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Schools join nurseries and hospitals in budget cuts

Most government schools and teachers across Australia have endured continuing cuts over the past 12 months as cash-starved state governments try to balance their budgets. With spending on education one of the major items, schools have been among the first to suffer, but nurseries and hospitals are also in the firing line.

In Victoria, a conservative team took office two years ago and since then Pounds 200 million - or 15 per cent - has been slashed from its education expenditure.

Along the way, the government eliminated 8,000 teaching jobs and shut 300 schools. The mass exodus of teaching staff has resulted in bigger classes, a sharp reduction in curriculum choice, and little professional support.

In Western Australia, the state teachers' union moved into full campaign mode in the second half of 1994 to fight for improvements in the salaries and working conditions of its members.

Like their colleagues in the other states, teachers in Western Australia have been appalled by government attempts to force them to work longer hours, weaken established career paths, and close schools.

The union is also trying to improve the lot of teachers in remote rural communities. Schools in the central desert, 1,000 miles north-east of Perth in some of the harshest terrain in the world, are often staffed by graduates who have little or no teaching experience.

Yet these teachers are expected to assume responsibility for children whose roots are based in a culture which is radically different from their own.

The union says the failure of a short and meaningless induction programme only exacerbates the loneliness, insecurity and the unpreparedness of these young teachers.

Wage justice for Queensland teachers was another battle, as teachers have not had a rise for three years and their pay packets have shrunk by 6 per cent in real terms.

They are now demanding a 12 per cent salary increase over the next 18 months to compensate for the wage erosion and productivity improvements. Whether Australia's only state Labour administration will respond remains to be seen.

Only in New South Wales do teachers feel reasonably safe from the depredations of cost-cutting administrations. But that is because the conservative government in the state is in deep electoral trouble and facing a likely loss at a state election next March.

In July, after years of expenditure cuts, the state government announced an Pounds 42.5 million boost to spending on schools. It clearly hoped the announcement might help it to win a much-needed seat in a by-election.

As a vote-buying exercise, it was a failure: Labour won the by-election comfortably.

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