IEUA NSW/ACT branch secretary Carol Matthews said a combination of members feeling extremely disappointed with progress in the current multi-enterprise agreement, members feeling that many of their key concerns were not addressed last time around, and new industrial relations laws giving them more options than they’ve had before, have provided the impetus for the union to demand more from the Association of Independent Schools (AIS).

“Our staff have been under a four-year agreement that expires at the beginning of next year, and I think it’s fair to say that when we negotiated those agreements, the pay rises were pretty low, particularly compared to the public sector...” Matthews told EducationHQ.

With NSW government schools and Catholic systemic schools having achieved unprecedented 8 per cent pay rises in 2023, the IEU has called for long overdue action on wages.

Staff in independent schools are also struggling under unsustainable workloads, the union said, and with the new legislated right to disconnect it is seeking clear, school-based standards around face-to-face teaching hours, the number of meetings, extra classes and playground duties, as well as requirements for attendance at weekend activities.

The IEU is also seeking fairer parental leave, more commensurate with other school sectors, a better deal for support staff, and the guarantee of clear and transparent processes around promotions and flexible work arrangements – and for the right for staff to have the Fair Work Commission determine workplace disputes.

Exemptions allowing discrimination on the basis of gender or disability should also be scrapped, the union said.

“I think it’s also fair to say that under the previous industrial relations regime, we are very much faced with a ‘take it or leave it approach’ to bargaining,” Matthews said.

“In other words, the employers would say, ‘we’re only prepared to give you this, if you don’t want it, there’s nothing on the table’ - and we’ve had no option as to how to respond to that – so we couldn’t go to the Fair Work Commission, and we couldn’t take protected industrial action, it was either vote ‘yes’ or go away, so that’s meant that our capacity to achieve improvements for members in our sector was quite limited.

The union believes now’s the time to have a much more comprehensive bargaining process.

“So, we’ve asked for quite basic provisions in relation to workload, many of which I might say, I think would be standard in Victorian independent schools, but in New South Wales, there is no regulation in the independent school sector, about face-to-face teaching hours, additional extras that you might take when a colleague is absent from duties, simply aren’t regulated across the sector,” Matthews explained.

“Now, we’re saying we’re not calling for one regulation across the sector, but we are saying that each school needs to establish what we’re calling a ‘school based standard’, so that there is certainty and clarity for teachers about what they can be required to do.”

“Pay wise, it’s not just the pay rate, but the pay structure in many schools is much less advantageous than which applies in government and Catholic schools.”

Matthews explained that while a small number of well-known independent schools staff were paid above government schools rates, many are at best paid a similar rate, yet expectations placed on educators by independent school communities were far higher.

“Many schools are happy to pay a premium, because they recognise that they expect more of their teachers; we’ve probably used the word ‘margin’ rather than ‘premium’,” Matthews explained.

“Our view is that there should be a margin above those rates, because of the disadvantages of working in our sector, particularly the independent school sector. In independent schools there has traditionally been that margin, and we think that should be maintained.”

The IEU and AIS will be sitting down today for a fourth bargaining meeting, with so far no pay or conditions offer being put on the table.

Matthews said union members in independent schools have seen their colleagues in other schools and systems campaign successfully for large pay rises and better conditions, and it’s the time for independent school employers to step up and recognise the work of staff through ‘well-deserved’ improvements.

New multi-enterprise agreements would cover more than 26,000 employees, including teachers and support staff.

“If we can’t reach a satisfactory agreement, by the beginning of next year, we do now have the option of taking protected industrial action, and we have the option of seeking the assistance of the Fair Work Commission,” Matthews said.

“So those are things that weren’t available before and certainly, our members would expect us to utilise, or at least consider those options, if we don’t have a satisfactory agreement.”