How would you feel if you were a patient at a public hospital and the doctors could not give you their full attention because on top of their medical duties they were also required to set up and run the hospital’s community events and write its newsletter? 

Swap out the reference to doctors and replace it with teachers in public schools, and we get closer to a key reason Australia can’t attract and retain enough teachers, especially in high schools.

This opinion article by Caroline Milburn, CEO and Co-founder of Ourschool, was published in The Age on 25th February, 2024.

Anyone with exposure to, or involvement in, school education knows that a large proportion of teachers in the public sector operate under excessive workloads, chiefly because they’re juggling extra, non-teaching tasks.

A recent Grattan Institute report, Making Time for Great Teaching, found that 92 per cent of Australian teachers say they don’t have enough time to prepare well for their classroom lessons. This is because often they are chasing student permission slips, and organising excursions, incursions, sports carnivals, student musicals and theatrical performances, camps, open days, parent information events, careers events, guest visits, valedictory events, and awards ceremonies.

Many of us, as parents of school-age children, have sat through school events of underwhelming quality because harried teachers have had to throw them together. Communications is another area where it’s common to find teachers or school office staff producing the school’s newsletter, yearbook, website and social media content, and information packs for parents.

Most public and private sector workplaces have evolved enough to recognise the importance of creating specialist roles to deliver their communications and events. So too has the private school system. But in the public school system it’s rare for a school to employ a full-time specialist to manage these aspects of its functioning.

In an under-resourced public sector, school principals find themselves caught in a budgetary bind, often forced to make staffing decisions based on a “rob Peter to pay Paul” scenario. It’s a piecemeal, make-do situation that’s led to a system-wide problem of unintended consequences. We’re left with a public school system whose organisational structures are stuck in the past, harking back to the days when the quality of a school’s communications with parents and the wider community didn’t matter all that much.

Now that we live in a time when parent choice is paramount and how a school presents itself to the public is of vital importance, irrespective of whether it is public or private.

The latest figures published by the ABS showing record low enrolments at Australia’s public schools and a worsening enrolment drift away from public to private should chill the hearts of those who believe in public education and equality of opportunity.

Can this drift be arrested? The negotiations this year between the Commonwealth and the states to bring public schools up to 100 per cent funding of the School Resource Standard offer a way forward.

Governments will have the opportunity to use the new funding model to boldly reorganise the outdated way that public schools operate. By earmarking funding in a school budget to create dedicated positions that oversee the kind of administrative and event tasks that are bogging down our teachers, they can immediately reduce the excessive workloads imposed on those we entrust with our kids’ learning.

There is almost universal agreement among parents and politicians that the paramount responsibilities of today’s school teachers – imparting knowledge and skills that prepare young people for life in an ever more complex society – are become increasingly challenging.

Yet as a society, we seemingly still expect teachers to be lumbered with additional jobs unrelated to their professional training and purpose, even though most of us would baulk at being asked to do the same in our own professions. Sixty-four per cent of our children and teenagers rely on our public schools for their education. They deserve better.

By Caroline Milburn, CEO and Co-founder of Ourschool.