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Federal workplace bill threatens to push relief teachers into retirement

By Nick Wilson | |6 minute read

Under the federal government’s proposed broader definition of casual employment, teaching gaps will become even harder to fill, said the Recruitment, Consulting and Staffing Association (RCSA).

Should the Closing Loopholes Bill pass through the Federal Parliament, many casual employees might find themselves fitting the definition of a permanent employee.

“The government’s view is that casual employment shouldn’t be determined predominantly and solely on what the contract says, but also the surrounding circumstances,” partner at Colin Biggers & Paisley Adam Foster told HR Leader.


Though many praise the expanded definition as an effective way to get more Australians into more secure, better-paying work, the RCSA claimed the change would make the employment of many casual relief teachers – a crucial feature of the teaching landscape – simply unfeasible.

“The changes proposed to the definition of casual employment will make engaging casual relief teachers on regular hours too risky for business,” said RCSA.

“That will ultimately force relief teachers to choose between regular hours with a 20 per cent pay cut or not knowing what day they will be working from one week to the next.”

Teacher shortages

The gravity of Australia’s teaching shortage is difficult to overstate. According to Universities Australia, said RCSA, approximately 16,000 new teachers are minted each year. To keep up with the growing number of new school students each year, Australia needs at least 4,000 more new teaching graduates annually, RCSA added.

Worse, meeting this goal looks exceedingly unlikely when considering the dwindling rates of high school graduates putting teaching as their first preference. Compared with the previous application round, education has suffered a 19.24 per cent decline in first preferences – dropping to the lowest rate since at least 2016, when public records became available, said RCSA.

Getting university students into seats is only half the trouble, however, as only 50 per cent of students end up finishing their teaching degrees, while 20 per cent of graduates end up exiting the profession within three years, according to Education Minister John Clare.

Though the drivers are complex and varied, Mr Clare pointed to cultural and social factors as playing a central role. Only 38 per cent of Australian teachers, he said, feel valued by the community, compared with an estimated 70 per cent in Singapore.

Casual by design?

Schools are relying more heavily on relief teachers than they have in decades, said RCSA head of advocacy Brooke Lord. Roughly 10 per cent of Australian teachers report being employed on a casual/relief contract, a “significant portion” of which the education system risks losing should the redefinition of casual employment clear Parliament, said Ms Lord.

The importance of casual teachers is evidenced by the trouble facing public schools across NSW because of a 42 per cent shortfall in casual teachers. The NSW Department of Education estimated that almost 10,000 lessons go without adequate educational support in public schools across the state every day.

Due to abiding shortages, “it is not uncommon for relief teachers to be called upon to work regular shifts at one school, sometimes up to five days a week for consecutive terms”, said RCSA.

“Access to a pool of work-ready and qualified relief teachers is extremely important for consistency and educational continuity,” it added.

While, to some, casual employment might spell inconsistent hours and lower job security – to others, it means higher take-home pay and greater flexibility.

“Another substantial portion of casual relief teachers are older Australians who teach for passion, driven by a commitment to student outcomes and a personal desire to support the education systems in which they previously worked in permanent roles,” explained Ms Lord.

“Those teachers value consistency and the ability to do the job without the administrative requirements that exist for permanent employees … They are also people who are likely to throw in the towel if the government makes it harder to continue to work casually on their own terms, which is exactly what this bill does.”

By stripping the workforce of a portion of vitally important relief teachers, existing shortages stand to be exacerbated, adding more pressure to an already burnt-out workforce and creating what Ms Lord referred to as a “spiralling impact” of pressure on education staffing.

A Senate committee is due to report on the Closing Loopholes Bill in February 2024.

For more on the proposed redefinition of casual employment, click here.

Nick Wilson

Nick Wilson

Nick Wilson is a journalist with HR Leader. With a background in environmental law and communications consultancy, Nick has a passion for language and fact-driven storytelling.