What is the state of play in WA's public education system in 2024?

What is the state of play in WA

From even a brief glimpse at the headlines shows, one can tell it’s been quite a year for public education in Western Australia.

In January, the Federal and Western Australian State Governments announced that WA would become the first State in Australia to fully fund its public schools to the School Resourcing Standard (SRS), representing a $1bn investment.

Just four months earlier, the state’s schools received a $22m boost for mental health and wellbeing projects. In addition, all Education Ministers agreed to support the Commonwealth’s five-year $307.18m Federation Funding Agreement to deliver the National Student Wellbeing Program.

To the outsider, these announcements might seem like the state’s public schools should be celebrating, but instead they are preparing to strike for the first time in ten years.

Poor work-life balance and unmanageable workloads have led to a staggering 80% of WA teachers intending to leave the profession. The state’s teachers also report struggling with mental health issues and are up to six times more anxious, depressed and stressed than the average Australian.

Recent studies have found that WA teachers face violence in their professional lives up to 11 times more frequently than the general population, with the state’s public schools schools experiencing a violent incident every 45 minutes.

A profession at breaking point

On Tuesday, thousands of primary and secondary teachers from more than 80 public schools will walk off the job for half a day after the union rejected a new pay and conditions offer from the state's government.

The State School Teachers' Union of WA (SSTUWA) has been pushing for a 12% pay rise over two years, but the government has proposed 11% over three years – an offer the union says is “insulting”.

In a letter to parents, Matt Jarman, president of the SSTUWA said the strike is needed because the teaching profession is now “at breaking point”. However, WA Premier Roger Cook believes the strike is “totally unnecessary”.

“In the event that the industrial action does take place the Department of Education has matters in hand – operational arrangements to ensure that we can look after those children,” Cook said.

“Every parent should be aware that they should send their child to school next Tuesday, and the principals will work with their teachers and with the Department to ensure that we have the resources we need to look after the kids.”

Disadvantaged kids being ‘locked out’

Dr Saul Karnovsky from Curtin University’s School of Education says like in other states, WA is experiencing a teacher shortage, with schools finding it challenging to staff all their classes.

“This puts further pressure on already overworked teachers,” Dr Karnovsky told The Educator.

“This is a situation of our own making. For too long we have heaped unreasonable responsibilities, requirements and standards upon the shoulders of teachers. Teachers in WA are required to do more for young people, their families and society with less resources than ever.”

Karnovsky says the “broken” school funding model is causing disadvantaged students to be “locked out of education opportunities”.

“This is particularly acute in the regions and remote locations across our vast state,” he said.

“Teachers continually tell us that the curriculum is overstuffed and out-of-date. They are also tired of testing students within an inch of their lives for the sake of ‘big data’ and making them memorise information which has little relevance to students’ everyday lives.”

‘What WA teachers are asking for isn’t unreasonable’

Dr Karnovsky said disengagement has also become entrenched with behavioural challenges in schools mounting.

“Learner diversity is increasing along every dimension, which takes teachers more time to modify their learning programs to account for adequately,” he said.

“So what WA teachers are asking for isn’t unreasonable. They want adequate pay for the work they do - which is usually 50 hours a week to meet their job requirements - within a rising cost of living crisis.”

However, as Dr Karnovsky points out, teachers don’t enter the profession for pay alone.

“In fact, most WA teachers tell us it’s not pay that will keep them teaching; it’s a more manageable workload and better work-life balance that truly matters to them. As a comparison, the Victorian government is investing $1.6 billion into their teaching workforce.”

Dr Karnovsky points out that part of this funding will go to reducing the maximum face-to-face teaching hours, which in real terms means a teacher will have more hours in their week to prepare and plan engaging lessons and assess their students comprehensively.

“Victorian teachers also have much lower class sizes than WA, as they only teach up to 26 young people per class in years 4-10, compared to 32 in Western Australia.”

Government inaction threatens teacher pipeline

Dr Karnovsky said that in his time as a teacher educator for more than a decade, he has worked with “thousands of passionate, caring and eager people” who want to become teachers.

“They enol in our courses because they are generally called to the profession, because they want to make a difference in the lives of young people and do a job that has meaning,” he said.

“If the WA government does not improve our state teachers’ pay and conditions, the profession will certainly not be able to attract the best of us to the classroom and it will also continue to lose those that already perform this essential service for our communities.”

Dr Karnovsky said that in a state as rich as Western Australia is in both human and resource capital, the WA government should do everything it can to value the teaching profession and provide a leading example for how to manage better workload, conditions and pay.

A cultural shift is needed

Melissa Gillett, president of the Western Australian Secondary School Executives Association (WASSEA), says teacher shortages remain a significant concern for WA principals.

“Teacher shortages continue to be a significant source of stress, but sadly principals have become conditioned to accepting shortages as the norm,” Gillett told The Educator.

“The shortages have required many principals to take timetabled classes themselves, which in turn means than the sheer volume of work increases.”

Gillett said a cultural shift is essential to ensure Western Australia’s school leaders can overcome their greatest stressors and thrive in their role moving forward.

“Bureaucracies must develop positive, collaborative relationships with principals. They must focus on providing services that support principals and their schools, rather than continuing to increase compliance requirements,” she said.

“The Survey calls for increased autonomy for school leaders – but it is essential that the autonomy is real. The WA Independent Public School [IPS] initiative which started in 2011 was all about school autonomy.”

Gillett said autonomy has “gradually been eroded by policies, procedures, frameworks, and business rules.”

“The administrative burden has increased, whilst at the same time the resourcing initially provided to support IPS principals has been entirely removed. Schools must be properly resourced to enable principals to lead effectively and achieve the best outcomes for kids,” she said.

“WA Principals operate in an environment where there are over 190 policies, procedures, guidelines, frameworks and CEO instructions. It is staggering that only six of these documents relate to teaching and learning – which is the reason we exist.”