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Out-of-hours ban holds despite threats

Teachers have been battling with their state government for nine months. Geoff Maslen reports. The battle has gone on for the past nine months, but teachers in Western Australia refuse to give up the fight against the state's conservative-led government.

In January, teachers became so fed up with their ever-increasing workload and the extra demands being placed on them that they took the unprecedented decision to ban all out-of-school-hours duties.

Coaching sports teams, organising fetes, school socials and drama productions, running camps and excursions, were all cancelled. Everything except those activities associated with teaching and learning, such as preparation, marking and reporting to parents, were banned.

The action, endorsed by the State School Teachers Union of Western Australia, was wholeheartedly supported in schools across the state. Nine months later, the bans have generated such concern among politicians, education bureaucrats and the public, that the government has taken a succession of increasingly punitive steps to try to force teachers to abandon their campaign.

First, the government asked the state Industrial Relations Commission to order the union to drop the prohibitions. When it was pointed out that teachers could not be forced to undertake out-of-hours duties, the government backed down and began negotiations.

When this failed, the government announced it would seek to have the union de-registered on the grounds that teachers were behaving "against the public interest". Again the commission rejected the idea.

Now action is being taken against teachers themselves. In one school, staff who sent notices home with the children explaining to parents why the bans had been imposed were charged with misconduct. At another group of schools, teachers were ordered to hold sports carnivals which they had previously refused to organise.

Recently, principals were sent forms containing the names of all their teachers and told to indicate what extra duties they had taken part in this year. Yet still the bans continue.

"Every day the government comes up with some new bullying, intimidatory tactic," says Morag Whitney, the union's senior vice-president. "But there comes a time when people cannot go on doing any more. There seemed to be a general expectation that teachers would hold more meetings and do extra things with no thanks and no pay rises. Well, they decided enough was enough."

The maximum class size in Western Australia is supposed to be 32 but classes can be bigger if the school agrees. Secondary and pre-primary teachers are entitled to little more than five hours "duties other than teaching" time, while primary teachers get half that.

Every survey undertaken in recent years shows that WA teachers have larger classes than anywhere else in the country. And, with no salary increase for four years, the state's teachers have long been the lowest paid in Australia.

Then there were all the extra hours they used to put in, until they decided the exploitation had gone on too long. The effect of the bans was startling. Organisations that run school camp sites are losing thousands of dollars in cancelled bookings and bus companies are going broke.

"The government wants self-funded pay rises, where teachers are supposed to give up their time to hold meetings and five days of their holidays to have professional development - just for a small rise in their salaries," Ms Whitney says.

As one of the most right-wing administrations in the country, the government is led by men who would like to destroy the power of unions. In another attack, it announced last month that union dues would no longer be deducted from teacher salaries, a customary practice for public servants in most states here.

But the union and its 15,000 members have so far demonstrated an extraordinary capacity to resist pressure to give up their campaign.

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