Improving country conditions

AEU Vice President, Matthew Cherry looks at ways the Department for Education can improve its Country Incentives Scheme and help address the teacher shortage crisis in regional South Australia.

I wish there were a straightforward way to help people understand the unique challenges that our country educators face day in and day out. Country schools and preschools have been under the pump for a long time. 

The staffing crisis in the city becomes even worse as you travel out into rural, regional, and remote SA. Country educators comprise a significant and important sector of our membership. This term, the Country Conditions Standing Committee has been working with the Department for Education to identify and design effective strategies to attract and retain staff in country schools.  

The Committee has met with the officers leading the DfE’s Country Education Strategy and has responded to the their Country Incentives Review to ensure our government is able to appropriately provide for its country workforce. The Committee outlined some key proposals that would make a genuine difference in the attraction and retention of country educators. 

The country incentives scheme must ensure equity, be delivered transparently, and minimise conflict amongst staff at the local level

The Department's use of these funds has resulted in significant frustration amongst country staff. They simply did not understand how or why decisions were made about the special incentives some educators received. Fairness and equity are important in building a positive culture. We believe the government must avoid situations like this in the future. 

It must ensure it effectively utilises its country mentoring program and, ideally, expands it

The Department has a fully funded mentor program. However, many country educators are not aware of it. Country staff need to be informed about programs such as these. Also, these programs need to be expanded to ensure mentors are not under excessive workload pressures, and that mentees receive support too. 

It must significantly increase the total number of Permanent Relieving Teacher (PRTs) in the system and make those positions ongoing

PRTs are a vital component of our country workforce. They offer consistency. They are highly skilled, knowledgeable, and adaptable. PRTs can help address the workload issues presented by the uncertainty of relief lessons. This sector of the workforce can positively impact the day-to-day operations for country staff. Importantly, we need a pool of Early Childhood trained PRTs.  

It must improve working conditions and workload in country regions

Smaller budgets mean smaller staffs. Using staffing calculations derived from metropolitan schools to staff country schools is not going to work. The Committee presented the Department with suggestions to help ensure country educators are not overworked or overburdened with other “duties,” and that schools are staffed on a calculation that is appropriate for a country context. 

The government must improve preschool conditions in the country

There is too much uncertainty for preschool educators in the country. The Committee understands this and has proposed increased permanence, more fulltime positions, and the development of a strategy to ensure consistency and certainty in funding.

It must reduce the burden of distance. 

This is easier said than done. However, the Committee has a range of ideas it believes can help better manage the needs of country educators when it is comes to navigating the burden of travel. For example, the Committee explains that establishing a new type of travel leave for country educators would help attract and retain staff. This special leave would be accessible to regional educators to help them with travel to and from the city for needs such as family engagements and doctors’ appointments. 

It must address the housing shortage 

If you are a country educator, you probably know how difficult it is to secure stable housing outside of the city. The Committee spent a significant amount of time discussing this issue and offering suggestions that can help address this key problem. We know that housing is integral to helping staff members establish themselves in a community. The Department must work with other government agencies to enact measures to address this pressing need.

The Committee invited the Department to meet for a wide-ranging discussion about its views on country incentives. We hope to have a productive discussion with their key decision-makers to address the issues presented in these broad headings.

Rest assured that the members of your Country Conditions Standing Committee are committed to representing your needs, which will directly benefit your students, their families, and your wider communities.