Schools will have to wait until Thursday's Budget to find out if they will get relief after an effective freeze in the funding of many schools day to day costs last year.

Operations grants funding pays for the day-to-day running of a school and is usually increased to account for inflation. But the Government's drive to target extra funding at the most vulnerable students meant the $12 million a year increase in operations funding was handed out to schools based on the number of disadvantaged students they had. It was an attempt to target about 135,000 children considered to be most at risk, such as those with parents on benefits.

That meant more than 1300 schools got no increase at all while 816 got more than if the funding had been increased by inflation as usual.

Labour's education spokesman, Chris Hipkins, said that left some schools struggling to make ends meet. "I think they have to do something around school operations grant funding and it will have to be more than the cost of living, an inflationary adjustment."

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That could depend on government decisions around a change in the funding of schools to replace the decile system.

Secondary Principals Association vice-president Michael Williams said he was hopeful of an inflation adjustment this year. He was not expecting any moves on changing the decile system in the short term, saying that would be a couple of years away as part of an overall review of school funding.

"So we would hope at least in this Budget there is enough so we don't back any further."

Hipkins was picking a damage-control budget for education.

"If you look at what the Government are doing across the board, they are trying to put out fires or at least douse the flames until after the election. They'll do just enough to look like they're doing something in areas of concern."

The Government has announced significant chunks of money to pay for new schools and expansions at existing schools but Hipkins said it had been "woefully inadequate" in preparing for the growth taking place in Auckland and other regions.

"They're sticking prefabs around the place and they have kids learning in halls and libraries because they haven't built enough classrooms to keep up with growth."

He said Education Minister Nikki Kaye was clearly sensitive to it - he had advertised a public meeting in Havelock North last week and the day before it, Kaye had turned up to address concerns about delays in the delivery of promised new classrooms in the region.

Williams, who is also principal of Pakuranga College, said although there had been significant spending on school property much of it had been prioritised to the Christchurch rebuild and for new schools and classrooms.

That meant schools which did not need more classrooms but had old buildings that needed replacement or modernising had missed out. "Now things are looking a bit better in the Budget so we do have talk of more money for infrastructure, so hopefully some of that is going into education."

Education Minister Nikki Kaye has said the Government has announced about $5 billion in spending on school property and infrastructure since 2008, including big packages for Christchurch and Auckland to cater for growth.

Hipkins said there was also tension building in the early-childhood education sector because per child subsidies for the "free" 20-hours programme had been frozen since 2014 and had had only minimal increases since 2011.

Labour education spokesman Chris Hipkins says some schools are struggling to make ends meet. Picture / NZME
Labour education spokesman Chris Hipkins says some schools are struggling to make ends meet. Picture / NZME

He said that meant some centres were reducing the number of qualified teachers they took on.

Early Childhood Council chief executive Peter Reynolds said the per child rate had gone down significantly in real terms and the average early-childcare centre had lost about $90,000 off its bottom line. Although the total early-childhood education budget had increased, that was because of the higher number of children attending rather than more funding per child. Funding had also been prioritised to at-risk communities as Government tried to reach its target of 98 per cent participation by 2016.

"Having something that at least keeps pace with inflation would be very helpful."

Reynolds said another issue facing the sector was the new ability of primary schools to take new entrants in cohorts at the start of a year rather than after their 5th birthdays. That could mean small centres lost between five and 10 of their children all at once and result in some closures.

Hipkins said the other disaster in waiting was a potential looming teacher shortage as the baby boomers headed into retirement.

The only pre-Budget announcement in education is $5.2m to expand Teach First NZ and recruit new teachers. That was on top of a $9m fund last year to recruit maths, science and technology teachers and try to stop beginning teachers dropping out.

Hipkins said it would not go anywhere near replacing teachers on the cusp of retiring and those dropping out of the profession.

"That's causing some anxiety, particularly in Auckland, because there are already teacher shortages and they are going to get worse because of the baby boomers' retirement.

There is a huge cohort of teachers in their late 50s and early 60s who are going to retire, and beginning teacher cohorts generally don't tend to stay in teaching as long. The combination of those things is going to make life interesting."

Kaye took over as Education Minister from Hekia Parata this month. Hipkins said although she was "less abrasive" the underlying policy agenda was the same.

SOME HIGHLIGHTS OF BUDGETS PAST

2013:

Total Education Budget: $9.7 billion

$92.4 million for first part of the overall 10-year $1.137b package for the Christchurch Schools programme to rebuild schools.

$80.5m more in early childhood education for target of getting participation to 98 per cent and $41.3 m "targeted" fund for vulnerable children.

Funding to establish the first "partnership schools" - charter schools.

Student loan clampdown: a new three-year stand-down period for non-New Zealanders, stricter repayment rules for borrowers living overseas, and the power to arrest defaulters at the border.

2014:
Total Education Budget: $10.1b

$359m for new Educational Success plan to create new roles with extra pay for the best teachers and principals, and use them to help underperforming schools. Has since been used to fund "Communities of Learning" in which schools group together to share resources and expertise.

2015
Total Education Budget: $10.8b

$243.8m from the proceeds of asset sales to pay for seven new schools, school expansions and new classrooms. Includes first phase of a $350m commitment for new schools in Auckland.

2016
Total Education Budget: $11.05b

Schools' operational grants are frozen. An extra sum of $12m a year is instead allocated based on the number of at-risk students each school has, rather than a general increase based on inflation.

Early childhood education gets $397m boost for growing demand - enough for 14,000 more children.

School property: Total of $883m to deliver 480 new classrooms, nine new schools and two school expansions.