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Can Wellbeing Budget solve teaching crisis?

The Government is pumping $95m into addressing the teacher shortage crisis. Laura Walters writes this can’t come soon enough, with classrooms bulging, teachers under pressure, and tensions at breaking point. But will it be enough to stave off further industrial action?

In the Government’s first major pre-Budget announcement, Education Minister Chris Hipkins has taken a major step towards addressing the current teacher shortage crisis.

He's pledged just short of $95 million over four years to get Kiwis into teacher training, and support them through the journey.

The plan is to train an additional 3280 teachers over the next four years, with the help of expanding grants, voluntary bonding schemes and scholarships.

A new employment-based qualification will be established for those already in the workforce who want to train as a secondary school teacher in their area of expertise, at a cost of $11.7m over four years. Another $800,000 will go towards a new iwi-based scholarship programme for 80 trainee teachers.

Meanwhile, $24.5m will go towards helping training providers meet the new, strengthened Teaching Council requirements, in an effort to make sure the extra teachers coming out of training are high quality, and classroom-ready.

Hipkins’ pre-Budget announcement is joined by the release of the vision of the Education Workforce Strategy. The strategy is being led by the sector, and looks out to 2032. The idea is to better plan for teacher demand, and the types of skills needed in schools, so New Zealand doesn’t get caught in another crisis like the one currently crippling the profession.

“Our commitment towards thousands of additional teachers will be a shot in the arm to our schools," Hipkins said.

"Children, parents and teachers will all benefit from the influx in teachers and the Government’s commitment to addressing the long term issue of teacher supply.”

“Schools are crying out for more teachers and we are delivering. More teachers will help with the quality of teaching and education our children receive. It will improve kids’ wellbeing.”

"For the sake of our education system, and the sake of our children and future generations to come, today's announcement will only make a difference if it is coupled with a meaningful improvement in teachers' pay and workload, which is what our current campaign is all about."

This announcement cannot come soon enough.

The fact the minister announced the workforce package almost a month ahead of the Budget is an acknowledgement of the desperation and sentiment in the sector.

And it’s no coincidence Hipkins made the announcement a week before primary teachers and principals go back into union meetings. They were supposed to be voting on whether to implement work-to-rule later this month, but will now be voting on whether to hold a joint NZEI and PPTA mega-strike. This change of plans was announced by the unions on Friday morning.

Tensions have been rising for the past year of primary teacher collective negotiations, and are coming close to breaking point. NZEI members have already been on two strikes, gone through a failed Employment Relations Authority facilitation, and are as good as geared up for a mega-strike on May 29.

Meanwhile, the secondary teachers union PPTA has also rejected two ministry offers, and members were prepped to embark on their first national strike, but called it off in the wake of the Christchurch attack. Now the union's 20,000 members are likely to join NZEI's 50,000 members for action at the end of this month.

Behind the scenes there have been communication issues between NZEI and the ministry, and frustrations from both sides, which has added to an already tense situation.

Unions not convinced

This announcement is a step towards addressing the teacher workforce issue, but it’s understood sentiment within NZEI is that it doesn’t go far enough.

Any investment is always welcomed by teachers, but those struggling on the coalface are looking for a guarantee the trainees will actually go into teaching positions and stay there.

In order for that to happen, the job needs to be more attractive, and that means improved working conditions. It also means better pay.

NZEI president Lynda Stuart said she was pleased by the announcement, especially the focus on developing skilled te reo Māori teachers, but felt it didn’t address the underlying causes of the teacher shortage: that teachers are overworked and underpaid.

“Simply speaking, teaching needs to be a sustainable and attractive profession if we are to attract and retain teachers."

"For the sake of our education system, and the sake of our children and future generations to come, today's announcement will only make a difference if it is coupled with a meaningful improvement in teachers' pay and workload, which is what our current campaign is all about," she says.

PPTA president Jack Boyle echoed NZEI’s sentiment, saying it was a step in the right direction, but it didn't do enough to address the current pressures in schools caused by a lack of teachers in specific subjects and increased workload and expectations.

Director of Victoria University's secondary school masters programme Maragaret Gleeson says more should be done to support the 'creme de la creme', and attract the best and brightest to high-quality training with financial support. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

About 50 percent of teachers leave the profession within the first five years, and if the Government wants to keep people in teaching, they need to make sure those coming into training are high-quality, they are well-paid, and properly resourced.

Meanwhile the attrition rate ranges between 6 and 11 percent each year, and the workforce is aging. The average age of a primary teacher is 56, and 20 percent of secondary teachers are 65 or older.

Boyle said he would like to see more of the funding going into schools, rather than to training providers. He also questioned the quality of the TeachNZ programme, and the thinking behind a school-based apprenticeship programme. When middle managers were already stretched to breaking point it was untenable to ask them to take responsibility for training teachers within classrooms, he said.

In short, the unions don’t seem to think this package would be enough to convince teachers to accept the current ministry collective agreement offers, and abandon plans for industrial action, despite Hipkins’ consistent response of: ‘we hear you, we can’t fix everything at once but this is a start.’

Some of the issues teachers were raising in collective negotiations, like class sizes and release time, could not be achieved until the teacher shortage was backfilled, Hipkins said, with the look of a minister stuck between a rock and a hard place.

But while the Government is posting surplus and refusing to break its budget responsibility rules, it's hard to get those in the sector to accept the argument that there's no more money.

Weariness among teachers

The general feeling among union leaders is that this package doesn't go far enough.

But Newsroom understands there is a growing group of primary teachers who desperately want to move on from collective negotiations. They’re sick of the disruption and realistically they’re not sure if digging in will result in any more than the $700m offer the ministry has on the table.

No, they don’t think the offer is good enough and they’re disappointed in the Government, but many are also less-than-thrilled with the way negotiations are going, and how the union has handled bargaining.

This announcement may just be enough to get that growing group to vote to ditch the plan for work to rule action, accept the ministry’s current offer, and hope like heck the Government sticks to its word when it comes to planning and resourcing long-term solutions going forward. If that's the outcome, Hipkins will be jumping for joy.

But that's far from a given, and there's a high chance primary teachers will have a crack at another round of industrial action through the mega-strike - they've come this far and 70,000 educators marching in the streets will send a strong message. As for PPTA, the general consensus is they've got at least one strike in them.

* This article has been updated to reflect the Friday morning announcement from NZEI and PPTA that members of both unions will vote on whether to hold a joint strike on May 29. NZEI will no longer be considering work to rule. The vote on the mega-strike will take place during next week's paid union meetings.

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