Education

A year of change for education

New Zealand’s education system may have found its coalition of the willing, meaning 2019 will be a year of change, writes Laura Walters.

Collective agreement bargaining out the wazoo, an NCEA review, an early learning review, Tomorrow’s Schools review, the learning support plan, an overhaul of polytechnics and vocational training institutes, teacher shortages, pay and retention.

That’s what’s facing the New Zealand education system in 2019.

Speaking about the year ahead, NZEI president Lynda Stuart said: “I think we thought that 2018 was a busy year, and it certainly was. But 2019 is going to ramp up to be even busier, in my view.”

While there is a lot for an already stretched workforce to think about, those at the helm say widespread education reforms are also an opportunity.

Education Minister Chris Hipkins said the system was currently “at a turning point”.

“The world has changed so dramatically in the past 20 or 30 years that we desperately need our education systems to catch up with that, if we’re going to prepare kids and adults.”

Strikes

Last year was marred by industrial action, with primary teachers and principals holding a national day-long strike, and a week of regional rolling strikes later in the year.

Currently Ministry of Education learning support service managers were on work-to-rule conditions, and at the end of 2018 PPTA members authorised a day-long strike for term one, if needed.

Talks between PPTA and the ministry have recommenced, and Hipkins was due to meet with NZEI this week to discuss the year ahead.

Those involved say they want to reach a deal, but PPTA president Jack Boyle said it was clear “the goodwill tanks are running pretty low” when secondary teachers and principals were willing to authorise strike action.

With school due to start in a week, the issues plaguing teachers seem to remain, meaning further industrial action, and a potential super-strike involving members from NZEI and PPTA is not off the cards.

With school due to start in a week, the issues plaguing teachers seem to remain, meaning further industrial action, and a potential super-strike involving members from NZEI and PPTA is not off the cards.

Hipkins, as well as union bosses, say they want to continue to work together, but there will inevitably be compromises.

“You never get everything you ask for, it simply doesn’t happen,” Boyle said.

“You often pour a whole lot of energy into making things as good as possible for as many people as you can.”

Stuart said it would not be easy to reach a resolution, but she was optimistic about the year ahead, adding that the priority was to keep kids at the centre of every decision.

Teacher shortages

Both Stuart and Boyle said teaching was not currently a desirable, or logical, career choice.

The issues plaguing schools - and collective negotiations - boiled down to teacher shortages, pay, class ratios and learning support, with the issues all inextricably linked.

Better pay attracted more teachers into training, and kept them in the job for longer. At the moment about 50 percent of teachers leave the profession in the first five years.

For secondary schools, there was the added issue of getting qualified and well-supported teachers in the right subject areas.

At the moment there were extreme shortages in maths, technology, science and te reo Māori. This meant students were being taught by unqualified teachers, and teachers were being forced to teach outside their subject areas, adding further stress to them and their heads of department.

The Ministry of Education has a recruitment plan, which Hipkins admitted was not a long-term solution, but would plug the gaps in the short-term.

However, Boyle questioned the numbers being put forward by the ministry, and whether they reflected people ready to start in classrooms next week, with the necessary qualifications and support.

Recruiting teachers from overseas – mainly the UK – was one tool in a suite of short-term fixes currently being employed by the ministry.

Earlier this week, the ministry said it estimated up to an extra 650 primary teachers and 200 secondary teachers were needed for 2019, adding to the country’s pool of about 70,000 teachers.

This rising level of demand, is driven mainly by a forecast growth in student numbers, the ministry said.

Deputy Secretary of early learning and student achievement Ellen MacGregor-Reid said 7300 teachers had been attracted from overseas and 1000 had been screened, and were available for interviews.

While these numbers seemed like they would more than address the shortage, MacGregor-Reid clarified that “attracted” meant the teachers had registered interest with ministry recruitment agencies.

To date, the demand for overseas teachers from principals had resulted in 208 offers accepted, with a further 266 vacancies, which were currently being recruited for, she said.

“We expect the majority of the 208 who have accepted roles to have completed their entry requirements and be ready to start at the beginning of term one. Of the 266 roles, start dates may be slightly later depending on when the vacancy was lodged and the date for commencing offered by the school.”

“You often pour a whole lot of energy into making things as good as possible for as many people as you can.”

Tomorrow’s Schools

While the system was grappling with pay issues, long hours (52 hours on average a week for secondary teachers) and making their way through collective bargaining, they were also digesting bold recommendations from the Tomorrow’s Schools review taskforce.

The end of 2018 saw the first review of the Tomorrow’s Schools framework in 30 years.

“Tomorrow’s Schools signals a thinly veiled – if veiled at all – move away from the fundamental neoliberal tenets of education since 1989,” Boyle said.

The review highlighted the inequality, which had crept into the system, and recommended a move away from a competitive model, which meant there were inevitably winners and losers.

Stuart said this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to improve the system, and it was important for everyone to have a voice in the consultation process.

The taskforce was expected to report back with updated recommendations by the end of April, following consultation.

Hipkins said he would not publicly express an opinion until then because he did not want to colour the discussion with his own thoughts about the recommendations.

Dealing with polytechnics

Lost in the hubbub of industrial action is the dire state of New Zealand’s polytechnics and vocational training institutes.

Hipkins said reforming the institutions was one of the Government’s top priorities in 2019.

The Government had already spent about $100 million on bailing out the institutions, including Weltech, Whitirea, Unitec and Tai Poutini.

“The Government doesn’t have much of an appetite to continue shovelling money at that when we know that the system needs to be quite fundamentally changed,” he said.

The advice heading into Christmas was the system should be stable for 2019, but without fundamental changes, the country was going to continue going through a cycle of continuing to bail them out.

Where to from here?

A common criticism of the Government’s reform policy was the cost of implementation.

But Hipkins said a lot of the work programme was about getting better bang for their buck.

Meanwhile, Boyle said the Government had put itself in a “kind of a self-imposed rock, and a rather unfortunate hard place” in terms of its competing budget priorities and fiscal responsibilities, and what was needed to fix the current teacher crisis.

Despite current tensions at the bargaining table, all parties saw 2019 as a year of opportunities for the education system. Stuart referred to it as "the coalition of the willing".

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