MORE than 500 teachers and support staff within the Catholic Diocese of Armidale walked off the job for a full day on Friday, May 27, striking over pay and conditions.
Of the 502 Independent Education Union (IEU) members in the Armidale diocese - which stretches from Quirindi right to the Queensland border - 98 per cent voted yes to taking industrial action.
Members want a 10 to 15 per cent pay rise over two years, less paperwork, and more planning time, claiming teachers are "exhausted, burnt out and leaving the industry".
IEU secretary Mark Northam told Australian Community Media the overwhelming call to strike was a reflection of the mood in the industry, and taking industrial action is a decision members don't take lightly.
"What we're requesting for our members is a fair pay deal, beyond the NSW salary cap of 2.5 per cent," he said.
"Even though we're on a federal award, we get caught because the Catholic employers won't pay us more than what a state school teacher earns.
"They're capped at 2.5 per cent, but inflation is running at 5.1 per cent, so our members just will not accept the proposed 2.04 per cent pay rise in the current climate."
The decision comes just weeks after public teachers across the North West walked off the job, claiming the education system is in "crisis".
IEU North West sub branch organiser David Towson said although principals and executive staff are not included in current negotiations they are generally supportive.
"A lot of the executive staff in Catholic schools for example, have principals needing to fill the gaps," Mr Towson said.
"And support staff in Catholic schools are not being paid the same as what they would be in state schools. So we're fighting to get parity for them and to help Catholic schools retain those staff as well."
It is the first stop work action by Catholic school members of the IEU since since 2017 and the first full day strike since 2004.
IEU member and O'Connor Catholic College teacher Andrew May started teaching in 1996. He says there has been a gradual erosion of a teacher's ability to deliver their core business which is face to face teaching.
"There has been a steady increase of administrative burden during that time," Mr May said.
"When I started at O'Connor in 2011 there were 20 students on individualised learning plans and now there are more than 130.
"We are moving away from a one size fits all model of education to a model trying to provide a personalized learning experience for every student. And that's an excellent ideal, but the problem is it comes with a very large requirement for a lot of additional support."
Catholic teachers don't usually go on strike, Mr May said, and they are doing it reluctantly. About 75 per cent of O'Connor Catholic College staff are union members.
"We understand fully the effect this has on parents and students," he said.
"It's not just about improving conditions for teachers, it's about improving the conditions for all staff employed in our Catholic systemic schools."
Read more: Catholic teachers back NSW Schools strike
Mr May said the aim of the strike was to create sustainable schools that provide a 'fair, just and equitable outcome' for all students.
"This is not about us as individuals," Mr May said.
"This is about us trying to secure a decent outcome for the students and for the families and for the communities that we work with in.
"Action has to happen to improve the conditions of employment. It's not just in the Catholic sector. - it's in the state sector as well.
"Our schools are at absolute crossroads and it is about trying to do the best thing for our students."
While the rules around COVID isolation have added complexity, Mr May said it is the lack of teaching staff - particularly casuals - that is the real problem.
"When I came into teaching, every school could pick and choose who their casual teachers were because they had so many people lined up wanting to get jobs as teachers," he said.
"Now it's a case of we take who we can get.
"In the first week of this term at O'Connor there were over 36 extra lessons handed out to teachers here at the school.
"So that means there were teachers who were doing over their teaching load and taking additional lessons, but at the same time they're still being expected to complete all the administration and all the governance.
"It's just absolutely crazy - we simply don't have enough teachers."
The union's Tamworth branch president, Libby Lockwood, said a large number of local Catholic school teachers are sick of workload issues, mass teacher shortages and "terrible pay".
She said staffing shortages and difficulties hiring casual teachers, mean teachers aren't getting their entitled release from face-to-face learning, and the issue is getting worse.
"It means that teachers can't go and attend professional development because their classes won't be covered," she said.
"I've seen this get hugely worse. Just last week we had five teachers away from schools, we had NAPLAN occurring, we had numerous things happening and we could not get one casual.
"Support staff in Catholic schools are paid less than those in the public sector, so that's not good enough either. Without support staff in schools, teachers can't do their job."
Local teachers joined the 17,000 teachers and support staff in 540 Catholic diocesan schools throughout NSW and the ACT.
A rally will took place in Tamworth at the West Leagues Club.
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