(Image: Unsplash/Nicole Honeywill)

At least 15% of teachers in schools and TAFEs across the country who are employed as casual or on contract are missing out on the federal government’s $130 billion-plus safety net.

Being unable to access JobKeeper payments poses a short-term financial problem for these essential workers and a longer-term one for Australia’s education system that’s already facing a demographic threat due to its ageing workforce.

Public sector casuals and contractors are left high and dry: they work for a system, not for a business. Online education has frozen most casuals out of work, and those on contracts face an uncertain future with a standard month’s notice on most contracts.

The OECD’s annual teaching and learning international survey for 2018 said Australia had an 84% permanent teacher workforce, slightly above the OECD average. But the 16% non-permanent figure jumps to 48% for teachers under the age of 30.

A report last year found that at least 72% of new teachers in Australia begin their careers in temporary positions.

If a private school was to qualify for JobKeeper — and this is unlikely for most Catholic and independent schools in middle- or low-income areas — then casual employees must have been employed on a “regular and systematic” basis for at least 12 months before March 1. 

There are not too many easy-to-access definitions of “regular and systematic” so let’s presume that the standard industrial law provisions apply, leaving the majority out in  the cold. The ACTU and Labor have campaigned for this to be broadened but the government has been pretty firm on holding the line.

And casual jobs in educational institutions does not stop at schools. The number has crept up at Australia’s universities even as the salaries of vice-chancellors and other senior staff have swelled to more than $1 million a year.

A shortage of teachers is one of the most pressing problems faced by the education sector. Although there are many reasons for this, a most salient factor is attrition in the early years.

In Australia, 30% to 50% of teachers leave the profession in the first five years. An estimated 13% aged under 50 plan to leave teaching within the next five years, and 22% are considering leaving in the next five years, the OECD’s survey found.

This is lower than the OECD average but is a worry for workforce planning. If casuals and contractors can’t get work they will look for other jobs in other industries. It’s hardly rocket science. But surveys have shown that what will keep them are permanent positions.

 The problem becomes even more poignant in regional areas where there is often a much smaller pool of potential casual or contract staff to draw upon. There is a similarly small pool of available special needs assistants.  

And now online schooling has thrown up fresh challenges, as schools need their casuals to become familiar with online platforms to ensure they are available on an ongoing basis.

The Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, has made a particular point of all but demanding that kids go back to school for the sake of their education. Fair enough. But the other side of the equation is making sure that schools and higher education institutions are properly resourced and have adequate back-up — not just now, but in future too.

And unless more casual staff have the stability and certainty that permanent jobs provide, that proper resourcing is a pipedream.