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Bell tolls for AEU on school reform

By Malcolm King - posted Monday, 5 January 2009

The Rudd Government has finally started to govern 15 months after being elected and the first task at hand is reforming the school education system.

This is an important tussle as it’s a test of the Government’s new co-operative Federalism model. It sets the scene for the introduction of the long over due national curriculum with an emphasis on literacy and numeracy.

The Rudd Government has pledged that the days of schools withholding information from parents on national tests for literacy and numeracy scores are over.


As Rudd and Gillard have found out, dealing with the Australian Education Union is no easy task. The union can be obstructionist and recalcitrant because it’s fighting for an ideological position and hell hath no fury like an ideologue scorned.

Yet one also suspects, grudgingly, that many teachers also side with the modernisation of the profession and a ventilation of old ideas for new ones.

The AEU has to fight the perception that in some schools (and TAFEs) there is an organisational culture in the predominantly older teaching cohorts, of being burnt out and of doing just enough to get by.

Rudd and Gillard are not alone in this battle (revolution, war: who coined these terms? Patton?). Their natural allies are parents and this struggle will be fought in the court of public opinion. So far Rudd and Gillard are winning.

In South Australia the AEU made a fatal strategic blunder recently that has helped Rudd and Gillard. The teachers union initially called rolling strikes for a 20 per cent pay increase (now dropped to 18 per cent) at a time when many parents, especially in public schools, are doing it tough.

The global recession means that parents are keen to maximise earnings and cannot stay home and look after kids because their teachers, paid from the public pocket on average $65,000 per year, are involved in industrial action.


Indeed the Rann Government has called the AEU’s bluff and the matter has ended up in arbitration. It has been a PR disaster for the SA AEU and it remains to be seen whether the union can recover.

In November the Adelaide Advertiser online site was inundated with hundreds of emails from parents who were ropable first at the AEU, second the teachers and third the state government for allowing the teachers to strike in the first place. That’s bad news for the union.

Further bad news for the union is the fact that Sharan Burrow, head of the ACTU and former head of the AEU, has effectively been silent on the issue. This is not to suggest that she agrees with the Government’s measures but that opposing its education reforms may “off side” the Government’s roll back of WorkChoices.

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About the Author

Malcolm King is a journalist and professional writer. He was an associate director at DEEWR Labour Market Strategy in Canberra and the senior communications strategist at Carnegie Mellon University in Adelaide. He runs a writing business called Republic.

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