Helen Richardson, President AEU Tasmania

Tasmanian teachers, principals and school staff have won even greater respect and appreciation from our broader community this year.

While very focused on the health and safety of students, their families and vulnerable colleagues, we worked together to rapidly and completely change how we delivered education in schools and colleges.

In recent weeks and months educators reconnected with students and welcomed them back to class attendance.

Now, as we look towards a safe recovery, we must again look to public education as an opportunity for a stronger and more effective recovery that also delivers fairer outcomes for all Tasmanians.

The Minister for Education said it very well in his budget message last year, a message now far more significant than it was then:

“Education is the single most powerful driver for improving economic and social outcomes in Tasmania, including health, life expectancy, happiness and productivity.”

So when we look for investment priorities that will stimulate our local economy, but also improve the lives of Tasmanians, we need look no further than public education.

Yes, infrastructure is important and many public schools are in desperate need of upgraded or expanded facilities – during COVID-19 we found out how many schools were short on bathroom facilities or found their bathrooms outdated and not fit for purpose.

However some proposed infrastructure is poorly considered, delivers minimal economic benefit and fails to spread the broad economic benefits that investment in public education ensures.

So what should we look for in the Tasmanian Government’s delayed 2020-21 budget? Public education investment that creates jobs and generates economic activity in every corner of our state and creates a more fair, skilled and knowledgeable state ready to take on the challenges and opportunities of the future.

Here’s some specific ideas the government should be looking at:

  • Increased funding to support students with a disability – more funding is required by schools as we transition to a fully funded needs-based model.
  • Fund new teacher positions to reduce class sizes to a maximum of 20 in Kinder to Grade 2 and 25 in other years and ensure more students have access to a specialist Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM), music, drama, language and art teacher.
  • Increase the number of Education Support Specialists who are trained and qualified to support students with additional and complex needs, especially for those in early years.
  • Expand free, public, community-based Early Childhood Education and Care by building and funding pre-schools for three year olds in more communities.
  • Fund a new classification for public school principals that ensures we attract and retain our best education leaders.
  • Pay Teacher Assistants for 52 weeks per year – they are some of the lowest paid workers in our community, but they are so valuable to the students they support. Some are forced onto Centrelink payments over summer and this is unfair for them and bad for our local economy.
  • Immediately increase professional support staff such as school psychologists, speech therapists and social workers. Our students are under immense pressure, teachers and support staff suffer violence at work, yet we have a critical shortage of professional support in schools.

There’s so many great investment options in public education and as the Minister says, they are all powerful drivers for “improving economic and social outcomes in Tasmania, including health, life expectancy, happiness and productivity.”

I’ve only listed some options for schools and colleges, but of course our public TAFE also has the potential to deliver enormous economic and social benefits from much needed new investment.

As well as putting public education front and centre of investment in their 2020-21 Tasmanian budget, the State Government should be strongly advocating that the Federal Government do their bit.

The Morrison Government has failed to guarantee public schools the federal funding they need to reach the minimum Schools Resource Standard that ensures every child has access to the quality education they need and deserve.

Our state representatives should be having more than a quiet word in their federal colleagues’ ears about the benefit to Tasmania, our children and economy of meeting and boosting their funding obligations to public schools.

Public schools and colleges and the educators that work there cover every corner of our state. Investment in the people who have supported children and families through the tough times will deliver benefits more fairly and evenly than any other option could.