Is the Government’s education boost enough?

Trainee teacher programme Teach First NZ was the big winner in the government’s pre-Budget education announcement. Shane Cowlishaw explores whether the new funding will have a tangible effect in solving the teacher shortage.

With Budget Day approaching fast, pre-announcements have begun to tumble out of the Government and yesterday saw new Education Minister Nikki Kaye take her turn.

The cornerstone was a funding boost for initial teacher education programme Teach First NZ.

Introduced in 2013, the model aims to fill teacher shortages in areas like maths, science, and Māori by paying trainees an on-the-job salary for two years in schools with achievement challenges, following a short training period.

Results have been promising, but Teach First is facing a race against time to have its programme re-certified after splitting with the University of Auckland and forming a new relationship with The Mind Lab.

Kaye said $5.2 million over four years would be diverted to Teach First to raise the number of teachers trained per intake from 30 to 45.

Several other measures were also announced, including $2m to create an induction and mentoring programme for provisionally certified teachers to gain full registration.

Sometimes new teachers are not able to progress to full certification because of the part-time nature of their roles, and Kaye estimated up to 700 teachers could gain the certification through the new programme which would prioritise those working in high demand locations and subjects.

Measures to lower the cost of refresher courses for teachers working towards full registration would also be looked at, while a moratorium on new teacher education programmes, in place since 2000 when quality concerns were raised, would be lifted in 2018.

While the measures are clearly aimed at increasing the teacher workforce, Kaye noted that she had received advice that the overall number of teachers was more than 100,000 and enough to support the education system.

‘A drop in the ocean’

Perhaps unsurprisingly, unions and Labour disagreed with her view.

Labour’s education spokesperson Chris Hipkins called the announcement “half-baked”, claiming it failed to address issues such as the critical shortages in areas like Auckland and the number of teachers who finished their training but never completed their registration.

Primary teacher union NZEI said unless pay levels and affordable housing were addressed the teacher shortage problem was here to stay, while head of the secondary teacher’s union PPTA, Jack Boyle, said the announcement was nothing but a “drop in the ocean”.

“On the two big ticket items, the recruitment of and retention of (teachers), there’s precious little in this policy announcement.”

Boyle disputed Kaye’s 100,000 teacher figure.

He said the number was the total of those holding practice certificates and included people who had left teaching, retirees, and even people who had died but remained on the Education Council list. It also did not take account of what subjects those teachers specialised in.

Ministry of Education data shows there were 68,213 current primary and secondary teachers as at the end of February this year, but that there were 101,452 that had current pacticing certificates (including early childhood education).

Boyle was supportive of the move to improve the induction and mentoring programme, something that was recommended by the Joint Working Group on Secondary Teacher Supply, but wanted to know why other recommendations such as improving teacher scholarships had been ignored.

“They’re not a hell of a lot of money, but if we’ve got shortages why aren’t we looking at scholarships as a way to dismantle the financial barrier into the profession? It’s not rocket science.”

Someone well placed to comment on Teach First is the University of Auckland's dean of education Professor Graeme Aitken, who was concerned about whether the programme could find enough capable students.

Having helped run Teach First in the past, Aitken said he was dubious there were that many students that were skilled enough to deal with the pressure of being thrust into a classroom so quickly.

“I wasn’t sure we could sustain bigger numbers than the 20 or 30 we were bringing in, so my question about that is 'are there 45 people out there, or 90 people out there a year who can really hit the ground running in schools with that short prior preparation?'”

Aitken was positive about the mentoring announcements, which he said would fill an important gap, but wanted to see the Government introduce loans that would be forgiven for graduates who spent a certain amount of time teaching in high-demand areas.

Kaye responds

Speaking to Newsroom, the Minister was confident the measures would make a big impact in areas of shortage.

Kaye said there were certain subjects - such as science, maths, and Te Reo - that needed more teachers, as well as certain geographic areas.

Principals had raised concerns about the quality of some graduates, and the mentoring scheme would help those graduates and schools who were struggling to pay the costs to reach full certification.

“For those people that don’t have the ability to pay for a teacher refresher course, they’re now going to have the opportunity to apply for this mentoring scheme and they won’t have to put up thousands of dollars.”

When quizzed about the number of teachers and whether the figure was misleading, Kaye said it was more important to look at the amount of vacancies and how they had shifted.

“It isn’t misleading from my perspective…my point would be when you’re looking at the vacancies you’re talking in the small 1000s, so, no offence, but it doesn’t matter if it’s 100,000 or 68,000, we’re not talking about huge shifts here.”

Yearly vacancies rose to just over 8,000 last year from just over 6,000 in 2013, but remained below the record high of 12,000 in 2009, figures provided by Kaye's office showed.

She was lukewarm on forgiving loans and bonding to the regions, as populations could shift rapidly in those areas.

Teacher salaries had improved as opportunities arose for teachers to take on responsibilities through the Investing in Education (IES) programme and Kaye was careful to not state that teachers were being underpaid.

"I would say it’s something we continuously look at…and we do need to continue to improve salaries but I’m confident we’ve been doing that through both IES and collective bargaining.”

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