Teachers should have been top priority

I bet the Government is regretting its $2.8 billion fees-free promise right about now.

And if it’s not, it should be.

On Friday, secondary school teachers and principals rejected the Government’s second pay offer, and voted to strike in term one.

While the strike may still be averted, it’s not looking good, with the Government offering three percent pay rises each year for three years. The union is asking for an initial rise of 15 percent.

Union boss Jack Boyle says the Government’s offer is so far off what teachers are asking for, “it’s almost a failure of their moral responsibility”.

Meanwhile, primary teachers and principals have rejected two offers, and have already gone on strike twice this year. NZEI members are currently voting on whether to accept the Government’s third offer: if it’s a no-go, more industrial action is likely to be in the pipeline.

The new year could see the Government facing a so-called “superstrike”, with thousands of primary and secondary teachers and principals walking off the job arm in arm.

Jacinda Ardern, Chris Hipkins and Tracey Martin have repeated their line until they’re blue in the face: frustrations are noted, but not everything can be fixed in one budget.

PPTA vice president Melanie Webber acknowledged this on Friday, saying the issues facing education weren’t Ardern’s fault or her government's, but it’s now it’s their responsibility to fix it.

A solution nobody asked for?

The problem is the Labour-led coalition decided to spend $2.8b on its tertiary education fees-free policy.

That’s a massive spend on a policy no-one was screaming for, with its implementation fast-tracked.

New figures show more than 50,000 students are expected to receive fees-free tertiary education this year, but the overall number of students has declined 0.4 percent, or by 1174, according to the Tertiary Education Commission.

Straw polls carried out by this reporter over recent months have found it’s universally believed the fees-free policy should not have been first on the Government’s education to-do list.

It’s not that it’s a bad idea for a Labour government to walk the talk on free, state-run education systems, but it needn’t have been the priority while primary and secondary schools are in crisis.

PPTA boss Jack Boyle says it’s up to the Government to set its priorities, but if something matters and you’ve got the will, you can make it happen.

After a taxing year, and no real signs of resolution on the horizon, it’s hard to imagine the new year strike being averted.

If the Government hadn’t prioritised fees-free, maybe it would have the money to put up a better offer now; possibly something in line with the expectations it raised while in opposition.

Hipkins was visibly frustrated when he held a press conference earlier this month in response to NZEI’s decision to go ahead with rolling strikes.

He stopped short of saying he was angry, instead using the word “disappointed”, but it's clear this isn’t how the minister envisioned his first year on the job.

Frustration levels are also rising on the other side, with teachers feeling like they’ve been given too little for too long. After a taxing year, and no real signs of resolution on the horizon, it’s hard to imagine the new year strike being averted.

And while the fees-free policy was a bad spend for a Government facing a raft of competing demands across the education sector, it’s too late to backtrack.

This means Hipkins is going to have to find some more money from somewhere to pay his teachers what they believe they were promised.

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