Angelo Gavrielatos, president of the New South Wales Teachers Federation, was looking forward to the union’s annual conference on July 2 with more than his usual enthusiasm. He was expecting to announce a pay deal that would make the state’s teachers some of the highest paid in the country – a crucial competitive edge in a sector crippled by shortages.
In less than a month of negotiations under the new Labor government, Gavrielatos believed his team and that of Murat Dizdar, the recently appointed secretary of the NSW Department of Education, had settled on increases for graduate and senior teachers of 12 per cent and 8 per cent, respectively.
Gavrielatos says he was confident the agreement was finalised because both he and Dizdar had been keeping Education minister and deputy premier Prue Car informed every step of the way. He cites two further meetings with Car and treasurer Daniel Mookhey, in which the deal was confirmed, on May 31 and June 22. And he recalls a phone conversation with Chris Minns on June 2, which ended with him telling the premier, “we are good”.
Barely a week away from the teachers federation’s annual conference, the union president says he had a deal to be voted on and signed with the minister and secretary present.
On June 25, “things started to go pear-shaped”, he tells The Saturday Paper. “I received a text saying Minns wanted to talk.”
He says he was assured on June 28 the government merely wanted more time to settle with the other unions. “This had never been mentioned as a precondition. We’d been told that 4 per cent was a base and to go forth and negotiate whatever else we could. Which we had done.” Despite his misgivings, Gavrielatos says he agreed to delay the announcement.
“I understood the realpolitik.”
Gavrielatos says he received a letter a month later from the department signalling the union had to return to the negotiating table. There were new conditions, including a limit on wage increases to 2.5 per cent in the three years following any agreement. This was unacceptable to the union, which believed a deal was being reneged on and an election promise broken. It’s now considering taking industrial action in September.
Maurie Mulheron, the previous president of the NSW Teachers Federation, describes the situation as “unprecedented in my 40 years of dealing with pay and conditions negotiations with governments of all persuasions. I have never seen such bad faith negotiations, after hands had been shaken and the deal done.”
The NSW government sees things differently. In a press conference on August 8, Minns said: “Obviously, we haven’t had an agreement with them. If we did have an agreement, we would have announced that to the people in New South Wales. And as of Wednesday evening, last week, both sides were swapping offers with each other, I thought in good faith...
“We want to be in a position where we can offer, particularly first-year teachers, a generous increase so that we can recruit people to this important profession. As far as a multiyear deal, well, that’s important from the perspective of the state, because if there’s going to be a structural adjustment or a big increase in pay in year one, we need to make sure it’s affordable in years two, three and four. But all I’m saying here is we want to get back around the negotiating table.”
Just the day before, Unions NSW secretary Mark Morey told The Sydney Morning Herald the government’s offer resembled the Coalition’s public service wage cap and risked an outpouring of hostility from one of its key political allies. He also warned that the fledgling NSW government risked losing the goodwill of public sector workers across the board.
The authors of the 2021 Gallop report into teachers’ pay, funded by the Teachers Federation and welcomed by the then premier as a “blueprint” for necessary change, also expressed dismay. Former Western Australian premier Geoff Gallop, ex-NSW Industrial Court judge Tricia Kavanagh and former NSW Institute of Teachers chief executive Patrick Lee said in a joint statement that returning to the 2.5 per cent wages cap for three years “breaks faith with election commitments and begins the immediate erosion of the very reform that is needed”.
In his press briefing, Minns rejected the description of a wages cap as “wilfully ignorant of the significant increases in year one”. He referred to the Reserve Bank’s expectation that the recent punishing increases in inflation would subside “back to trend” in the years 2024 to 2026. “Now, they may not be right, but that’s part of the negotiation between the government and the teachers federation.” NSW’s pay increases matter because public schools are up against not just better resourced private schools for teachers but other states. “The teacher shortage is actually worse in NSW because of years of neglect by successive state governments,” Gavrielatos says. The previous Coalition government’s notorious public sector 2.5 per cent salary cap contributed to NSW teachers falling behind, as it essentially meant that once inflation was taken into account, they were earning the same as they had in 2013. That’s despite an Australian Teacher Workforce Data report showing NSW teachers are working on average more than 60 hours a week, while paid to work 36 to 40 hours. According to the ABS, NSW public schools also have the worst teacher to student ratio in Australia. Add to that insecure employment and a vicious cycle of more teachers quitting, leaving an increased workload for those remaining, which in turn motivates them to quit.
Data from the teachers federation shows the number of teachers resigning from NSW public schools had doubled in two years, from 929 in 2020 to 1854 in 2022, and that almost 20 per cent of teachers are leaving within their first five years. Two-thirds of teachers say they are burnt out and 60 per cent say they plan to leave teaching within the next five years.
The Minns government is well aware of the magnitude of the problem and made substantial use of it in this year’s election campaign.
In a speech to the NSWTF council in October 2022, the then opposition leader promised to abolish the state wages cap. Minns promised that if he won the election, he would “instruct the Department of Education to immediately begin negotiations with the union … with a view to reaching a comprehensive agreement to reduce workloads and make salaries more competitive”. Teachers threw their weight behind his bid to become premier, with their “More Than Thanks” campaign.
Craig Petersen, the president of the New South Wales Secondary Principals’ Council, tells The Saturday Paper the withdrawal of the deal has “undone a lot of the very positive work [between government and teachers] of the last term. Principals are reporting significant and ongoing staff shortages across the state.”
One principal of a high school in Sydney’s western suburbs, which serves a high number of students from lower-income backgrounds, says, “I’ve got colleagues crying because they can’t cover classes. Principals are taking on full teaching loads and are refusing to allow teachers time away from the classroom to do professional development, take kids on excursions or anything else.”
She adds, “Teachers are white-hot with rage because they went to the polling booths and fought for [Minns] to be elected because he promised to drop the cap. The 2.5 per cent for the other years is the cap.”
The people who will suffer the most from the fallout of this stoush are the children in NSW public schools. The impact of the teacher shortage is already apparent. In some rural schools the number of merged and minimally supervised classes over the past year and a half is running into the thousands per school. The staff are undertrained: 21 per cent of year 7-10 teachers, 22 per cent of year 7-10 maths teachers and 32 per cent of staff teaching special education are not trained in their subject area.
A McKell Institute study from the end of last year revealed “NSW has experienced the largest decline in mean reading literacy of any state and territory in Australia since 2000” as well as “the largest decline in mathematics scores since 2012”.
Tragically, as long as the deal remains unresolved, the chronic teacher shortage is likely not just to continue but to get worse, meaning many classes will only get bigger.
A deal designed to tackle the teacher shortage by offering competitive pay, increased job security, reduced workloads and transfer rights to help attract teachers to hard-to-staff schools would help repair the fragile relationship between teachers and their employer.
The NSW Education Department says it is deeply committed to reaching an agreement. Prue Car is only too aware of the demands on teachers, saying, “We want education to be efficient and effective, so it supports teachers rather than piling more work onto them. This is also what teachers are telling us that they want. Teachers themselves simply cannot be any more productive than they already are – unless frankly we take work off them.”
While the government and the union argue, more teachers will leave and the children in NSW public schools, especially those with the highest needs, will never get back those missed learning opportunities.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on August 12, 2023 as "School of hard knockbacks".
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