence, almost daily, of a dog-eat-dog culture springing up across the public system.
It isn’t new news to anyone that we are experiencing a teacher shortage of disturbing levels, levels I’ve not witnessed in my fifty plus years in Victorian public schools. What is new, are the desperate measures to which principals are turning to attract and retain staff. Wage and work conditions inducements are being dangled in front of teachers, either to lure them out of their existing positions or have them change their minds after accepting an appointment at another school, days and even hours after doing so.
For their part, teachers have wised up to this – it is no rare occurrence nowadays to have, for example, fresh out of university graduates offering themselves to the highest bidder, irrespective of what they can expect as first year graduates under the Victorian Government Schools Agreement (VGSA) when accepting their first teaching position. As such, the equity and consistency afforded by the pay and conditions component of the VGSA recently ratified is crumbling.
Some might say, welcome to the real world! That would be a mistake and a grave one indeed. The logical outcome of such an approach taking hold in our public school system will be an extension of the increasing chasm between the educational outcomes of advantaged and disadvantaged students as reflected in current NAPLAN results. Why? Generally, advantaged students attend the more financially advantaged schools. It is these schools that are best placed to offer the more lucrative inducements to would-be staff.
It is a downward spiral regarding equity within a public system of school education when the schools more advantageously placed financially, can simply take their pick of teachers, based largely on their financial ability to reward teachers above award rates. Simply, winners are grinners and losers can please themselves. That’s not how a publicly funded education system should operate.
Taxpayers, the majority of whom send their children to public schools, should not forget that it is their taxes that are contributing to this. Private schools, for their part, are also hunting. They have in their sights, public school teachers, and have no hesitation in offering them juicy inducements to swap systems. Hamstrung financially, many public schools in Victoria are bleeding staff.
It is hard to reconcile how this has happened, and so rapidly. Sure, the pandemic has changed the world in many ways, schools included. In Victoria, the state government has increased spending across the sector on its watch. Nonetheless, as has been well-documented, teachers are turning away from the profession in their droves and school leadership, once the jewel in the crown for many ambitious teachers is now virtually on the nose.
As reported in the Herald Sun, School Office staff surge (17/11), the growth in the numbers of bureaucrats in the public school System in Victoria has grown exponentially in comparison with the increase in staff on the ground in schools. Rather than ease the compliance and accountability burden on school staff, it has done precisely the opposite in many cases. Little wonder then that school staff are exasperated, exhausted and exiting the profession.
The pandemic has caught us all out in way or another, my profession, no less than others. This crisis has been predicted for some years now, but it didn’t have to be so devastating.
Henry Grossek is the principal of Berwick Lodge Primary School in Victoria.