Principals are scrambling to ensure there is ‘someone’ in front of every class when school starts next week, writes Simon Collins.

South Auckland teacher Kaveeta Shiriwastow commutes to work every day from Thames - 93km away - because she can't afford to live in Auckland.

Another teacher at her school, Clendon Park School in Manurewa, drives in 74km from Huntly.

For Shiriwastow, a 34-year-old solo mum with two children aged 9 and 4, paying the median $495 a week rent for a three-bedroom house in Manurewa is just too much on a teacher's salary, so she stays in Thames with her parents.

She leaves her 9-year-old son to go to school in Thames, and sets off at 4.30am every day to drive to Auckland with her 4-year-old, who attends a Manurewa daycare.

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"I would live in Auckland if I could, if the housing was cheaper," she says.

"I'd love to be able to buy my own place, but the houses are over $600,000 or even more, and when you calculate the mortgage and how much you have to pay, and the teacher's wage, that is not achievable."

Shiriwastow, who came to New Zealand from Fiji as a 5-year-old, now has more than 10 years teaching experience, including three years commuting to a school in Panmure before she moved to Clendon Park School a year ago.

She has faith in the new Labour-led Government.

"We are hopeful, with Labour being in Parliament, that things will change in terms of housing and teacher salaries," she says.

But she is setting a bar that may be higher than even Labour can afford.

"My friend moved to Australia and she was telling me how the beginning teachers there are starting on close to A$68,000 (NZ$74,000)," she says.

In New Zealand, beginners with a bachelor's degree in teaching start on $47,980, and hit the top of the basic scale eight years later on $71,891.

The crisis

"The community needs to understand that this is a crisis happening," says Donal McLean, principal of Fruitvale School in New Lynn and president of the Waitakere Area Principals Association.

A fifth (108) of Auckland's 551 schools were still advertising for teachers in the Education Gazette this week just days before they open their doors for the year in the coming week.

Outside Auckland, a tenth of schools (188 out of 1980) were still seeking staff.

In real terms, that means some classes in some schools will be larger than they should be.

Kia Aroha College, a Year 7 to 13 school in Ōtara, still had three vacancies this week for its five-teacher Māori bilingual unit. Principal Haley Milne has asked her assistant principal to step back into the classroom, and will use a computer technician who is training to be a teacher in another class.

"But we are still one down, so the four teachers are going to have larger classes," she says.

Mt Richmond Special School in Ōtāhuhu is also three teachers short, although it has recruited a teacher from the Philippines to fill one slot as soon as her NZ teacher registration comes through.

"One class is quite a small class, we are sharing it around some other classes," says principal Kathleen Dooley.

A relief teacher will take the third class.

Most schools are cobbling together similar expedients to ensure every class starts with a teacher in front of it, but to do so they are draining the pool of relief teachers which they depend on when teachers are sick or away.

Cherie Taylor-Patel at Flanshaw Rd School in Te Atatū says she had to "split" classes, distributing children among other classes when their usual teacher was absent, every week last year.

"It came down to not getting enough relievers," she says.

"Every time we split a class this year we are going to send a notice home to the parents and give them email addresses to let ministers and MPs know."

In secondary schools, some teachers are being asked to teach outside their usual subjects, and some subjects will not be offered at all.

"I know of one school that was looking for a drama teacher and was unable to find anyone, so they have put a physical education person into that position," says Richard Dykes of Glendowie College.

"Another school in Northland is not running technology courses because it hasn't been able to get someone. Technology is totally desperate, it's probably the worst of them all."

Pakuranga College principal Mike Williams, who chairs the Secondary Principals Association, says some schools have dropped electronics, and others are struggling even with maths.

"A person who did a maths paper at university will find themselves being turned into a maths teacher," he says.

The patch-up

School principals have been working feverishly over the holidays to cover the gaps with what Williams calls "compromises and work-arounds".

"Principals will make sure there is someone in front of the class," he says.

At Te Kura o Waatea, a small charter school in Māngere which is short of two out of seven teachers, principal Tania Rangiheuea will spend more time back in the classroom.

Schools are stretching the rules to offer management units and so-called 3R allowances for Recruitment, Retention and Responsibility to top up base-scale salaries.

"We can take our operations grant, which is supposed to be for the curriculum, and we can use that to pay an extra salary unit," Dykes explains.

"Increasingly schools are saying, just to stop a teacher being poached, especially in technology, or to poach a teacher, they are offering extra units."

Whangaparaoa College principal James Thomas says he offered "an extra incentive" last week to a music teacher because "another school was in a position to pay more than the state rate".

He was advertising this week for maths and social science teachers, but was not waiting for the applications to close on January 31.

"We are trying to interview anyone who might be suitable so that as soon as the closing date comes we can appoint that applicant, because if we don't, we'll lose them," he says.

There has been a massive drive to recruit teachers from overseas. The NZ Qualifications Authority received 350 applications in the last six months from teachers seeking recognition of overseas qualifications, up from 256 in the same period in 2016.

Applicants from South Africa jumped from 27 to 74, not counting another 57 from South Africa, Britain, Ireland, Canada and Fiji who no longer needed NZQA recognition after a decision to pre-approve teachers from most training institutions in those five countries from November 24.

NZQA also recorded 74 applications from Britain in the past six months (down from 83 in 2016 because of the rule change), 23 from Canada (up 10), 12 from Ireland (up 8) and 6 from Fiji (down 1).

The Education Council received 969 applications from overseas teachers for NZ teacher registration last year, up from 815 in 2016.

At Pukekohe High School, eight out of 22 new teachers starting next week are from overseas - six from Britain and two from South Africa.

Kathleen Dooley at Mt Richmond Special School has three new teachers from the Philippines and says 30 of her 33 teachers are from overseas.

"We have only three New Zealand-trained teachers, including me," she says.

"There used to be a postgraduate training course for special education. They still do it for hearing and vision-impaired, but they stopped doing it for the intellectually disabled, in the 90s, I think."

Stuart Birch of recruitment agency Education Personnel says new relocation grants of up to $5000 for overseas teachers and $7000 for NZ teachers returning from overseas, which became available this week, have had an immediate impact.

"These grants are only paid out once teachers have worked a term, so no grants have been paid out yet, but it's really sparked interest," he says. "We were getting inquiries within days of it being announced."

Birch says a pre-Christmas decision to waive retraining fees for up to 500 teachers returning to teaching in the first half of this year after leaving to have a baby or for other reasons has also sparked "a small but noticeable jump in the numbers of teachers contacting us who want to return to teaching".

"Some have been out of the sector for quite a while," he says.

Ministry of Education deputy secretary Ellen MacGregor-Reid says almost 400 people have already expressed interest in the free retraining courses.

Other principals have used personal contacts to fill gaps. Karen McMurray of Randwick Park School in Manurewa has used a South Island holiday to recruit through local newspapers, after advertising in the Education Gazette eight to 10 times without success.

"I'm originally from the South Island, and we do have a large number of teachers on our staff from the South Island," she says.

"One of the girls we appointed last year had a year working in a restaurant in Dunedin because she didn't think about leaving the South Island.

"One of my colleagues heard about her. She came up, had a look around, and it's been the best thing for her."

At Clendon Park, Sue Dawson works with teacher training providers Te Wānanga o Aotearoa, Te Wānanga Takiura and Auckland University's Huarahi Māori pathway to take trainee teachers on placement who often join the permanent staff when they graduate.

"We have three teachers coming this year who have come through that source," she says.

The long game

Dykes says Auckland's primary and secondary principals are working with economist Shamubeel Eaqub to put a case to the Government to tackle the three underlying issues which still face the region's schools.

First, they face what he calls a "tsunami" of teachers about to retire. Two-fifths (42 per cent) of NZ teachers are aged 50-plus, including 20 per cent over 60.

Second, Auckland's population is growing (up 43,000 in the year to last June), but the resulting pressures on house prices and traffic are driving teachers out of the city.

And third, teacher trainee numbers plunged by 39 per cent from 2011 to 2016, as the buoyant economy lured students into higher-paying jobs in other sectors.

"There is an immediate fix - just import a lot more teachers from overseas," Dykes says.

"But we are also playing a long game. What is the long-term vision and commitment to New Zealand teachers for New Zealanders?"

In its discussion paper on Initial Teacher Education, the recently-formed Education Council has raised the question of desirability of adopting a more proactive approach to managing the total numbers enrolled in techer training programmes at a system-level, and the options for doing so".

A Cabinet paper released with the pre-Christmas changes said the Ministry of Education was also working on "a workforce strategy which is intended to take a longer-term view of the needs and direction of the workforce".

Teacher unions are gearing up to claim pay increases of about 14.5 per cent this year, including an extra allowance in regions where median house prices are more seven times the top of the teacher base salary scale.

Although that is likely to be more than the Government can afford, the Treasury advised ministers in the Cabinet paper that it "should consider how to increase flexibility to respond to teacher supply issues in particular regions and subject areas".

New Education Minister Chris Hipkins has got the message. His pre-Christmas package, he said, was just "the first stage of a comprehensive programme to alleviate teacher shortages and build a strong and engaged workforce".

Such changes can't come soon enough for teachers like Kaveeta Shiriwastow.

After school she picks up her 4-year-old for the long drive home, usually arriving after 6pm. The child sleeps on the way home.