Secondary Education in Crisis

PPTA Rally

The reality of teaching in 2023

The secondary education sector is on its knees. There is a crisis in the profession and it all stems from wages and conditions. Just ask yourself if you have said this to a teacher friend, “I don’t know how you do it, I wouldn’t want to do your job.” Teaching often takes over your life, taking you away from your family, from things you do for yourself, from exercise to keep up your health. It’s a constant battle to carve out time from work responsibilities, and there is the constant emotional blackmail of what will happen for the students if you don’t make the sacrifice now.

It’s hard even to step back and analyse where you are in your career and where your profession is heading. I have been wanting to write this article for about 7 months, and it is only because today we are on strike that I finally have the time to get my thoughts on paper. We care deeply for our students and the reality of our actions today and across this year have been angled towards that care. We need a sustainable profession, and right now, teaching isn’t one. It’s hard to try sell this profession to other young people to encourage them to come in and enjoy the wonders of those aha moments with students. One of my colleagues asked her students how many want to become a teacher in the future. The question was met with laughter. Not a single student put their hand up.

It is no wonder that it is so difficult to come up with enticing sales pitches for a career in teaching. New teachers are looking at starting on $55,948 after four years of university study. After tax and paying off your student loans, that’s less than the minimum wage. New teacher trainees are at their lowest ever level on record, just 765 students enrolled in initial teaching education last year.

Teachers are leaving the profession in ever larger numbers. The Ministry’s own data from last year estimates that nearly 2000 teachers will leave the profession in 2023. Between Term Four last year and the beginning of this year, the average school lost 2.8 teachers, mostly from retirement. Many teachers are choosing to retire, rather than face the new wave of changes and challenges from recovering from lockdown, to the rebuilding an entirely new curriculum, not to mention the new national assessment qualifications that are been rolled out in the next few years.

This crisis is having a real effect on schools’ staffing. The PPTA staffing survey of principals this year said that they had no suitable applications from New Zealand trained applicants for 44% of teaching positions advertised. A further 38% had only one suitable applicant. 48% of principals had to employ untrained or unqualified teachers. There is also a drop of 8% in the relief teacher pool as well. These are some of the most dire numbers since the survey began in 1996.

When it comes to the actual job of teaching, those left in the profession have had to paper over the gaps, doing extra planning, covering classes, restructuring courses, dealing with the increase in pastoral care from students reeling from constant crisis. This is on top of the new work that comes in having to restructure the entire curriculum with almost no support and guidance from the Ministry of Education. The students we have now have gone through unprecedented disruptions in their most formative years due to the Covid lockdowns, and the extreme weather events. For teachers, the extra pastoral work that’s required to get students back on track is immense.

Teachers have spent so long papering over the cracks that it feels like a normal part of the job, to forgo family, friends and a life outside of work. To martyr yourself to keep a broken system afloat.

The ‘offer’

In response to this crisis, the Ministry has dug in its heels, refusing to negotiate and consistently operating on the border of bad faith. In just under a year the Ministry has made just two offers. The first offer was for two years starting from 2024, ignoring 2022 and 2023, it offered just $6000 increase over those two years, there are some other improvements in conditions, such as more pastoral time for teachers and paying for a single cultural role for Kaiako Māori. The second offer removed and reduced some of those conditions to offer a paltry $800 more to the top of the scale, but crucially extended the time for the next round of negotiations out to the middle of 2026. This means the increase adds up to $10,000 over 5 and a half years, likely longer since these negotiations keep dragging out longer and longer. Despite what is being reported by the media this means an effective increase of less than 2% per year. For the bottom of the pay scale the increase goes up to just $7,147, which likely be near to or lower than minimum wage in 2026.

This is not going to fix our crisis; this is going to make it worse. The Ministry knows that teachers teach math and are well aware of the insulting nature of this offer. Since our last pay rise, those teachers at the top of the scale have already lost nearly $12,000 in purchasing power due to the 13.5% inflation rate over the past two years. If pay had kept up with inflation just over the last two years, the top of the scale of teaching would already be just under $102,000. The Reserve Bank of New Zealand’s projections place the cumulative inflation rate in NZ from 2021 to 2024 at 21.5%. To keep up with inflation, to not receive a pay cut in real terms this offer needs to be at least reach 6-7% per year over the life of the contract.

This insulting offer and the lead up to it has angered teachers, who have never been more unified than in their opposition to this deal. But at the same time with mortgage interest rates skyrocketing and the cost-of-living soaring, many teachers are struggling. We are in line at foodbanks, appealing to budgeting services and trying to wrench out any savings we can to keep our heads above water.

The class war of inflation

So why is the Ministry so keen to put the boot into a profession already on its knees? Firstly, they are trying to negotiate without going back to the government to ask for more money. This is because of the biggest handbrake placed on negotiations – the Public Sector Pay Adjustment Proposal.

This proposal announced in June 2022, is the idea of the President of the Council of Trade Unions Richard Wagstaff. In an absolute betrayal of union negotiations, he proposed a deal with the Labour Government to increase wages for all public sector unions affiliated with the CTU. $4000 for the first year and $2000 for the second year. The PSPA has created an artificial ceiling for all public sector unions in bargaining even if they did not sign up to it. Wagstaff should be removed from the presidency of the CTU because of this atrocious policy and betrayal of public sector workers. The ISO has written on the PSPA previously and you can find our comments here.

The PPTA refused to participate in the PSPA, seeing it for the dog it really is and yet the Ministry has held firm to its proposals offering a $4000 increase in the first year and a $2000 increase in the second year, adding another 2% increase to 100,000 in the third year. This is exactly in line with the PSPA. That ceiling placed in by Wagstaff’s deal is extending this negotiation and, by extension, the suffering of teachers who continue to go on with no acceptable offer.

Why the teacher’s strike is important

The government leapt on the PSPA as the answer to all their troubles. The main focus of the main parliamentary parties is now to lower inflation. But make no mistake the government’s war on inflation is a class war!

At no point during this cost-of-living crisis could wage increases have resulted in higher inflation. Rather it is the other way around, that higher inflation pushes us to demand more. Monetarist policies to control inflation dictate that the Reserve Bank of New Zealand has to push wage increases down, by raising unemployment. Their chief action to do this is to raise the Official Cash Rate, increasing mortgage repayment and other debts, to squish “demand”.

When our wages don’t increase and the price of goods and services does, we are effectively transferring wealth upwards. We are fighting against being forced to pay for the profits of companies that made such a squeeze over the supply shock crisis, through lowering or living standards. Our largest companies: especially those in banking, supermarkets, electricity companies all rake in profits far larger than the rise in inflation, often reaching percentages in the double digits.

No-one should be facing a cut in real wages in this cost-of-living crisis, teachers are leading this fight with a claim that sets this as the basis of any negotiation. Every other collective bargaining action (and individual) should be doing the same. We should not pay for the bosses’ crisis.

Fighting back

There needs to be a sustained period of escalation in industrial action in order to force the hand of the government into addressing the crisis in education. The long, drawn-out nature of the negotiations only plays into the Ministry’s hands. Given the precarious situation many of my colleagues find themselves in, an even more extended campaign will wear us down. A shorter harder campaign focuses people, is something we can plan for support for, builds our energy and confidence, and historically wins campaigns.

But this requires organisation, and crucially, public support. Chief among these is a strike fund. Strike funds are built by members to cover their costs of going on strike, they are funds that can be contributed by the public to show their support.

It is also a chance to get around the manipulation of statistics about the offer that abound in the media, by going straight out to the public to build a campaign. So far, our industrial action has focused mostly internally, outside the three strike days. We, as union members, need to go into the streets to plead our case for solidarity, both emotionally and financially.

Some of our actions to date have even been masking issues in the schooling sector, rostering year levels home for example has freed up teachers to relieve other classes, even with the relief ban. Teachers have spent so long filling in the gaps, and they are still doing it now. Finding workarounds to keep our education system afloat. Because when a school collapses it irreparably damages a whole community. At some point, however, there will be a breaking point.

I look around the staff room and I have never seen my fellow colleagues more exhausted. At the moment it feels like the industrial action is what is keeping us afloat, giving us the break we need to recharge and keep soldiering on for another few weeks. Without the industrial action schools would be at even more of a crisis point, simply because of the workload requirements and conditions for teachers. We give everything for our aakonga. Long weeknights planning, preparing, individualising lessons, looking after the pastoral needs of our students, marking and providing feedback for students, organising education outside the classroom, all the extra-curricular activities, on top of rebuilding an entire curriculum. All at the cost of our hauora, our time with whaanau. But you can only martyr yourself once, who then will teach the students?