Friday, August 22, 2014

Primary Teachers Rise Up!


I have been a primary teacher for 35 years and for over half of that time I have been an active member of the New Zealand Educational Institute, New Zealand's largest education union. NZEI Te Riu Roa represents 50,000 members, including primary teachers and principals, early childhood teachers, special education professionals and support staff in schools. Around three quarters of the membership are female and a large proportion of the work of the union has a professional focus. When the Institute was first formed in 1883 its sole focus was professional but when employment agreements needed to be negotiated it took on this role.

The current Government likes to dismiss the Institute as 'just a union' and implies that any opposition to government policy is based on industrial concerns and self interest. The truth is very different, over its 131 year history NZEI has only resorted to strike action twice and agreement negotiations are approached in good faith and supported by professional evidence. In our current agreement we included the introduction of a new qualification, the Advanced Classroom Expertise Teacher (ACET), this was an attempt to introduce a new career pathway that recognises the importance of keeping good teachers in the classroom. A robust process has been put in place to ensure that teachers must meet important professional criteria to earn the ACET title.

A lack of good faith was demonstrated by the Government when they negotiated this new career pathway into our agreement without giving any indication that they were working on their own idea of recognizing expert teachers. The ACE teacher will earn an extra $5,000 a year after establishing their professional expertise, but shortly after settling the agreement the Government announced that they were introducing a Lead Teacher role that would pay $10,000 and these positions would be a appointed ones. No consultation on these positions or hints about their plans were passed on until their release by the Prime Minister. We were only allowed 800 ACE teachers under our agreement and yet the Government is planning to appoint 5,000 lead teachers using criteria that will probably hinge on willingness to advance policy than based on professional capabilities.

NZEI is full of members who are very focussed on the day to day demands of teaching and to get teachers to attend union meetings, even to negotiate agreements, is sometimes a struggle as their teaching responsibilities generally take priority. Most schools would rather just send a few representatives than all having to attend as there are always things to be done at school. To get 70% of primary teachers and principals to attend meetings across the country is actually remarkable and to have 93% of them reject the Governments plans outright demonstrates a clear consensus.

Having recently resigned from the National Executive of NZEI I was personally surprised at the strength of feeling the came from the membership. Two options had been provided to choose from at the meetings, one was an outright rejection of the Governments plans and the other was to manage the proposed changes through our agreement. The first option was a strong stand, would need wide support and there was always the concern we could be done to anyway. The second option meant accepting much in the plan and negotiating a more positive outcome. My own feeling was that after National Standards was forced on us through legislation (making opposition illegal) that the membership would probably want the protection of using our agreement to enable some way of minimising the damage.

I did not fully appreciate the levels of frustration and anger within the profession after the last five years under this Government. Primary education has weathered hit after hit of ideologically based systemic change and cut services and teachers have had enough. There was a high level of shock when support staff were trying to negotiate an increase to their minimal wages and poor working conditions and were being told that there was just no money available, when suddenly the Government announced $359,000,000 of new spending. This was a huge sum in education terms and when the detail was revealed I remember seeing some of our leadership in tears, little of the spending would address the real needs of our struggling children. Teachers were not interested in the potential of earning more money ($10-40,000 is actually substantial for a teacher or principal) they were just appalled at the lack of appreciation of what actually needed to be addressed in the sector.

In his announcement John Key claimed that teaching makes the biggest difference to lifting achievement when it is clearly not true. All research points to the fact that achievement is closely related to the socio-economic circumstances of the child and 90% of all influences on achievement occur outside the school. Good teaching helps but it can never be the significant solution.

If there was extra money available for our sector then there are things that most teachers could identify that would have nothing to do with paying a few teachers and principals more. This Government's determination not to consult properly with the profession has dominated their governance and teachers have finally had enough. A line in the sand has been drawn and the profession are standing firm. This is not a political stunt, this is about saving our public education system from an arrogant, uncaring Government that has been allowed to get away with too much already.


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