Many Victorian teachers are either quitting or reconsidering their future with the teachers’ union over its rejection of a new structured literacy and explicit teaching reform led by Education Minister Ben Carroll. 

So says literacy learning specialist and union member James Dobson, who told EducationHQ he was ‘deeply hurt and appalled’ by the union’s stance on the plan to embed the instructional approach in all public schools from next year.

“Just personally, I’ve been talking to dozens of other members who were either planning to call up today, or email and voice their concern – and either cancel their membership or question their membership.

“I know that I’m certainly wondering about that, and looking forward to a response from the union, which is claiming to represent me and all of its members in this issue,” Dobson said.  

In a statement released last Friday, the AEU Joint Primary and Secondary Sector Council said it was ‘dismayed’ over Carroll’s reform announcement.

The union accused the Minister of failing to understand that “explicit teaching is already occurring across classrooms every day and that a range of teaching strategies to teach reading, including phonics are required in the current curriculum”.

Dobson says this argument was a ‘slap in the face’ to the hard work he and so many other educators had been doing to embed systematic synthetic phonics in their schools – work they had been doing largely without the centralised support and guidance from the Department, at least until now.

The union’s downplaying of the importance of phonics in early reading was also of great concern, Dobson indicated.

“It just feels like the union is not respecting that work [we’ve been driving in structured literacy], and is actively almost discouraging that work, suggesting that it’s going to add to the workload of teachers.”

The union have contended that the change will equal “more workload, less autonomy, and less respect for the profession”, which it said would ultimately push more teachers to leave the profession.

Dobson says this couldn’t be further from the reality.

“The opposite is actually true,” he said.

“I’ve been finding, as we become much more structured with our literacy, and as we introduce systematic synthetic phonics, it actually alleviates so much of the workload on teachers – we’re providing the resources that teachers are crying out for.

“One of the huge comments that’s often made is how much it has reduced teachers’ planning time, and how much it has reduced their workload,” he reported.

One major grievance aired by the union is the ‘lack of consultation’ behind the change.

It deems the policy a “wilful breach” of the Victorian Government Schools Agreement 2022, and argued it has been handed down at a time when public schools are underfunded and understaffed.

According to Dobson this argument is off the mark.

“The union has a really good point about the lack of consultation, but I think they’ve muddied the waters by bringing in these other issues and forgotten to focus on the main issue.

“If the union has been concerned about the lack of consultation, that’s one thing, but then to bring in … the fair funding campaign … that’s not the issue at hand here.”

Dobson fears the union’s current stance is only fuelling division between teachers.

“I think [by downplaying the role of phonics] they are then driving that wedge between members who have already embraced the importance of systematic synthetic phonics and those members who are now reflecting and thinking about how they can implement these things, which for some teachers can be very daunting.

“So rather than supporting each other, it can create a scenario where it’s an ‘us and them’ mentality,” he warned.

The union has also criticised Carroll for failing to grasp the complexity of reading instruction and for devaluing the profession as a whole.

But Dobson said he has so far been impressed by the Minister’s willingness to listen to educators on the ground, as well as his apparent knowledge of the science of learning.

“If you’d asked me 12 months ago, or even if you’d asked me five weeks ago, whether I expected a Labor minister for education to make a statement like this, I would have said no,” he reflected.

“But a few weeks ago, I was at a SoTLA event put on in conjunction with La Trobe University, and [Carroll] was there.

“He gave an address, and I was impressed with his address: he talked about the need for explicit teaching and the role that phonics plays in teaching all students to read.”

The Minister fielded questions from the floor, took his own notes during presentations, and engaged with delegates throughout the morning tea break, Dobson said.

“I don't know I’ve ever seen a minister stay much longer than 15 minutes beyond their address.

“It was a really powerful engagement with the education community. I feel like we’ve got a minister for education that can actually make Victoria an ‘education state’.”

Others, such as secondary school literacy intervention specialist Jackie Nieuwenhuizen, have similarly condemned the union’s position.

"@AEUVictoriaShame on you. I spend every day teaching 12 year olds to read because they’ve been failed by our current system – are you advocating for continuing to have 1000s of students arriving at secondary school unable to read. No child should be in this position-Disgraceful,” Nieuwenhuizen posted on X.

Dr Tayna Serry from La Trobe University also tagged the union in a pointed post:

“Dear @AEUVictoria, I am always happy to be guided by quality evidence. Can you share evidence [not anecdote] for your views shared in response to @BenCarrollMP’s announcements? Thx in advance.”

Pamela Snow, professor of cognitive psychology at La Trobe, urged the union to reconsider its response to the policy, which she said was about “shifting the needle on reading instruction and success for Vic children".

“Talk to teachers already teaching this way & enjoying their students’ gains (and their own sense of professionalism),” she posted.

Dobson said ensuring all children were taught to read via the most effective methods was a pressing social justice issue, and to this end he was perplexed as to why the union would want to work against the reform.

“Change is hard, change is difficult, and change takes time.

“I would have expected the union to be questioning the lack of consultation and … the steps that are going to support teachers to implement this policy, rather than just getting teachers to say no to it,” he said.

“That’s going to be a really unhelpful thing for our teachers. And it’s definitely going to be an unhelpful thing for our students – we want to teach all students to read.”

EducationHQ has contacted the union for comment.