Uncertainty at the border presents two possible scenarios for schools  either too many teachers or too few, writes Matthew Scott

Analysis: Closed borders have posed dual problems for New Zealand schools, with a surplus of primary school teachers and a deficit for high schools.

The impact of the vaccine mandate on teacher retention rates will not be fully known until after this month. However, early analysis by the Ministry of Education suggests teachers have a higher vaccination rate than the general population. That could mean less than three percent of teachers will have left due to not getting vaccinated.

Meanwhile, the Ministry’s analysis paints a picture of an education sector very much affected by other Government decisions, such as easing or tightening up the borders.

It’s suggested border restrictions staying in place could mean more teachers than classrooms for them to work in, especially at primary level.

The two possible scenarios when it comes to New Zealand’s borders in 2022 – keeping restrictions in place or opening up – creates the opposite problem for high schools.

Easing borders could create a shortage of around 210 secondary teachers, while restrictions staying in place may lead to a shortage of around 1000. That’s roughly 4 percent of secondary teachers – similar to the number who have moved on due to the vaccine mandate.

However, this possible shortage is tied to borders opening, suggesting secondary teachers moving abroad would be the root cause.

Figures from the Ministry of Education show an historic increase in teacher retention since the beginning of the pandemic as teachers have been less likely to head abroad, with around 1000 more high school teachers staying than was the case a few years ago.

New Zealand’s ability to hold on to its teaching workforce seems closely tied to whether or not the borders open.

As in every industry and sector of society, the global pandemic has added more than one extra layer of complexity and unpredictability onto modelling or planning. Imagine trying to predict border settings, the health of the wider economy, and the response of teachers to the vaccine mandate.

Aside from the pandemic, increasing rates of teacher retention could be put down to the $135 million invested in the sector since 2017 by the Ministry of Education, mainly focusing on getting New Zealand-trained teachers to return or stay in the profession – as well as encouraging others to train.

This funded 867 scholarships for nascent teachers, and subsidised teachers enrolled in professional development.

The Ministry of Education considers the outlook positive for the national supply of teachers. However, it acknowledges “in the uncertain environment that Covid-19 presents”, it will need to offer targeted support.

While more teachers have stayed in jobs, entry rates for new teachers have dropped since the beginning of the pandemic, after increasing in the four years prior to 2020.

According to the Government website Education Counts, this could be due to fewer overseas arrivals and a lower demand for day-relief teachers during lockdown.

Along with this, a recent Education Review Office report said new teachers between the ages of 18 and 35 were twice as likely to say they were not happy at work than those 36 to 45 years old, and three times as likely as those aged over 46.

In response to the report, teacher union NZEI Te Riu Roa president Liam Rutherford said teacher workload and wellbeing were big issues before Covid-19, and they have only got worse.

“[In 2022], we will be looking to get more teachers and support staff in our schools to ensure our education system meet the needs of all children across Aotearoa,” he said at the time.

The Ministry of Education’s report referred to teaching as a “strong, stable and growing profession” – although this year the extent of its stability and growth will be dictated in large part by the decisions made around the border.

Matthew Scott covers immigration, urban development and Auckland issues.

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