Industrial Strife in the Queensland System

 

Jo Carr & Peter Kell

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Events in Queensland Education have been dramatically overshadowed by tension and conflict between the Queensland Teachers Union (QTU) and the Queensland government on a number of fronts. The two parties have been at loggerheads over three matters which have dominated the education portfolio and which have the potential to flare up into a major confrontation at anytime. They are the introduction of leading schools, (Leading Schools: Partnerships in Excellence program); the pay dispute in schools; and the enterprise bargain and cuts to the TAFE budget.

Leading Schools, announced concurrently with negotiations on teachers' pay, signifies the introduction of school based management in Queensland schools. The Minister for Education Bob Quinn, a former school principal, invited expressions of interest for schools to participate in a pilot round of school-based management restricted to larger schools in the band 8 to 11 range. The identified aim of this initiative was to allow schools to respond flexibly to the diverse needs of the Queensland community. The usual statements associated with the "devolution of authority decision making and responsibility to those who have the greatest stake in the success of their students" that has characterised interstate moves to school based management were formulated by the newly renamed Education Queensland managers. The chief advantage of Leading Schools, as conceived by the government, is that local communities will have a greater say in the present and future progress and direction of their schools. The promise of this, however, was perceived by many to be contradicted in the selection process of the schools. Expressions of interest to join the pilot scheme required some indication of support from school communities. Yet in many cases schools joined the initiative without going through any process of balloting parents, and when teachers had actually voted against the proposal.

Joining Leading Schools certainly promises significant advantages for Principals, who will be given greater flexibility in selecting and deploying staff. Their participation will be sweetened by a pay rise - announced at a time when pay negotiations with teachers had stalled. While the need to integrate student needs with teaching specialisations is obviously desirable, the promise of general school community empowerment is puzzling when the canvassing of community opinion is clouded in such controversy. The Queensland Parents and Citizens Association has welcomed the moves to greater parent involvement - something that has been promised by successive administrations, but never delivered. Some critics have expressed bemusement, however, at claims such as that paying the water and sewage bills&emdash;a function now devolved to school communities - is going to be 'empowering'.

The QTU have been highly critical of Leading Schools, arguing that the failure to provide guarantees on class sizes, curriculum offerings and professional delivery of teaching exposes the government's 'real' agenda: of closing down schools and rationalising delivery in expensive smaller schools. The union has placed bans on the implementation of Leading Schools, its concerns over the initiative being heightened by a departmental restructuring which abolishes the previous regional system, replacing it with school 'districts' - in a similar way to school organisation in NSW. This restructuring will also see the dismantling of specialist support services in a way which alarms many teachers. Interestingly, some of the new district directors are actually former Principals, who had volunteered their schools to be part of the pilot project, but will now be occupying different positions during the initial stages of steering schools through the transition.

Meanwhile the teachers' pay dispute has escalated into a major dispute, the initial 10% claim having been rejected by the government and the QTU responding with rolling stop-works across the state. Surprised at the Government's intransigence - and concerned about the impact on schools of continued disputes - the union modified its claim to 6% over the budget cycle, seeking official mediation by an independent party. These talks are currently under secrecy agreement, in the hope of bringing the temperature down.

Any reconciliation has been hindered by disputes and budget cuts in the TAFE sector. In Queensland the training sector has been deregulated significantly, with increasing amounts of public funds being won in a competitive tendering arrangement by private providers. There are now over 900 private training providers in Queensland&emdash;a level which has grown from 127 in 1994. There are 2,200 private providers of training nationally, with more in Queensland than in any other state or territory. In the 1997/98 budget TAFE and vocational education and training funds (VET funds) were cut by an estimated $113m, or 27% of its budget. This means that a total of $56m will be directly taken from TAFE&emdash;and is up for grabs in the competitive training market. If TAFE does not win the tenders to retain these funds, it could mean the disappearance of some 352 teaching jobs.

The industrial climate has not been assisted by the Minister for TAFE and Industrial Relations, Mr Santo Santoro, directing TAFE Queensland to conduct the current round of enterprise bargains at the Institute level. The Queensland Teachers Union has banned participation in such negotiations, and has sought a return to a centralised enterprise bargain process. According to the QTU, the government has demanded 73% of productivity trade-offs for a 4% pay rise. Once again secret and 'without prejudice' discussion is being conducted between the unions and the government - mainly because the Independent member of parliament who holds the balance of power signalled her disapproval of the government's direction on TAFE.

While the negotiations are proceeding behind closed doors, the government has been involved in a series of embarrassing stumbles which have not helped their credibility. One travelling Minister proposed a Rhinoceros Park in North Queensland: an announcement which took his South African hosts at the time by surprise, and created howls of laughter in the parliament and press gallery back home. At the same time the Premier announced new incentives for businesses to relocate to Queensland, opening a hotline for overseas and interstate investors. The problem was that callers from outside Queensland could not get through. Teachers are hoping that the government's lines are not engaged when negotiations recommence.

Peter Kell, Institute of Interdisciplinary Studies, James Cook University of North Queensland.

Jo Carr, School of Education, James Cook University of North Queensland

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