ALICE SPRINGS NEWS,
December 8, 1999

TEACHER SHORTAGE AT CRISIS POINT. KIERAN FINNANE reports.

President of the NT Principals' Association, Don Zoellner, says shortage of relief teachers in Alice Springs and all urban centres of the Territory has reached "crisis point", while the situation in remote areas is "impossible". He says: "In the day to day management of schools it is the most difficult problem principals face." He is unaware of any hard research being done on the problem, or of any plans or strategies to deal with it, because there is not yet "political consensus that there is a problem". Mr Zoellner says: "In Australia, because governments, both Federal and State, control the supply and demand of teachers, it is an issue for governments. "The principals' associations around Australia are working at a political level to have the problem recognised and dealt with." On the ground, for children, it means that when their teacher is way, arrangements for their day at school can be somewhat haphazard. Last month, when a local Grade Two/Three teacher was unavoidably absent for three weeks, the children went on a roller coaster ride of almost as many different supervision arrangements as school days, a situation apparently beyond the control of the school principal. This was not an isolated incident, Mr Zoellner confirms. The Department of Education admits a shortage, but does not quantify it. In a faxed statement a spokesperson said: "Attrition has occurred in relief teacher numbers available [in Alice Springs] since the commencement of 1999. "Some teachers who registered at the beginning of the year as relief teachers have now accepted full-time work or are doing regular part-time work with the department. "In some cases relief teachers specify schools and days of the week to work. Individual schools have responsibility for the management of relief teachers and some may have specific relief teachers they employ."It is not unusual for the supply of relief teachers to become tight toward the end of a school year."The spokesperson did not say what the department intends to do about these apparently predictable trends.The Australian Education Union was equally unable to quantify the relief teacher shortage, but President Robert Laird said he understood, on the basis of anecdotal evidence, that it is very difficult to find relief teachers in Alice Springs and Tennant Creek, let alone in remote schools.Mr Laird said vacancies in full-time staff occurring late in the school year can be left unfilled, which leads to a greater demand on relief teacher supply, already diminished from the start of year level (by the factors indicated in the Department's statement).One Alice Springs principal suggested to the News that there may be another way to think about relief teacher supply.In contrast to the current strategy of having a pool of people seeking casual teaching work, there could be a return to the old days, when teachers surplus to immediate classroom requirements were in permanent positions based in a central office, and went out to relieve in schools according to need.The principal said that there are less and less people who do not want to work full-time, and those who are satisfied with part-time work are often employed in permanent part-time positions, so that the casual relief supply has shrunk.He also suggested that "we could do things better" by looking at the needs of the town as a whole, rather than approaching staffing issues on a school by school basis.He suggested that it wouldn't take much to keep a pool of permanent relief teachers fully employed.Mr Laird told the News that he has recently written to the department suggesting the adoption of this approach.He says he is aware of an Alice Springs high school having employed a "surplus" teacher this year to relieve staff within the school.However, Mr Zoellner says that in the view of the principals' association, this discussion is irrelevant because "there are not the people to employ in the first place".He says there is "a lot of work to be done" to make teaching a more attractive profession, and financial incentives would be "well aimed". A waiving of HECS (Higher Education Contribution Scheme) fees for student teachers should be considered, and in places like the Territory other assistance, such as with accommodation, should be on the agenda.Such strategies would assist in alleviating not only the relief teacher shortage but teacher shortage as a whole.The department's spokesperson acknowledged a recent "national focus" on teacher "supply and demand".She said the department is "an active participant in the Ministerial Council of Education and Training's Recruitment Strategy Working Party which examined a national approach to teacher recruitment, and profiling teaching as a profession."Currently a marketing video is being produced as the first step in a national marketing campaign. ╬Teaching - a profession that counts' is the theme for the national marketing thrust."This is to be incorporated into individual jurisdiction's promotional activities."The spokesperson reported that supply is "on track" in the Territory "despite our stringent vetting and selection practices", and that response to recruitment advertising for teachers Territory wide has been "pleasing"."In Central Australia recruitment for next year is further forward than at the same time in previous years," said the spokesperson."As a small system the department is able to provide strong professional and personal support to our teachers which in itself is a factor in teacher recruitment."A positive EBA outcome will be a further factor in teacher retention and recruitment. "Salary levels as at March 2000 and the real potential for career enhancement create opportunities within the Territory system."NOT ROSYMr Laird suggested the picture is not quite so rosy. With the Territory, especially areas outside Darwin, depending to a large degree on interstate supply, he said the recent creation of positions in the Victorian and Queensland systems will put pressure on the Territory.He said the situation will only get worse with an aging teaching workforce nationwide.The average age of teachers in Australia is now 46 and a half, compared to 43 years in 1990.He said systems in the UK, USA, Canada, Singapore, Hong Kong and Scandinavia are all experiencing teacher shortages."It's a long term issue and broader than the Territory," said Mr Laird."Wages are a factor but we also have to raise the status of the teaching profession, attract young people into it and attract back qualified teachers who have left to work in other industries."Mr Laird says it's important that governments say good things about teachers, and that in the last year the NT Department of Education has been much more positive than previously.A teacher of decades of experience, who could not be named, told the News: "Teaching is a good job. Most of us get to go home every day knowing that we have made a difference. "We can see something positive come out of our work every day and there are not many jobs where you can say that."We need to get that message across to young people thinking about their careers. Schools need young, vital, energetic teachers, as well as the older, experienced ones."The teacher also said that after four years of training and seven years of service a teacher will earn $50,000 pa and that's "pretty good"."We need to talk our profession up."NTPA's Mr Zoellner also pointed to the relative security of employment for teachers, an attraction in the current global economic climate where the trend is to short term contracts and casualisation of the workforce.

$1.2b RAILWAY: THANKS, CHIEF MINISTER ... BUT WHAT FOR? Comment by ERWIN CHLANDA.

Chief Minister Denis Burke might have done well to accept missing his plane as a hint to stay at home: what little news his long awaited railway briefing on Monday disclosed, turned out to be mostly bad for Alice Springs.By the time Mr Burke arrived on a charter service from Darwin - the city that will be doing very well out of the $1.2b project - some 150 local business people had been sitting through a "briefing" that regurgitated much of what everybody already knew.The show was remarkable mainly for what railway consortium spokesman Franco Moretti, and railway corporation board member Paul Tyrrell, who also runs Mr Burke's department, either didn't know or wouldn't tell.Mr Tyrrell's language was cautious, to put it politely: as a result of the railway, a variety of new enterprises "could become viable", the new line may "facilitate" some ventures and "enhance" others, it "could attract" or "start to develop" initiatives and make them "more profitable, perhaps, more viable".When during question time Peter Clements asked whether deals were in place to transport mining products - consistently touted during the prolonged hype as a major reason for building the line - Mr Moretti advised that the "base case" justifying the massive expenditure of public money did "not include mineral freight".The meeting was told that Tennant Creek and Katherine will be getting huge sleeper manufacturing plants, employing about 50 people each.The construction headquarters will be in Darwin, and the rolling stock maintenance facility in Port Augusta.Whyalla seems set to be making the rails, with BHP the "preferred supplier".Alice Springs will be the "southern logistic and supply base" but it was not made clear what that means.When the line is finished, 16 line maintenance staff will be based in The Alice but none of the three speakers was able to clearly quantify the road transport industry's job and other losses.Mr Tyrrell claimed that truckies are likely to do well during the construction phase, but admitted that there are no strategies for their future: "Plans will need to be developed," he said - well after the horse has bolted.There was no answer to the question of how much of the expected $500m worth of services and goods will be bought from Alice Springs businesses.The meeting was told that there will be a "cascading" scheme for procurement: NT suppliers will get first bite of the cherry, followed by South Australia and then the rest of the nation.Clearly, Central Australian businesses will be expected to compete with rivals in South Australia which is stuck in a prolonged slump.Both Mr Tyrrell and Mr Moretti seemed at pains to avoid any distinction between the NT and SA as sources for the project's requirements, $400m worth of "items" and $100m for "subcontractors' services".Whether special concessions will be made to locals, given that Territorians - per capita - are putting in the lion's share of the money, was not disclosed.At the same time Mr Burke was quite blunt about what Alice would not be getting: for example, a bypass of the town, desperately lobbied for by the town council, had been ruled out "for various reasons"."Sorry," said Mr Burke, "a decision has been made and that's the way it's going to be."Neither will the town get over- nor underpasses for its road-rail crossings, and motorists will just have to wait as the trains, up to 1.6 km long, crawl across the intersections.Interestingly enough, Mr Moretti, talking up the bright future of the rail service, said there would be one train a week (each way) initially, "growing quickly" to three.The emphasis went back to one a week as soon as speakers in the audience alluded to the car traffic traffic disruption caused by the trains moving through town.Given that he left no doubt that the project was set to proceed, Mr Burke parried questions about specifics by saying "it's early days yet to give surety" and referred the audience to future briefings. It appears we should be grateful that we're all part of "a new frontier of development in Australia".

DISABLED ACCESS GETTING BETTER, BUT MORE IS NEEDED. Report by DOROTHY GRIMM.

Alice Springs has quite good access for people with a disability, but there's room for improvement and better information, especially for visitors.The Town Council launched their Access Policy and Action Plan last Friday, to coincide with the International Day of People with a Disability, while well known disability advocate Lance Robinson also launched an access website.Alderman Meredith Campbell, chair of the Council's Access Advisory Committee, apologised for a delay in the production of the plan's final document, but she wanted it to "look a bit better" before it is released, hopefully in a week's time.The document will provide a clear policy statement and a long-term action plan to guide the council's provision of accessible services and infrastructure for the citizens of Alice SpringsIt attempts not merely to react to the legislation against discrimination - in particular, the Commonwealth's Disability Discrimination Act (1992) - but to develop a proactive approach to the access needs of all citizens, in relation to physical infrastructure, transport, information, communication, and attitudes.The document was developed in consultation with the Access Advisory Committee, key informants in the areas of physical and mental health and well-being, and council officers, many of whom were at the Garden Room to witness the launch.According to the draft document, the council recognises the need to liaise and work in partnership not only with members of the Access Advisory Committee but also with a wide range of locally based government and non-government community organisations, including the Department of Lands, Planning, and Environment to ensure that building regulations and building certificates bear in mind the provisions of the Disability Discrimination Act and the Equal Opportunity Act.

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