I want to acknowledge the school leaders here today, the overwhelming majority of whom are AEU members. You do an amazing job. This new paradigm should excite and encourage you. The rest of the country is watching our work on occupational violence with great interest. We are out of the blocks first and we will get it right first. History will record that it was the ACT and its public school leaders that led the nation and addressed the elephant that has been in the room for too long. I acknowledge that our principals have been at the pointy end of occupational violence, and have on thankfully fairly rare occasions experienced physical violence, verbal abuse, threats and intimidation from students and also from members of the community. Maybe you started to think it was what you signed up for. It wasn’t.
I also acknowledge Greg Jones and his team who have been part of this journey.
And I acknowledge AEU ACT Branch President Angela Burroughs.
Thank you, Minister Yvette Berry and DG Natalie Howson for your kind words regarding the AEU’s involvement in this project. At the risk of this sounding like a mutual appreciation society, I’d like to return the compliments. Both of you inherited this issue early in your appointments. You could have tried to block and obfuscate. You could have played “There’s nothing to see here”. But your recognition of the problem was swift and your action decisive. I asked for leadership and I got it. There has been the odd bump in the road, and there’s a way to go yet, but it has been a strong partnership and I’m sure we can continue it until our work is done, however long it takes.
The policy and plan being launched today, and the tools that will follow, are very important. They are best practice across ACT Government and across Australia. Our union didn’t want to have to create its own policies in opposition to the Government’s. We wanted our members to have confidence in one set of documents, and they certainly should. We need only supplement around the edges.
Thank you to the Directorate’s Meredith Whitten, Chris Hodgson and Leanne Ballard for their work, their responsiveness and their accessibility.
A very special thanks to the AEU’s Jacqui Agius and Patrick Judge for their powerhouse effort so far. An ignorant person will see unionists as blockers, nay-sayers standing in the way of progress. An informed person knows that we are builders and creators. We are collaborators, negotiators and doers. I take offence to somebody occasionally asking, “What has the union done about this or that, or what have they done for me?” I’ll take even more offence now because the workload associated with this task has at times threatened to break our staff. I am in awe of their commitment and their drive.
So, the documents are strong. Next come the resources. We secured some in the budget in the form of a significantly enhanced work safety team within the Directorate. At first, these people will be pretty hands-on I imagine, working with our school leaders on site to step them through the processes - to train, coach, advise and support. Over time, capacity will grow within school workforces and in staffrooms. Some of you here today have already been through a process that was new to you regarding the safety of staff. It will be smoother the second time and much smoother the tenth time. Staff safety and the language of risk assessment, risk management and controls will become your bread and butter in the same way addressing student need is second nature to you. Who knows? Maybe the Directorate’s work safety team will one day make itself redundant. I’m being flippant - central resources will be vital and there is every chance we’ll be seeking more when enterprise bargaining rolls around. (There’s a heads up for you, Minister.)
The last thing to consider after documents and resources is cultural change, and this is where leaders at all levels within the Directorate play such a crucial role. It’s nobody’s fault, but over time we headed down a road where being hit, kicked, pushed, spat on or told to f…. off was seen as part of the job of an educator. We know this because it was repeatedly articulated in our survey of 2016, where we got an extraordinary response. The data and the confidential stories were compelling. We were in danger of becoming professional victims, martyred to the cause of a child or young person’s education. Here’s the thing: the right of a child to an education comes first, but it comes equal first. From today, it shares top spot with the right that working people have to return home in the same shape they left home that morning. This principle is not merely a union position, or a lofty aspiration that sounds good - it is the law. Our legislation is good and strong, and we will use it. If ever you don’t have what you need, put your hand up. First to your employer and then, if required, to your union leadership and office. We need everybody in this room to help us drive cultural change. The right narrative is essential and it starts with you. Help us build a mature reporting culture. Let us all actively reject the old “It’s part of the job” mentality. Challenge the idea that in the face of physical or verbal abuse, educators just need to be more resilient. Confront and defeat the idea that a child’s educational needs supplant the safety of your colleagues. That mindset won’t cut it any more.
Of course, as educators we must consider all strategies to engage students in ways that make frustration, disengagement and aggression less likely. And we make no judgement about the perpetrator of violence when it occurs. If an educator has been subject to a violent act we must recognise this and we must act in accordance with the Work Health and Safety Act and with the policy and plan being launched today.
One last thing: this effort has never been about finding deficits in our public school system, which is a great and wonderfully inclusive system. Every learning that we arrive at will build on what we have and will make us even better. It’s a credit to all involved that we have tackled this head on, and have been prepared to brave the perils of public opinion. I truly believe that the reputation and popularity of public education within our community will be enhanced by this exercise, and not diminished.