The lowest-decile schools suffer from teacher shortages the most. In a nation that professes to care about inequality, that is a serious concern.
Let’s start by reprising some statistics: the Ministry of Education estimates we’re short about 600 primary school teachers and 200 secondary teachers, although principals say the numbers are higher and subjects are already being dropped; 40% fewer New Zealanders are entering primary teacher training now than six years ago; and half of high school teachers leave the profession within five years of entering it.
These trends are being replicated in exactly those countries, such as the UK, from which we recruit teachers. The difference is their governments have generally responded to the problem more decisively – chiefly by making the pay more attractive. As a result, our schools’ recruitment agents report it’s increasingly hard to attract immigrant teachers to move here.
Over the past decade, the factors that brought many talented teachers to New Zealand have changed, not least a global shortage. We’re trying to recruit from countries such as Australia and Britain that are caught in the same vortex: career abandonment inside five years, an exodus of baby boomers into retirement and a chronic lack of maths, science and technology teachers leading to higher class sizes and staff having to take on subjects they’re under-qualified to teach. All that causes ever-poorer working and teaching conditions, increased stress and career abandonment.
For our schools’ recruiters, New Zealand’s lifestyle advantages used to attract overseas teachers in droves. But in the past year, pay and cost-of-living considerations have deteriorated by comparison with other Western nations – and overseas governments are fighting harder to keep their teachers. Britain, for instance, offers attractive scholarships and is paying a new margin to compensate for the extra expense of working in London, where the teacher shortage is at crisis point.
Comparisons published in the Economist show what we’re up against even from Australia. Its median wage is well ahead of that in Britain, the US, Canada and other wealthy countries. When it comes to salaries, recruiters estimate Australia’s teachers start on average on about $15,000 more than New Zealand’s. Over Australia’s 27-year economic boom, the median income there has risen four times faster than America’s. They’re now recruiting our teachers.
Increasingly, pay is the issue, because it’s the surest and quickest way to improve the sector. By attracting an adequate teacher supply, class sizes and general stress decrease and learning quality improves.
The Government has few other options but to move a lot closer to the teachers’ pay demands. Yes, settlements disproportionate to those of other sectors would cause unwelcome pressure through the economy. But in a wider sense, our teachers’ pay gap just mirrors a long-term fall in income felt by most New Zealand employees. We’ve come depressingly close to being not just a stagnant but a low-wage economy.
Although older teachers bring experience and wisdom, it’s far from ideal that desperate schools are begging retired teachers to come back. We need a regularly refreshed teaching pool. Schools should not be reliant on those who have already chosen to leave the job, or those with no experience at all.
All this may still leave some specialist subjects seriously short, yet the Government has set its face against even a stop-gap use of subject experts without teaching qualifications. This means some schools will drop entire subjects. Inevitably, it’s the lowest-decile schools that suffer from such shortages the most. In a nation that professes to care about inequality, that is a serious concern.
Even putting aside the political sensitivity of being so reliant on skilled immigrants, voters will be alarmed that we’re so perilously understocked in such a staple profession as teaching.
Either we start rewarding the profession now, and grow our own excellent and committed teachers, or we resign ourselves to a dimmer future for New Zealand.
This article was first published in the November 10, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.