Lizzie Marvelly: Hey, Hekia, leave those teachers alone!

By Lizzie Marvelly

Funding for schools should be focused on what matters most: education.
Hekia Parata finds it "bewildering" and "very disappointing" that 60,000 educators are holding meetings to discuss the proposed sweeping changes to funding structure of education system.  Photo / NZME
Hekia Parata finds it "bewildering" and "very disappointing" that 60,000 educators are holding meetings to discuss the proposed sweeping changes to funding structure of education system. Photo / NZME

This week Education Minister Hekia Parata announced a new targeted funding increase that will provide schools with approximately $92 per vulnerable student - an impressive-sounding number when it's compared to the $16 per student that schools would otherwise receive under a flat 1 per cent funding increase. Which it was, frequently, in numerous interviews and media reports.

I was nearly sold. Until I realised, thanks to New Zealand Educational Institute president Louise Green, that the scheme will result in less than $2 per week for those vulnerable kids.

It's worth "less than half a sandwich per child", as Green phrased it in an interview with Radio New Zealand, and schools will be under no obligation to actually spend that money on the children identified as at-risk.

The $12 million increase, or as I will be referring to it from now on, the "less-than-half-a-sandwich-fund", is hardly a silver bullet.

And it's nowhere near as important as the billions of dollars - a "shitload", as the minister so aptly described it to Larry Williams on Newstalk ZB - in funding that is currently being discussed by teachers around the country.

If I were a cynical person, I'd wonder whether the $12m for vulnerable children had been announced to draw our attention away from the dispute over the ministry's new so-called "global" funding proposal.

If you tuned into talkback radio this week, however, you'd almost have thought that a pair of old villains had arisen from their slumber and joined forces for the sole purpose of wreaking havoc upon the good taxpayers of New Zealand and their courageous leaders.

The nasty rogues in question?

The Post Primary Teachers' Association and the New Zealand Educational Institute. The dreaded teachers' unions.

When the announcement was made that the PPTA and the NZEI had combined to vote on whether to oppose the government's proposed global funding scheme, bringing their 60,000 members together for the first time, mayhem ensued. Interviews were given by the minister to reassure the populace.

Cherry-picked numbers about the off-topic $12m increase were rolled out to provide a pithy sound bite.

The PR machine chugged and puffed and steamed until a temporary calm was restored.

It was fascinating to watch, but it was nothing new.

Teachers. The narrative goes something like this: they're a whinging, insatiable lot that we increasingly love to hate.

They have unions - powerful ones - and as such are able to hold the government to account. It's little surprise they're cast as greedy villains in the national conversation.

I can think of few professions more vital, nor more unfairly maligned than teaching.

Education is the key to a better life, we're told, but God forbid we value those who provide it.

Teaching may not be particularly glamorous or lucrative, but New Zealand's future depends on it.

The $12 million increase, or as I will be referring to it from now on, the "less-than-half-a-sandwich-fund", is hardly a silver bullet.

Teacher-bashing really is an own goal if ever I saw one. If we underfund education, we're the ones who will have to pay the shortfall (plus interest) on the other end.

Granted, education received a record amount of funding this year, but we also have a soaring population. What I don't understand is why we don't view our education system as a state investment opportunity.

Imagine the financial boon to our economy that a highly educated population would create, not to mention the burden to our social services it would alleviate.

It has been estimated that an increase of $280m is needed to compensate for the disadvantages vulnerable children face, not $12m.

Why would we inject the minimum into our education system when we have the opportunity to turn our taxpayer dollars into a more prosperous future society? It's mind-boggling.

Yet Parata finds it "bewildering" and "very disappointing" that 60,000 educators are holding meetings around the country to discuss the proposed sweeping changes to the funding structure of our education system. I find it bewildering and very disappointing that the concerns of our teachers are being minimised.

Under the proposed global funding scheme, the funding for teachers and general school operations would come from the same allotment, whereas the budget for teaching staff and operations are currently separate.

This could theoretically allow schools to employ fewer teachers and support staff if priority were to be given to other expenses.

What I can't figure out is why on Earth such a change would be proposed.

I can understand the flaws of the decile system, but I can't see any rationale for removing the specific funding allocation for teachers' remuneration, other than to allow schools to hire fewer staff.

And fewer staff could easily lead to bigger class sizes, fewer teacher aides (especially problematic given Youth Law's assertion this week that New Zealand is currently breaching international law when it comes to the education of children with disabilities) and, most significantly, poor outcomes for our tamariki.

But really, perhaps it's not surprising. Given the government's recent support for allowing Kiwi students to enrol in online courses without having to attend school at all, what would be to stop a school from outsourcing its teaching responsibility entirely to pre-recorded online courses?

It's an extreme example, sure, but you don't have to be a maths teacher to understand the logic. Who needs a teacher that will cost you $53,500 per year when you can pay a one-off licence fee? As the PPTA notes, the global funding model would mean that there would be no agreed minimum number of teaching staff.

The idea makes my blood run cold. If there's one thing I know without a shred of a doubt, it's that I wouldn't be where I am today without my teachers, most of whom worked in the state system. In my opinion, we should pay them well and support them to be the best they can be.

Our schools need more funding, and our teachers deserve to be valued for the important work they do.

Most importantly of all, however, our children deserve the absolute best start in life.

I'm not convinced global funding will give them that.

- NZ Herald

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