The crisis in secondary school teaching

An interview with PPTA president, Jack Boyle
by Gordon Campbell

teachers-cover-bigTwo of the usually reliable bastions of support for a centre-left administration – nurses and teachers – will be pressing for significant pay rises during 2018, in response to pressures that have their origins long before the formation of the coalition government. The collective agreements covering primary and intermediate teachers are due to expire mid year, while the secondary teachers award expires in October.

The nurses’ rank and file have already rejected the initial pay offer made by the country’s 20 District Health Boards – ie, a 2% rise backdated to last November, plus similar 2% rises in mid 2018 and mid 2019, along with a vague ‘promise’ to begin talks about pay equity. This package has been described as too little, and too late. The DHBs will be meeting again with the NZ Nurses Organisation in late February and again in March. Industrial action will be a possible outcome of any failure to reach a settlement that the 27,000 nurses, midwives and healthcare assistants involved are willing to accept.

Among teachers, this year’s wage negotiations will unfold in the shadow of a significant crisis in the recruitment and retention of secondary school teachers, and not only in Auckland. Whether teachers can afford to live in those regions currently experiencing serious teacher shortages is a problem being felt all around New Zealand. Reportedly, the average cost of housing now exceeds seven times the top end ($75,949) of the teachers’ basic pay scale not merely in Auckland, but also in Queenstown, Tauranga, Wellington City, Thames-Coromandel, western Bay of Plenty and also in Selwyn, near Christchurch.

jack-boyle-imageIn parallel, there is also a significant teacher supply problem. In the Education Review magazine last year, PPTA general secretary Jack Boyle [pictured left] estimated that the country’s education system currently needed to be producing 1,750 secondary schoolteachers merely to stay afloat. In an interview for this story, Boyle described the current shortfall in only slightly less apocalyptic numbers. Some 1,400 additional trained staff, Boyle estimated, would be required to “ have a full complement of secondary specialist staff” yet only about 700 secondary graduates came through initial teacher education in 2017 – roughly half the required number.

In the face of the current teacher shortages, the Education Ministry ran a “somebodies” policy in January to ensure that someone at least, could be put in front of students when schools recommenced this year. By using relievers, by juggling the curriculum options available to students in 2018, and (mainly) by shifting existing staff over from their specialist subjects, the immediate shortfall was being nursed down, Boyle estimates, from around 700 to “about 350.” Plainly, this is only a stop gap solution.

The current teacher shortage is symptomatic of the profession’s recent inability to attract new recruits into its ranks, and/or retain them afterwards. (A whopping 50% of trainee teachers leave the profession within five years.) The shortages in specialist subject areas are particularly acute. The pay rates – when measured against the rising unaffordability of housing, transport and other living costs – are not the only contributing factor for this situation. Yet current pay rates are a problematic part of the picture, especially if the profession wants to attract more mature recruits from other careers into teaching. As Boyle told the Education Review last year, the bureaucratic barriers are also formidable :

There isn’t really a focus on retraining; meaning getting people from other professions who might make good teachers in front of our kids. There’s all these financial and administrative barriers: if say, I’m a project manager with a level 5 qualification, then what I currently need to do [to become a secondary teacher] is I need to stop working, and go through initial teacher education. But before that I need to get a level 7 qualification, and then the Education Council and the Ministry of Education are saying ‘Well actually, you need to have a postgraduate qualification’, and you can’t get student allowances for that. You’re out of work, you’re paying significantly more with no additional support, in order to get into a profession where you start on a salary of $46,000.

This two-part story examines some facets of thes wider problems facing secondary schoolteaching.

The failure to recruit

pencil-imageOne of the ironies of teaching is that those entrusted with preparing young people for the modern world tend to be relatively old – the average age of those in the teaching profession is 57.5 – and as mentioned, teaching is simply not attracting an adequate replacement level of trainees and recruits, either domestically, or from offshore. On current statistics, roughly 20% of the profession is older than 60 and nearly 10% are over 65. All up, what percentage of the current secondary teacher workforce is likely to retire over the next 10 years?

“That’s a really good question,” Boyle replies, “because we hang on. Particularly in secondary, we hang on. A lot of the teachers who are 25, 30 plus years into teaching… the rhetoric around ‘we don’t do it for the money’ being a positive thing has actually militated against ensuring that the job and the status of teachers is commensurate with the remuneration. Those people who are 60 plus or 65 plus …the attrition rate you’d expect for people to go off and retire is quite a bit smaller than in any sectors.”

So is he saying that the idealism of teachers has eventually worked against their own best interests? “Idealism is one way of phrasing it. The duty of care of people to public education may make a lot more of those people who could otherwise consider different courses, including retirement, stay on in the classroom. Because they are concerned that the quality of education that our young people will receive – when there’s no teacher – or no specialist teachers – is saying to them : I need to stay here.”

The need to stay – and the decline in the attractiveness of teaching – can be graphically illustrated. In 2009, 1,200 trainees completed an initial teaching qualification for secondary school teaching : in the wake of steady annual declines, this had fallen to 775 by 2015. See table three at p.10 table of this link.

The same document also tracks the annual declines in those specialist subjects under pressure (eg natural and physical sciences, maths, information technology, computer science, chemical sciences etc) and the figures there are even more alarming. In the specialist areas, New Zealand was training 1,135 teachers in 2009, but only 760 in 2015. The age profile of teacher trainees is just as disturbing, with a 27% decline evident among the under 25 age group since 2009, and declines of 29% and 56% among the 25-34 and 35-49 age groups respectively, over the same period. All up, this is a profile of a profession in serious trouble – and arguably, it is also a reflection on the past nine years of absentee government.

The failure to retain

As mentioned, we lose about half the graduates we train within five years of them starting out in the secondary school classroom. Even allowing for the modern tendency for people to move between jobs and careers, a 50% attrition rate looks alarming. It is also incredibly wasteful – not only in terms of the personal expense and opportunity cost of training to be a teacher, but in terms of the time and resources that schools devote to inducting and mentoring their trainee teachers. Regardless, the newbies are leaving in droves.

hipkinsPre-Christmas, the coalition government announced that it would fund the Teacher Education Refresher [TER] courses to mitigate the impact of the current rules, whereby if trainees do not progress from temporary registration to full certification within six years, they have to go through a TER course – which routinely can cost around $4,000, or 12 weeks out of the classroom. That cost barrier has been a significant deterrent to retraining, Boyle believes. And while the pre-Christmas announcement of state funding for TER courses strikes him as being a good thing, he’d like to see fewer people needing to go through the process.

The previous government’s requirement for a national standards regime has also been scrapped by the coalition, although it remains an option for schools that still want it. The workload associated with national standards – and the teaching-to-the-test regime it has brought in its wake – have long been cited as contributing to the burnout rate among veteran teachers and new recruits alike. As Boyle has said elsewhere:

“There is no jurisdiction in the world that has high stakes assessment every year for three years in a row. If you look at the PISA wellbeing survey, our 15 year olds have among the highest rates of assessment-related anxiety in the developed world.”

The cost of temporary contracts

Boyle also points to the practice whereby – ostensibly to cut labour costs, and also because some schools seem to be running their own version of a 90 day employment trial – it has become standard practice for some schools and boards “to offer only temporary contracts to newly graduated teachers, outside of the law.”

On the existing evidence, Boyle says, “approximately 70%” of the graduate teachers coming into secondary schools are beginning their careers on temporary employment conditions. As he has pointed out beforehand, that has a real, highly negative impact on those starting out in what is supposed to be a collegial profession :

“When you have multiple temporary employment contracts as a new teacher, quite often you never get established in the team you’re working with, you never get the time and space to look at your practice and develop relational skills, you’re just sort of on a treadmill until you get spat out again at the end of the year.”

Supposedly, the existing rules limit temporary employment offers to a genuine rationale – such as say, a maternity leave position, or for a specific project. Boyle : “That’s basically it. How to do you get from those pretty clear justifications for using temporary employment to where 70% of new trainees in 2015 started in pre-employment? This has to be for other reasons that are not legal.”

Obviously, very few new teachers would want to launch their careers by taking their school boards to court. Like the NZEI, the PPTA has been more inclined to work with the School Trustees Association to encourage schools to adopt charters promising to apply the law, and to look after their new teachers. In Boyle s opinion. not all schools who have seconded new teachers on a temporary basis have done so with sinister intent. “[But] managing [labour] costs isn’t a legitimate reason, because the formula for staffing is based on the number of bodies you have attending your school…However, there has been one or two concerns from principals that actually, they see [temporary contracts] as ensuring quality. They have raised concerns about the calibre of teacher trainees… Unfortunately, that is illegal under the law, but in the context in which it has been raised, I do understand it.”

What is an adequate pay level?

How much do incoming graduates-as- teachers get paid? “Depending on your level of qualification,” Boyle replies, “most of [those] coming in with a bachelors degree or undergrad diploma…will be starting on about $49-50,000.” Recently, the Bryan Bruce documentary on the housing crisis usefully pointed out that only a few decades ago, teachers were being paid much the same as backbench MPs. Yet now, Bruce noted, the pay level for senior teachers is only half that of first-term MPs. While no-one would seriously expect parity by lunch-time, this yawning gap is symptomatic of a situation whereby one profession that has based its identity around notions of public service has seen its idealism used to hold down its pay – while money has been shoveled at another profession that is also supposedly motivated by an ethic of public service.

teachers-worth-itRemuneration is critical to the problems now facing the profession. Currently, it seems the PPTA will be seeking the 14.5% pay rise already mooted by the media, and on the basis of the PPTA’s own background papers. Yet the timeframe involved – 14.5% this year, or over the term of the current government – remains somewhat opaque. How did the PPTA arrive at the 14.5% number? The pay round ‘narrative” – to use Boyle’s term – takes as its foundation the relativities to the median weekly wage that were eventually established by arbitration back in 2001– 2003, which was the occasion when the profession last seriously addressed (and resolved) most of its major recruitment and retention problems.

In brief, the PPTA pay claim will be based on the relativities between the top end of the teacher basic scale (TBS) and the median wage. That relativity has been seriously eroded. Back in the early 2000s, the top end pay for senior teachers was 1.81 times the median wage (ie, $57,803 to $31,928) but by 2016, the ratio had slipped back to only 1.58 times ($75, 949 to $48,048.) What the PPTA will be negotiating for – and again, just how long it will take to reach this nirvana seems a bit unclear – is the restoration of that 1.81 ratio. To put that goal another way… isn’t the circa 14.5% pay rise currently in the PPTA gunsights, roughly what would be needed to restore the workforce to the same virtuous point – at 81% above the median income – that secondary schoolteachers won back in 2001/2002?

“Correct,” Boyle says. “ It [involves] asking the membership – are you comfortable with an argument rather than a number? In order to ensure efficient recruitment and retention, [we’ve adopted] an average across that time when we had sufficient recruitment and retention…and the best average we’ve got is the basic scale relative to the median wage. That’s an approach used in other international jurisdictions.” What’s being sought would be sufficient, he believes, for recruitment and retention purposes. To arrive at that figure involved looking back at 2001- 2003… “when there was a mediated settlement of 12.5% [and a TBS] somewhere between 1.75 and 1.8 times the median wage.” There’s no point in going for 15%, Boyle adds as an aside, because there isn’t sufficient money in the government’s jar for that to happen – and besides, he adds, there’s no ‘narrative’ around just a bald figure. The narrative in 2018 is to be grounded in past events, and based on prior settlements judged to be fair, and necessary.

Some cynics of course, could well say to Boyle that he’s looking back to a time when the PPTA previously faced a centre-left government that looked like pushovers, and so he’s going for the same sort of increase this time as well? That kind of criticism, Boyle replies, ignores the real history of the 2001/2002 negotiations, and the “brutal, prolonged industrial stoush” that it took to reach the settlement. “We don’t want that to happen again.”

The claim being mooted, Boyle indicates, is an end point goal for the PPTA, rather than a start-of-negotiations demand. And a settlement on that scale is also what is required, he says soberly, if we’re serious about addressing the genuine recruitment and retention problems confronting the profession.

End of part one of a two part story on secondary school education. Next week: national standards and assessment, the Finnish example, special needs funding etc.