Australian teacher unions call off NAPLAN boycott

By Laura Tiernan
7 May 2010

The Australian Education Union (AEU) and its state affiliates, including the New South Wales Teachers Federation (NSWTF), yesterday called off a national boycott of standardised literacy and numeracy tests known as NAPLAN that was to be imposed next week. The unions’ capitulation before the Labor government of Prime Minister Kevin Rudd underscores their direct complicity in the accelerating assault on public education.

The AEU seized on the flimsiest pretext to abandon the NAPLAN (National Assessment Plan—Literacy and Numeracy) boycott: a pledge by deputy prime minister and federal education minister Julia Gillard that a “working party” comprised of “educational experts” and AEU bureaucrats would be established to examine the use of student performance data. Gillard also again stated that she opposed “simplistic league tables”, a meaningless statement already issued many times by the government. This was nevertheless sufficient for the teachers’ unions to insist their members administer the tests, beginning next Tuesday.

A report in today’s Australian underscores the utter contempt of the union for the democratic rights and interests of ordinary teachers. The newspaper reports that the AEU reached a deal with Gillard to lift the nationwide teachers’ boycott before the union’s federal executive had even met. As a result Gillard publicly announced the AEU backdown before the union had communicated the decision to its members.

NAPLAN and the government’s My School website, which uses the standardised data to rank and compare schools nationally, is widely opposed by teachers, parents, and students. The testing mechanism is an important part of the Rudd government’s drive to further promote a shift of students from public to private schools, to amalgamate and close so-called underperforming schools in working class areas, and to restrict education to the most narrow and empirically measureable activities with the ultimate aim of producing a more “productive” workforce.

The teachers’ unions only announced the NAPLAN boycott because of the opposition and anger from below. From start to finish, the official boycott campaign was an entirely cynical exercise. The AEU has never opposed My School or the NAPLAN tests. It aimed at exploiting teachers’ opposition to school league tables as political leverage, bringing Labor back to the negotiating table in order to further consolidate the union’s role as official partner in Labor’s pro-market education assault. In joining the government’s “working party”—which, Gillard explained yesterday, will “provide professional advice about the new and additional features for the My School website”—the AEU has now accepted direct responsibility for the government’s regressive measures.

The decision to call off the boycott confirms the warnings made by the Socialist Equality Party from the very outset. “The AEU’s main concern,” the SEP explained on April 14 “is to pressure Gillard to the negotiating table to discuss an ‘improved’ version of Labor’s education measures that preserves their central thrust and that the union will enforce.”

The teacher unions never had any intention of waging a boycott against NAPLAN. Last year, the union allowed the first round of the tests to proceed unchallenged, defying calls for a moratorium made in 2008 by Victorian teachers. Last September, at a mass meeting of teachers in Sydney, NSWTF officials blocked a motion moved by long-time teacher and SEP supporter Erika Zimmer for a national boycott of NAPLAN. The union’s vice-president Gary Zadkovich seized the microphone to prevent Zimmer from speaking.

Since the AEU announced the boycott on April 12, the union has done everything in its power to block a unified campaign by teachers, parents and students. Teachers were deliberately left isolated, with a decision on whether to boycott and how to develop the campaign left up to individual teachers and schools. The union remained virtually silent as the Rudd government took the offensive, issuing a series of provocative statements including Gillard’s threat to pit parents against teachers by having them act as strikebreakers to supervise the NAPLAN tests.

The AEU similarly said nothing in the face of a series of legal challenges mounted by state and federal Labor governments against the boycott action. The teachers’ unions, like every other trade union in Australia, endorsed the Labor Party’s draconian industrial relations platform at the party’s pre-election 2007 conference. The AEU and its state affiliates were well aware that a NAPLAN boycott constituted “illegal” industrial activity under the Rudd government’s legislation and that punitive threats would be issued against teachers.

Yet nothing was done to prepare teachers for these developments and no public appeal was made to any other section of workers to oppose Labor’s undemocratic anti-strike laws.

On Tuesday, the Fair Work Australia Ombudsman sought a ruling from the Federal Court to prevent the AEU from “authorising, organising, encouraging or directing” its members in the Northern Territory, Australian Capital Territory, and Victoria (which alone among the states is covered by a federal award) to boycott NAPLAN. In an extraordinary move, the Rudd government’s industrial “umpire” also sought to force the teachers’ union to take out quarter-page newspaper ads with the headline “NAPLAN ban on tests is off”.

This followed separate orders secured by Labor governments in the Industrial Relations Commissions of NSW, Queensland and South Australia to have the boycott outlawed.

In Queensland the IRC threatened the teachers’ union with fines of $100,000 and deregistration, along with individual fines for teachers if the boycott proceeded. In NSW, Labor’s Education Minister Verity Firth organised what the media hailed as a strike-breaking operation, employing private recruitment agencies and calling up thousands of school examination markers to help administer the tests at scores of off-site locations. As part of these efforts, Department of Education officials raided schools on Tuesday, seizing boxes of NAPLAN test papers in a move that has outraged principals.

In Tasmania, the new Labor-Green coalition issued a statement “welcoming” the decision of that state’s IRC to declare teachers’ action illegal. Western Australia’s Liberal government did likewise; that state’s teachers’ union promptly called off the boycott, anticipating by several days the federal AEU’s decision.

The teachers’ unions’ betrayal means that the second round of NAPLAN tests is now to proceed, with the results to be added to the My School website, thereby further entrenching the national “high stakes” testing regime. No doubt encouraged and emboldened by their defeat of the proposed NAPLAN boycott, Rudd and Gillard are set to go even further in developing a business-driven model for education. The right of young people to an all-rounded education is being jettisoned as every aspect of teaching is subordinated to the productivity requirements of business.

The AEU’s sabotage of the NAPLAN boycott and its embrace of Labor’s new “working party” demonstrates that in their struggle to defend public education, teachers are locked in a political struggle against the Rudd Labor government and its trade union accomplices.

It is precisely this conclusion that the various petty-bourgeois ex-left groups, such as Socialist Alliance and Socialist Alternative, have worked to prevent teachers from drawing. They have functioned as a direct appendage of the teacher union bureaucrats, blocking any struggle against Labor and bolstering the AEU’s fraudulent claims to be leading a campaign against NAPLAN. In Victoria, the Teachers Alliance promoted the conception that Labor’s state Education Minister Bronwyn Pike was “sympathetic” to teachers, even as Pike sought orders from Fair Work Australia to have the NAPLAN boycott outlawed.

The Socialist Equality Party advanced an independent political perspective among teachers from the outset, in direct opposition to Labor and the unions.

A leaflet issued by the SEP for public meetings held in Sydney and Melbourne earlier this week explained: “Teachers, parents and students who oppose the deepening assault on public education need to strike out on a new political road, independent of the unions, the Labor government and the Greens, who have fully endorsed the AEU’s proposal for a deal with the Rudd government. To the extent that teachers and parents remain trapped within and tied to these organisations the assault on education and all areas of social spending will continue and deepen.

“League tables, NAPLAN tests and pay for performance cannot be fought in piecemeal fashion but must be rejected in toto. The defence of education requires not only a political struggle against the Rudd government but the turn to a socialist program which will fundamentally restructure society and make spending on education, health and other vital areas of social life the first—not the last—priority.”

We urge all teachers, parents and students to support the resolution adopted by public meetings of the SEP this week in Sydney and Melbourne, launch a rebellion against the AEU’s sell-out deal, and begin a genuine fight against Labor’s assault on public education, including a national boycott of next week’s NAPLAN tests.

The author also recommends:

SEP public meetings oppose Australian government’s assault on public education
[6 May 2010] 

NAPLAN testing and My School: Rudd’s free market education agenda
[23 April 2010]