NSW Teachers confront parties
by Andrew Jackson The ALP choked, the Greens shone, and the Liberals surprised everyone at a NSW Teachers' Federation debate last week. A packed Sydney Town Hall meeting of over 2500 teachers and parents asked the hard questions of the State's major political parties about their policies for Public Education in the run-up to the State election on March 22. Chaired by the ABC's Quentin Dempster, the meeting featured policy speeches Leader of the Opposition John Brogden, and The Greens' Lee Rhiannon, and Nina Burridge of the Australian Democrats. Labor Premier Bob Carr had been invited to speak at the forum, but sent Minister of Education, John Watkins to speak in his place. The crowd booed at any mention of the Premier, who had declined to appear and debate his policies with the leader of the opposition, an approach he has maintained throughout the campaign. The biggest cheers on the evening went to Greens MLA Lee Rhiannon, who said teachers' pay should be raised to 110 per cent of the average weekly wage immediately, rising to 150 per cent by 2010. Ms Rhiannon also indicated that the Greens would move to legislate a maximum class size of 20 in years Kindergarten to Grade 3. The current class size for this age group is 27, and a reduction to 20 is a key recommendation of the Vinson Inquiry into education. The Greens would also maintain full public ownership of all public schools, said Ms Rhiannon. They would ban the sale of public land to private schools, and ban private ownership or operation of public schools including public/private partnerships. John Brogden kicked off by making an outstanding commitment to provide a massive increase to professional development funding for teachers. Under Labor the average annual amount available to teachers for professional development is approximately $25 each. Mr Brogden said a Liberal Government would boost that to $800 per annum per full-time teaching position in Sydney-Newcastle-Wollongong, and $1,200 in schools in other parts of the State. Mr Brogden also said committed a future Liberal Government to lowering the average class size for years Kindergarten to Grade 2 classes from the current average of 26-29 students down to 21. Mr Brogden did fall foul of the audience at one stage though, and was met cries of "shame" over his refusal to back away from "League Tables" to rank public schools. However, it must be questioned whether Mr Brogden's spending promises demonstrate a true commitment to public education, or whether he is just out to score brownie points in an election he is not expected to win. The most hostile reaction on the night was reserved for the ALP Minister. John Watkins failed to give any commitment to reducing class sizes, only giving an "if and when", and spouting general policy rhetoric. He also refused to be drawn on the Vinson recommendation of giving teachers a five percent salary increase. Nina Burridge said the Australian Democrats also support the reduction of class sizes to no more than 20 students from K-2, and that the teacher- pupil ratio must be decreased overall. The Democrats called for the creation of more full-time teaching positions so as to reduce dependence on casual teachers. The Democrats opposed the sale of public schools, saying, "The Government must not sell off the schoolyard to buy books". The Democrats want TAFE funding to be restored, with catch-up for cuts in previous years, and will pursue the Federal Government to scrap its controversial SES education scheme, and redirect hundreds of millions of dollars they currently pour into private schools back into public education.