Next year, New Zealand’s teachers intend to break nine years of school underfunding through collective contract negotiations with the Government. Under-resourcing is so severe, that both major teachers’ unions have already committed to industrial action – six months out from the bargaining table. Teuila Fuatai reports.

It’s been a tough nine years for New Zealand’s teachers. Annual pay increases limited to one and two percent, increasing workload and administrative duties, and poor levels of funding from the Ministry of Education have resulted in one of the worst ever teacher shortages, according to the primary school teachers and principals’ union the New Zealand Educational Institute (NZEI).

At the moment, schools around the country are finding it difficult to source relief teachers, especially in Auckland and Northland, NZEI national secretary Paul Goulter says. Some are even being forced to combine classes due to insufficient teaching staff.

“Basically if our children are to get what they deserve through our education system, they need the best teachers possible, who need as much time as is necessary to teach, and who are paid properly and have a career structure to move through.”

Relatively ordinary demands – so why all the fuss?

Goulter points to two things: nine years of funding cutbacks under National, and the fundamental disagreement between what that Government and teachers’ want for the education sector. 

“National standards, allowing charter schools in, removing incentives for 100 percent qualified teachers in Early Childhood Education, not adequately funding support staff, constantly cutting back on the operations grant – all these things all point in the same direction: that the system has an escalating crisis that needs to be fixed,” he says.

“Whatever Government forms in the next week or so needs to take really strong notice of what we’re saying, and work with us to fix the system.”

– Paul Coulter, NZEI national secretary

Contract renegotiations, which set remuneration rates and teachers’ working conditions, is one way of trying to claw back years of diminishing funding and resources.

“We’ve been pushing for this for the last nine years, but what this aspect of that whole campaign is around is getting the best teachers into the system with enough time to teach. That’s just part of the broader funding campaign, because our schools are woefully underfunded,” Goulter says. 

“We’ve got principals who have had to stop leading their schools to actually go back into their classroom to teach. We’ve got lots of children with special learning needs who are not being adequately supported in their school.”

Last week, both the NZEI and its high school counterpart – the Post Primary Teachers’ Association (PPTA) – agreed to commit to industrial action should contract negotiations head south next year. Each of the unions, which collectively represent about 45,000 members between them, had annual conferences in the first week of the school holidays. 

“We’ve stopped some of the worst aspects,” Goulter reflects on the past few years. 

“NZEI and PPTA stopped bulk funding [of schools] last year, and we’ve turned away the Government’s attempt to introduce larger class sizes, so there have been some successes – but the Government has been relentless in pushing their programme forward, which is broadly unacceptable to the profession because they know it doesn’t work.”

At its conference, the PPTA went a step further in addressing remuneration and teaching shortages by tabling an interim measure of an immediate five percent pay rise for members. 

Goulter also says feedback to NZEI indicates better compensation for teachers would stem the current teaching shortage.

“People that are thinking of going into the profession, and the people who are actually leaving the profession are telling us … that the pay rates are just too low.”

Additionally, data from Education Council shows that of the 120,000 registered teachers, about 20,000 are not currently practising.

“I’m quite sure a big chunk of that [group] would come back into teaching – either in permanent, part-time or relieving roles if they thought it was actually worth it,” he says.

And while both unions will likely share a similar negotiating agenda, it is NZEI which is due to head to the bargaining table first – laying the foundation for what the PPTA can expect to achieve.

“We’re going to get a tough push-back one way or the other – whether we go now, or in two years’ time,” Goulter says.

“So, whatever Government forms in the next week or so needs to take really strong notice of what we’re saying, and work with us to fix the system.”

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