1997-1998: The Leading Schools saga

In the Queensland Industrial Relations Commission, the then Director General of Education described the Leading Schools dispute as “the most bitter dispute in the history of industrial relations between the QTU and the Department of Education”.


It all started on what should have been a quiet Sunday in February 1997, when the Minister for Education Bob Quinn announced a new school-based management model for Queensland education entitled “Leading Schools”. One hundred “Leading Schools” were supposed to trial this new system before its widespread application to all Band 8-11 schools.

Leading Schools was rejected by the QTU because:

  • the Coalition government initially refused to negotiate any aspect of the scheme with the QTU
  • the proposal included a range of changes which could NEVER be accepted by teachers and principals, including:
    • bulk funding of schools (one overall allocation of funding with total discretion given to the schools for how to spend the money)
    • the ability to “trade in” teachers and spend the money elsewhere, eg. school maintenance
    • school-based selection of staff, which would virtually end the transfer system
    • an end to class size limits
    • no guarantees around retention of specialist staff.

After the government reaffirmed its refusal to negotiate with the QTU, the Union Executive issued a directive to ban Leading Schools. This ban was subsequently supported by 88 per cent of members in a ballot. The ban obviously included schools “expressing interest” in the pilot of leading schools.

While almost all schools supported the ban, a number expressed an interest in attending a conference to find out more about the discredited scheme. Many of them volunteered against the express wishes of the staff and/or the P&C.

The first 24 hour strike against Leading Schools occurred on 25 March, with further 24 hour rolling stoppages occurring in May. The strikes were strongly supported by members and parents, and most schools were deserted.

The fact that a number of schools defied the Union directives and allowed the Leading Schools pilot to start was the source of much bitterness within the membership of the QTU. Some previously active members “sold out”, and a number of long-term friendships ended.

Eventually, the department agreed to negotiate the QTU’s Leading Schools guarantees, which provided effective protection against possible abuse of increased school based management. The salary component of EB was arbitrated with a successful outcome.
Cornerstone of the Leading Schools guarantees was the staffing guarantee: “Funds allocated to staff must be used for the employment of staff”.

The Union had won.

The final part of the victory package was announced on 4 February 1998, when the Labor opposition announced it would end Leading Schools if elected – which it did.

Overall, the campaign involved two strikes – one statewide and one rolling over two weeks – both involving mass meetings; three school-based ballots, including two in which more than 20,000 members voted; another series of mass meetings around the state; a Sky Channel broadcast; a march to Parliament and another to the Executive Building; two Parliamentary debates, pickets of government members’ offices and functions; and the production and distribution of a record 44 Newsflashes, as well as campaign kits and other materials. This was in addition to the resources invested in negotiations and numerous appearances in the IRC.

It was without doubt the most extensive and expensive campaign in QTU history. Its successful conclusion was a potent demonstration of the capacity of Queensland teachers, organised through the Union, to achieve legitimate objectives, in spite of restrictive legislation and the aggressive attacks of government and the department using public resources.

John Battams
QTU Life Member, former QTU General Secretary, former QCU President

Queensland Teachers' Journal, Vol 119 number 2, 125th Anniversary Special Edition, p20-21

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Past QTU campaigns