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Concern at Liberal push to remove union reps from school decisions

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The union representing South Australia’s school teachers says a Liberal Government decision to remove its members from review panels could compromise state school decision-making processes.

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Australian Education Union members would be removed from merit selection panels for staff promotions and review committees into the amalgamation or closure of state schools under the Liberals’ draft Education and Children’s Services Bill.

If passed, the Bill, introduced to Parliament in June this year, would be the biggest single legislative change to South Australia’s education system in more than 40 years.

The new legislation would replace the Education Act 1972 and the Children’s Services Act 1985 and updates existing general administrative and employment conditions. Labor had failed to pass a Bill to amalgamate the two Acts when it was in power.

AEU state branch president Howard Spreadbury said today the union was particularly concerned that the Liberal Government’s Bill removed union members from merit selection panels for staff promotions.

Under the current Act, promotional level positions are, in part, awarded on the recommendation of a committee established by the Education Minister and consisting of at least one AEU nominee.

Spreadbury said union members brought “a high level of skill” and training experience to the panels, and to remove them could lead to the “dissipation” of merit selection procedures.

“It’s really a systematic representation – it’s about monitoring the process and being part of the process to make sure the guidelines are being adhered to,” Spreadbury said.

“Our concern is that if we don’t have that presence … then there’s no guarantee that we will be able to bring that level of scrutiny.”

Spreadbury said he was also concerned the Bill removed mention of the AEU in the establishment of review committees for the amalgamation or closure of state schools.

Under the current Act, schools can be amalgamated or closed if the majority of parents or adult students are in favour of the move.

If the school community’s support is divided, the Act stipulates a review committee featuring one person nominated by the AEU must be established to vote on the school’s future.

But Spreadbury said the new Bill removes mention of the AEU in its review committee criteria.

“Having the AEU members as part of those review committees brings a level of independence and objectivity,” he said.

“To remove them has some potential for conflict.”

Spreadbury said the Government “clearly don’t want the AEU involved in the selection and committee process”.

“We are talking about a conservative government who clearly has views on the AEU and they are now seeking to put forward changes to remove them from these processes.”

In October last year then Shadow Education Minister John Gardner unsuccessfully attempted to amend the former Labor Government’s Education and Children’s Services Bill to remove mention of AEU members in review committees.

At the time Gardner told parliament while the representation of staff in review committees was “tremendously important”, he said membership of bodies including the AEU “should not determine their eligibility to represent their fellow staff members”.

“If there is a review committee, the reference in the composition of the committee to there being a nominee of the Australian Education Union should instead by a person representing the staff of each school to which the review relates nominated by the staff of each such school,” he said.

“It is a common-sense and perfectly sensible amendment.”

Gardner later added, in reference to the inclusion of AEU members on merit selection panels that, “it may well be the case that a significant majority of people working in our schools are members of the Australian Education Union, and good luck to them. There is nothing wrong with that at all.

“There are, however, teachers who do not choose to be and I do not see why they should be excluded from participating in this service in this way.”

In a statement to InDaily today, Gardner – now the Education Minister – said the Liberal Party had supported such amendments to the Education Act prior to the 2014 election.

“It is unsurprising that we maintain this position now,” he said.

“While representation of staff in these matters is important, and will continue, the fact of somebody’s membership in an individual organisation should not be necessitated by legislation to determine their eligibility to represent their peers.”

Shadow Education Minister Susan Close said the Labor Party would be moving to amend the Liberals’ Bill to retain the AEU representation in review committees.

She said having union representation on committees was “the most effective way to make sure staff members’ interests were taken into account”.

“If the union was removed from the process that would make it difficult later on if the union had objections to the decisions.

“There is particular concern in regards to the closure of schools. Having the union there rather than only a staff representative would make sure any move to close schools is able to be challenged and scrutinised in the appropriate manner to ensure schools are closed only when absolutely necessary.”

Gardner said he had had several “cordial and respectful” meetings with AEU representatives since his appointment as Education Minister and he looked forward to continuing a “respectful” relationship.

Other proposed Government updates to the legislation include measures to increase the Government’s powers to deal with chronic absenteeism in schools.

The proposed amendments include provisions for formal family conferences to be held with principals and family members and an increased maximum fine of up to $5000 for parents whose children are chronically absent from school.

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