Helen Richardson, AEU Tasmania Branch President

I’ve been in public education one way or another for most of my life; first as a student, then as a teacher, a parent and over the last decade as a proud advocate of our amazing public education system.

My story is one of privilege, privilege in the fact that when I started both my schooling and my career, it was in a time when government schools were well funded, educators had the respect of the community and we had time! Time to focus on our core business of teaching and learning.

And you know what keeps me up at night? It’s trying to understand how education in this country has changed so drastically in 40 years?

Those of you in my generation may have similar stories to share, but the younger of you will have quite a different experience.

I attended university during a time when tertiary education was free! (Thank you Gough!)

Not only was it free, I actually got paid during my four years of study and I was guaranteed a permanent position at the end! Now that’s privilege! Or is it just good policy?

I started my teaching career on the NW coast at WVPS. It’s so idyllic that the staff often referred to the school as Wesley Valium.

My first class was a 4/5 and like many of you I can still remember the names of each of the students in that class.

At ‘the vale’ we had two part-time literacy and numeracy support teachers, working with groups of students from my class every day. Plus, if you can believe it, each class was allocated four hours a week of general teacher assistant time. How great it was to have another educator to help with displays, preparation and support during Art and Science activities and to listen to kids read.

The school had a senior teacher position without the responsibility of a class. This meant that she spent her time in classrooms, mentoring new educators and giving kids that one-on-one individual attention. We had specialist music and PE teachers and a school nurse attached to our school two days a week. Our School Psychologist (then known as a Guidance Officer) from memory also spent a couple of days each week at our school. All this for around 250 students!

Teaching at Wesley Vale meant that behaviour management skills did not actually have to be ‘polished’.  I remember the outrage from my kids when Simon told Dean to ‘shut up’! A shocked class demanded a class meeting to deal with this unacceptable behaviour. Poor Simon felt the wrath of his fellow classmates for the rest of the term.

After spending a year at home with my son Alex, I wanted return to school part-time. A colleague, who had also recently finished maternity leave, and I decided that we would share a class. We were the first ‘tandem’ team appointed on the NW coast. I was appointed an FTE of .6 and my partner .5! This allowed us an afternoon a week overlap and continued for seven years! …I kid you not!

Hard to believe, I know, but I stayed at Wesley Vale for 17 years!

The 80’s may have done ‘education’ well, but it failed in the fashion stakes. Staffrooms were full of acid wash jeans, hair teased to an inch of its life, earrings that doubled as hula hoops and shoulder pads that were useful in geometry lessons!

I’m sure the story about my early career contrasts greatly to many of your stories. It was a time when schools were allocated resources, and you could concentrate on the core business of teaching and learning.

I don’t need to tell you that the role of educators, and the conditions you work in, have changed dramatically. Your role is more complex, more demanding and is not just one job, it’s many.

You counsel, you nurture, you are a referee, an entertainer………and a Master of Technology!

Every day you need skills to deal with students who have high and complex needs. There is an expectation that you take on many other roles at your workplace. There’s no time to celebrate successes or share ideas with your colleagues. Class sizes are increasing, you are undertaking more administrative tasks, and could the curriculum be any more crowded?

You are continually being asked to do more with less. But you keep going because you are educators and you are fully committed to meeting the learning needs of your students.

How did we get to this?

Why don’t governments understand that if you invest in education, everything else falls into place?

Education is the backbone of economic development. Education is transformational and it’s the path to reducing disadvantage – the path towards social justice.

Now, our federal government makes tax cuts the budget priority. We all just got one. Meanwhile they cut Job Seeker and throw families back into poverty.

They do this even while huge numbers of people remain out of work and knowing that the last time they cut taxes for higher income people, it didn’t create jobs. The evidence piles up – we know that cutting penalty rates and wages doesn’t create jobs either – it just makes working people poorer and those with wealth, wealthier.

Is there any other way? Is there any point in reminiscing on how education used to be?

Some countries have higher levels of tax, like Finland. The Finns have figured out that once you provide a universal platform of educational opportunity, health and social security, then businesses can just focus on doing business, being innovative, creating new products and systems.

New Zealand is increasing their top tax rate for those earning over $180,000 but they’ll still be well below most OECD countries, including France, Korea, the UK, Netherlands, Canada, Japan and Sweden, with the highest top tax rate of 57%.

Failing to invest in education matters, not just to our working lives as educators, but to our students.

If you want to see how education can change a life take a look at what happens when girls in developing countries get an education.

Girls are central to the global poverty story. Educate a woman and you build a nation.

Educating girls gives them the freedom to make decisions to improve their lives.  When girls are educated, their families, communities, and nations prosper.

Her life and the lives of her children improve. She earns an income and contributes to the local economy. She participates in decision making and guess what – decision making improves.

We see similar stories in our communities – especially in families experiencing disadvantage despite the wealth of our country as a whole.

Educated girls are changing the world. From Malala to Greta and the very grown up Jacinda – these are the leaders that are putting many of the old male guard to shame.

The question still remains though – what happened to education and what can we do about it?

My story is the story of our political economy.

For a long time we probably thought and hoped that as educators we were doing enough, making a difference to the lives of the students we taught, and didn’t need or want to be involved in politics, let alone economics.

While most of us were just getting on with our jobs – neoliberalism was taking over as the dominant ideology. Governments had fallen in love with markets and the individual became more important than community.

Education was not immune.

Education was no longer just a learning journey where kids discovered the world and themselves. Schools became a career pathway, a competition. The prestige of your school could determine the prestige of your higher education and your future wealth.

Star tennis players and the richest global bankers were thought to be created in the most expensive schools – you see, we all live in a market now.

Neoliberalism had a good run – it was supported by both sides of politics and the supremacy of the market, the invisible hand, could barely be criticised for many years.

Things have started to change recently. Even before COVID made us look more closely at our own backyards, years of stagnant wage growth and a growing gap between the rich and poor has a growing number of people questioning the path we’ve taken.

Years of scrounging for savings from our public schools in order to hand out more tax breaks or invest in big infrastructure that benefits big business more than ordinary people has left you as educators holding the big, complex, demanding and stressful bundle you have.

Neoliberalism has broken down our communities and by prioritising the individual over the collective we have left people to struggle on their own without the strong support systems of the past.

The loss of secure employment, the failure to lift families out of poverty and the failure to tackle family violence, insecure housing and socially determined health issues gives us many of the complex issues our students carry today.

We have an opportunity now, as neoliberalism begins to crack and a global pandemic tells us we need to re-invest and focus locally again.

This is an opportunity is to restore education not as a path to riches, but as a fundamental human right that lifts us all.

Next time anyone suggests that educators and your union shouldn’t be political and shouldn’t get involved in the big issues – just remember what politics and economics has done to us and our students and what staying out of the debate could mean.

In union we have the power to tackle the big issues and restore education to a public good and a privileged career for educators.

Let’s make sure future generations of educators can tell a story of privilege just as I can tell you – ultimately it will be our students, our state and our country that are better for it.