Moves to address teacher shortage just the beginning

Last week, the Government distributed a self-congratulatory press release talking about an increase of 2000 teachers over the past two years. Laura Walters asks what the impact has been at the coalface, and is it enough?

Additional teachers and a fair whack at getting to grips with the future of teacher supply and demand has been universally labelled as a step in the right direction. But with a more-than-1000-teacher projected shortfall next year, schools continue to feel the pressure.

Education Minister Chris Hipkins says the Government’s $135 million investment in teacher supply initiatives, a pay boost, and a new workforce planning tool mean for the first time in a long time, the Government is getting on top of the teacher shortage crisis.

Over 2018 and 2019, about 2000 teachers were expected to have been added to the workforce, compared to an average of 350 teachers each year over the previous three years.

“The resources we’re pumping in schools demonstrates our commitment to lifting the quality of public education and to giving teachers more time to teach,” Hipkins said.

This included the 600 learning support coordinators who would begin in schools next year, and additional investment in teacher training, recruitment and planning.

Everyone who spoke to Newsroom said the work over the past year, and the additional teachers, were an improvement on a situation that had reached crisis point.

However, it was only the beginning of a long journey to lift the number of teachers, the quality of new recruits, retention rates, and the overall wellbeing and workload situation.

The Ministry of Education’s new workforce planning tool, which measures teacher supply and demand in order to improve projections and meet the need, shows there is still a significant shortfall.

The tool launched in 2018 and has recently been updated to show there would be a shortfall of 1020 teachers in 2020.

The new projections take into account teachers employed by schools, over and above the number allocated by the ministry - a number generated based on a school’s roll and teacher ratios.

“Make no bones about it, we definitely need more people training to be teachers and being employed as teachers.”

It now also takes into account the learning support co-ordinators that would come on-stream, and the influx of new teachers from overseas.

In 2020, there would be a shortfall of 860 primary school teachers, according to the updated projections.

And secondary schools would be short 160 teachers next year.

That gap between demand and supply was expected to decrease for primary teachers in the out-years, while growing for secondary teachers.

While the supply shortfall of secondary teachers for 2023 to 2025 was significant and concerning, the ministry made a point of saying projections made many years ahead lacked the same level of accuracy.

This shift was largely due to a large cohort of students moving through into high school. This bulge comes off the back of a period of higher birth rates between 2008 and 2011.

Turning the ship around

The issue of teacher supply is not a new one.

In recent years, the sector has been wringing its hands over the lack of Kiwis coming into (and completing) initial teacher education, as well as the high number of teachers leaving the profession after just a few years.

While there is general acceptance teacher supply is cyclical, there has been a lack of specific information regarding what drives career decisions.

Source: The Ministry of Education

More broadly, there is a general lack of data, measurement and detailed workforce projections to enable better future planning.

This new tool is an attempt to get on top of that issue.

“For a number of reasons, the minister had previously not been in a strong position to plan for future demand for, and supply of, primary and secondary teachers,” Ministry of Education officials said in the planning tool technical report.

“Consistent, robust planning information is essential for aligning the focus of these key players, and to enable a collective approach to providing an optimal supply of quality teachers.”

PPTA president Jack Boyle said the commitment to data was a good first step but there were gaps in the information.

For example, there was no subject-specific information for high school teachers – just anecdotal evidence of shortages in areas like maths.

“But it’s better than being blind and hoping things will be OK.”

Source: The Ministry of Education

The past two years - particularly the past 12 months - had seen an uptick in enrolments in initial teacher training and improved retention rates.

“Make no bones about it, we definitely need more people training to be teachers and being employed as teachers.”

Boyle said the driving factors the minister noted in his press release were exactly the things teachers had been fighting for in their year-long pay disputes,.

“At the end of the day, the whole sector and workforce ... and definitely the Government and the Ministry of Education, do have a shared interest.

“And that is that we have the best possible education system for every single one of our learners ... and getting to that fundamental truth is the most hopeful sign,” Boyle said.

“There’s a lot of hope underpinning that press release.”

Situation on the ground

NZEI vice president Liam Rutherford said this was the beginning in a long journey to turn around the trends in recent years.

Rutherford, a teacher at Palmerston North’s Ross Intermediate School for more than a decade, said there were still very real issues in schools.

Wellbeing and workload issues continued to have an impact.

This was a major contributor to teachers leaving the job - some within their first year.

Rutherford said the reasons people left the job needed to be monitored in order to make systemic changes to curb attrition.

“We're glad the situation is slowly starting to turn around, but the Government still needs to make improvements to workload and wellbeing in order to fix the problem in the long-term.”

Schools were also struggling when it came to recruiting staff.

A few years ago there would have been 30, 40, 50 people applying for a job, now it was four, five, or six applications.

For the first time ever, Rutherford’s school had to use a recruitment agency. And ended up hiring a teacher from South Africa.

Like Boyle, Rutherford said the increase in those joining initial teacher training - about 10 percent in 2018 - was positive, but it still did not fully account for the growth in demand.

Then there was the added factor of the time it took to get new teachers trained up once they were in the classroom, and the burden that put on senior teachers and management.

National Party education spokesperson Nikki Kaye said she was also aware of "pretty acute issues" in classrooms.

Teachers were stressed out and class sizes were rising, she said.

Just the beginning

Kaye also acknowledged the additional workforce investment from the coalition Government, but said there had not been a dramatic enough shift in the past two years.

She challenged the Government to think more creatively, and build a better understanding of why there might not be people turning up for teacher training.

Like others, she saw the modelling tool as a first step, but more work on the tool, and a more detailed workforce strategy, was needed.

The relationship between teachers and the Government has come a long way since the signing of a collective agreement in June. Now the sector is working together to define problems and build consensus on solutions. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

NZEI president Lynda Stuart said the union had been ringing warning bells about the teacher shortage for years, and fixing it was a key focus of the lengthy and fiery collective agreement negotiations.

“We're glad the situation is slowly starting to turn around, but the Government still needs to make improvements to workload and wellbeing in order to fix the problem in the long-term.”

Stuart warned the projected shortfall for next year would put a real strain on schools, and continue to impact children's learning.

“It's vital that we see tangible improvements to workload and wellbeing in order to make teaching attractive and sustainable in the long-term,” she said.

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