The Teacher Strikes and the Fiscal Cap
The teacher strike has a back story that should not be dismissed or ignored. This is much more than two of our larger unions (NZEI and PPTA) flexing their collective muscles just to get a pay rise. As a retired teacher and past member of NZEI's Executive I know how much it takes to push our teachers into strike action, in its 136 year history this has occurred only a handful of times.
I recently left teaching myself after over 30 years of service in a range of roles that included special needs and five years as a deputy principal. Lack of resourcing, little government recognition, very long hours (60-70 per week) and stress caused me to pursue political solutions. The steady decay of our world-leading public education system began with the neoliberal Tomorrow's Schools model and culminated with relentless attacks from the last National Government. I listed much that has been inflicted on our education system over the past decade in this widely viewed and circulated blog post.
Most teachers see their job as a vocation and when many changes like National Standards are forced on the profession they soldier on and try and manage as best as they can. Martin Thrupp's internationally recognised research into National Standards described the lengths many schools went to in protecting their children from a flawed and untested system. Experienced teachers who have already committed much of their lives to their career battled on but many new teachers do not have the same resilience and over 40% leave the profession after only five years. Consequently the average age of teachers has been steadily rising, it is now 57 years for primary teachers and similar for secondary teachers.
We are already experiencing a teacher shortage and the government has resorted to importing teachers to make up the shortfall. When we get to a desperate situation of just getting people in front of classes there is the inevitable compromising of quality. Teachers who struggled to get jobs before are gratefully snapped up, those ready to retire hang on and overseas teachers will not be conversant with our curriculum or culture. The pressure on already overworked experienced teachers will increase as they have to provide advice and guidance to support this inflow.
I cannot see how we are going to properly replace half of the teaching workforce as they retire over the next ten years. According to the Ministry of Education there are around 70,000 in the teaching workforce. If half retire over the next decade and we are losing over 40% of beginning teachers after five years, then I calculate that we will need to train around 5,000 a year to also cater for rapidly growing school rolls (an increase of 3,455 for 2017-18). Current training numbers are 500 short of this, and again I worry about quality. I used to be part of a selection panel for a local teacher training campus and I once remember our recommendation not to accept a student was overruled by the University when there was a drive to increase numbers. We were told that they didn't have to be professional or inspiring, just "safe in a classroom". I fear this scenario will be repeated.
If we want a quality education system for our kids we need quality teachers, not gap fillers. To attract the best into the profession it will need to have a high status, remuneration that can compete well with other jobs requiring similar academic qualifications and working conditions that will lead to job satisfaction and retention. All this has to be addressed immediately if we are to save our already compromised system and teachers understand this. The Education Minister Chris Hipkins and our Finance Minister are intent on maintaining a flawed understanding of fiscal responsibility and have created an impasse. The spending cap must be substantially lifted to effectively address the huge crises we are facing. A delay will only cause even more expensive solutions later and is actually not fiscally responsible.
My wife is a GP and her profession has a similar looming crisis of an ageing workforce with few wanting to replace them. This is obviously no coincidence and a reflection of decades of underfunding and not properly valuing those at the frontlines of education and health. The neoliberal juggernaut that got us here needs an immediate change of direction and a slow turn under budget caps won't be enough to avoid the inevitable crash.