In a strongly worded statement released last Friday, the AEU Joint Primary and Secondary Sector Council said it was ‘dismayed’ at Ben Carroll’s announcement that explicit instruction and structured literacy would be embedded in every public school from next year, and accused the Minister of fuelling another public attack on teachers, while lumping a huge burden on already struggling schools. 

The council claims Carroll and the Department have failed to properly consult on the ‘major change’ and have urged members not to take any action to implement the plan. 

The entity said the policy announcement was a “wilful breach” of the Victorian Government Schools Agreement 2022 (VGSA), which requires consultation before any changes are implemented. 

“No other profession would be treated with the breathtaking disregard the Minister has shown,” it said. 

“[The council is] is deeply concerned that the Minister has seen fit to introduce a major change without consultation, at a time when the public school system is under unprecedented stress,” it added. 

“Public schools are not fully funded; are dealing with chronic teacher shortages; principals, teachers and education support staff face unsustainable workloads, and are finding it challenging to meet the needs of all students. 

“More change, more workload, less autonomy, and less respect for the profession will simply drive more people to leave,” the council argued. 

Victorian public school teacher and union member James Dobson said he is “deeply appalled, devastated and hurt” by the union’s response to the plan. 

“…I am puzzled by the stance put forward because it fails to support equality in education, downplays the importance of phonics in learning to read, and dismisses the hard work many members are already doing in their schools while increasing our workload,” he wrote in an open letter to the union. 

The council contends that Carroll’s focus should be on ensuring that public schools are fully funded, rather than “making uninformed announcements that will add to the burdens currently experienced by schools”. 

Under the plan, all students from Prep to Grade 2 will be taught to read using a systematic synthetic phonics approach as part of schools’ reading programs.

Despite being broadly welcomed by educators, literacy experts and learning support groups, the council has taken issue with the change, accusing Carroll 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”. 

“It would be impossible for Victorian public school students to lead the nation in Year 3 NAPLAN reading outcomes if Victorian teachers were not currently and competently teaching all skills required to enable students to become proficient readers,” it noted. 

A 2023 study from consulting firm Equity Economics called out Victoria for its failure to introduce evidence-based literacy instruction in primary schools, with lead researcher Jessica Del Rio suggesting the state had better reading outcomes because of its educationally advantaged population, and not because of its evidence-aligned approach to reading instruction at scale. 

Dobson said he is devastated that the union has opted to “[downplay] the importance of phonics in early reading”.

“The willfully misleading phrase ‘that a range of teaching strategies to teach reading, including phonics’ does not demonstrate a sound knowledge of critical importance of teaching phonics to all students,” he added. 

The union, meanwhile, contends the new policy undermines teachers’ expertise and neglects to honour the profession’s ability to make the best pedagogical decisions in their own context. 

“…any change must occur in collaboration with the profession, not dictated to the profession,” it noted. 

“Schools must also be provided with additional resources, as well as ample time and opportunity to implement changes.”

The council concluded that Carroll is clearly out of step with his portfolio predecessors. 

“Central to the Education Minister’s job, as previous education ministers in the state Labor government have done consistently, is to amplify the exemplary work undertaken by teachers and leaders, and support staff in schools, demonstrating genuine respect for the profession, rather than fuel a negative debate against them for their own political purposes,” it says. 

Pamela Snow, professor of cognitive psychology at La Trobe University, composed a strongly-pointed message to the union, urging it to re-think its position.

Snow urged the union to seize the opportunity to be “on the right side of history”.

Writing in a recent bog post, the literacy expert explained she had tried to post the comment on the union’s Facebook page, but “strangely, comments were ‘restricted’.” 

“Unfortunately, the AEU seems to have a definition of ‘professionalism’ that is at odds with the rest of the community’s,” she noted.

“Professions which are held in high esteem at community-level are those whose practitioners are mandated to operate within narrow parameters and are held to account (often publicly) when they do not do so – think pilots, medical practitioners, nurses, psychologists, engineers, etc.

“They do not get to ‘choose their own adventure’ in the way that schools and teachers have been able to with respect to selecting from a buffet of approaches on reading instruction.” 

Snow argued that the reform will equal reduced workloads and improved professional satisfaction for teachers – “two key outcomes that unions are normally invested in,” she argued. 

Dobson maintains he is profoundly hurt by the union’s stance on the reform and is now weighing up his future as a union member. 

“Why is the union objecting to a key reform that will alleviate the burden of workload from its members?” he questioned. 

“Instead, the union has taken a stance that drives a wedge between teachers. I now do not feel supported, or even respected, by the union that is meant to stand with me in solidarity.” 

The AEU Victorian Branch have been contacted for direct comment.