What happened with the principals’ pay offer?

ANALYSIS: The minister held a forum, the union recommended a packaged offer to members, but principals aren’t having a bar of it. Laura Walters looks at what happened with the latest education pay offer.

It seemed like a done deal.

Earlier this month, Education Minister Chris Hipkins held a press conference to talk about the offer he expected to bring to a close the lengthy stand-off between overworked, underpaid teachers and the Government.

After more than a year of bargaining, facilitation, and the biggest educator strike the country has seen, the public (and media) thought the end had finally arrived.

It included pay parity for primary teachers with their secondary school counterparts, and an accord that committed to addressing longer-term issues like teacher supply, retention and workload.

All seemed to be on track when NZEI recommended the deal to all its members, saying the “significant improvement” was recognition of their tough fight.

Among the heady excitement at the thought of teachers achieving entrenched parity, and the promise of between an extra $2000 to $4000 come July 1, nobody was talking about principals or the specifics of their deal.

Now all the country had to do was wait for primary educators to vote in a secret online ballot to ratify the deal – something widely expected from a membership that usually voted in line with its union’s recommendation.

On Wednesday, media walked into NZEI’s 13th floor office in Wellington’s CBD, ready to listen to president Lynda Stuart talk about teachers’ resounding support for the deal. She would say it was a “big win” for collective action, in what’s been a “long, hard campaign”.

She would say there was more to be done, but teachers now had a tangible mechanism through which to address long-term issues.

What reporters in the room did not expect was the news primary principals had “strongly rejected” the deal put to them. Eyebrows began to raise as they skimmed the press statement.

Education Minister Chris Hipkins hoped he'd seen the end of industrial action by educators, during this round of collective bargaining. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

Based on the Government’s positive comments and following Hipkins' intervention, this was a curveball.

Was this another breakdown in communication between Government and the union? Did the minister misunderstand principals’ bottom line?

It seemed the parties had learned from their mistakes throughout the process, and they had worked hard in the final push to sync up the message they wanted to put forward to the public in an effort to get the best possible outcome.

So what happened with the principals’ offer?

The disconnect between how Stuart categorised the principals' offer and what Hipkins was saying suggested there had been an ultimatum, of sorts.

NZEI would not recommend a package to members which included what it believed was a shoddy deal for principals, unless that was the only way to guarantee a good outcome for the majority of members, the teachers.

On Wednesday, Hipkins reminded anyone who would listen that the union recommended the deal.

If the union hadn’t agreed to recommend the whole package when negotiators met with the minister on June 6, it was possible the Government would not have agreed to find more money to give its almost 30,000 teacher members pay parity.

Stuart said the rejection by principals was not a surprise, with the issues of pay parity and pay based on roll size rather than job complexity a longstanding concern.

But Hipkins obviously hoped the recommendation from the union would be enough to get both teachers and principals to take up the deal, leaving other issues for a later date.

Instead, it’s Groundhog Day.

"We were very, very clear with both unions…that this was a final offer."

Principals say they won’t vote "yes" unless they get pay parity, and the collapse of the bottom three steps of the scale, which were based on the size of the school (U1 for one to 50 students, U2 for 51 to 100, and U3 for 101 to 150). This would lift the base rate for principals in recognition of the core work all school leaders did, regardless of the roll size.

Hipkins says there’s no more money, and the issue of pay parity for principals is a longer-term issue.

On Wednesday, both he and Education Secretary Iona Holsted said they were disappointed, and hoped everyone would get back around the table soon to work on reconfiguring the offer.

"We were very, very clear with both unions…that this was a final offer,” Hipkins said.

"If they want us to reconfigure the offer within the amount of money that's available...we are always open to talking about that. Always have been. But there will not be any more money for principals in this round.”

The Government's offer would have given principals an immediate $1500 boost and pay rises of up to 13 percent for about 500 principals.

Holsted said heads of small schools (less than 100 pupils) would have moved to a minimum salary of $102,898 after three years.

The ministry said there were 267 U1 principals and 244 U2 principals and it had offered them pay rises totalling 14 percent by July 2021. NZEI has 1900 primary principal members.

But NZEI said the offer was largely unchanged from previous offers, and it wasn't enough.

"If we say a teacher is a teacher no matter where they are - whether they're in early childhood, primary or secondary school - then the same for ... the principalship."

It’s anyone’s guess how long negotiations will continue, but NZEI lead principals’ negotiator Louise Green says goodwill is running out.

It was a matter of fairness, she said on Wednesday.

Primary principals were currently paid about two percent less than their secondary counterparts, and those leading smaller schools and kura were being paid less than senior teachers or deputy principals at larger schools.

"If we say a teacher is a teacher no matter where they are - whether they're in early childhood, primary or secondary school - then the same for...the principalship."

Hipkins said he was not opposed to the idea of pay parity for principals, but it couldn’t happen straight away. It was clear some principals disagreed, and if the past year had taught educators anything it was the power of industrial action. 

National Party education spokesperson Nikki Kaye said the rejection of the deal by principals was concerning and Hipkins should accept accountability for what happened, which he accepted in the House on Wednesday afternoon.

“Principals are often the glue in those [small] communities...and the school is the centre point of the community.”

“Many principals will be supportive that teachers have had additional increases but are asking questions as to why they didn’t secure more favourable terms," Kaye said.

“Some primary principals have raised serious questions about how we incentivise people to become principals when some teachers are going to earn more money than them. There are real issues of career pathways for principals."

Green said principals were the core of the school and the public face. They were also expected to work with parents, the board, and the wider community, as well as dealing with staffing and complex behavioural needs.

“Principals are often the glue in those [small] communities...and the school is the centre point of the community.”

The extra demands that came with those duties needed to be acknowledged.

The results of the area school teachers and principals vote will be announced on Friday, while secondary teachers and principals will conclude their voting – through paid union meetings – on Friday.

The PPTA is expected to announce the results of the vote during the weekend.

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