Teachers are set to walk off the job as their pay dispute with the Government intensifies. Current pay rates are increasing the exodus of teachers out of Auckland and in some cases out of the profession altogether, writes Simon Collins.

Michelle Deacon knew that she would have to take a pay cut when she became a teacher, and would probably have to leave Auckland.

Deacon, a 29-year-old first-year teacher at Balmoral School, studied biomedical engineering and worked as a research assistant at Auckland University for four years before retraining as a teacher last year.

"I was well aware of the pay cut I was taking coming into teaching after leaving engineering," she says.

"I knew there was a chance that I wouldn't stay in Auckland.

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"But what I thought is that I'd much rather have a job that is a good fit for me, that I enjoyed, and I could always find ways of working around money."

Going on strike for more money, as primary teachers plan to do next Wednesday for the first time in 24 years, won't be easy for teachers like Deacon. That's not why she's in the job.

She got into engineering because she loved maths and physics, but was "not feeling fulfilled" in it.

She believes there is no more fulfilling job than teaching.

"I was talking to a colleague and I said, 'Imagine if every job got paid the same, or there was a universal basic income, then teaching should be one of the top jobs because of all the great aspects of working as a teacher'," she says.

"It's the amazing aspects of getting to work with students, seeing the progress they are making, seeing the people they are growing into - there is nothing better than those things! I think it's an awesome job!"

Michelle Deacon with year 7 student Molly Cutmore:
Michelle Deacon with year 7 student Molly Cutmore: "Seeing the progress they are making, seeing the people they are growing into - there is nothing better than those things!" Photo / Jason Oxenham

But in the real world, there is no universal basic income, and teachers have to live on their wages.

Deacon earns $51,508 a year ($990 a week) because she has a master's degree, slightly above the usual starting salary of just under $50,000. She is still paying off a $78,000 student loan (now down to $36,000), so her take-home pay is only $708 a week.

The current median rent in Balmoral is $630 a week. Even for a one-bedroom flat, it's $385. Deacon commutes from her parents' home on the North Shore.

"I haven't been able to find a flat in this area - at least one that I can afford and that is not a health risk," she says.

The average Auckland house is now worth $1,050,000. Almost three-quarters of Auckland households (73 per cent) would have to spend more than 30 per cent of their income on the mortgage and other housing costs if they owned a house in the region, compared with 49 and 51 per cent in Wellington and Christchurch and just 9 per cent of households in the country's cheapest district, Wairoa.

"I know that, looking forward into the future, having a family or buying a house is not something that I feel that I would be financially secure to do, especially in Auckland," Deacon says.

"I have thought that in a couple of years I'll look at leaving Auckland, but I'm not sure, I'll see what happens."

As other teachers make the same calculations, Balmoral School principal Malcolm Milner is finding it increasingly difficult to find teachers. He lost six to Tauranga in 2015, and the last time he advertised a teacher's job he got only nine applicants, mostly without NZ experience.

"Three years ago we'd get up to 90 applicants," he says.

Balmoral School principal Malcolm Milner lost six teachers to Tauranga in 2015 because they could no longer afford to buy a house in Auckland. Photo / Jason Oxenham
Balmoral School principal Malcolm Milner lost six teachers to Tauranga in 2015 because they could no longer afford to buy a house in Auckland. Photo / Jason Oxenham

He didn't take any of the nine this time, but through word of mouth he found a Kiwi teacher who was returning from France, and has filled the gap with a temporary appointment until she arrives.

He backs the 16 per cent pay rise over two years being sought by the primary teachers' union, the NZ Educational Institute (NZEI).

"If you had a 16 per cent pay rise, you would definitely have people wanting to apply to be teachers," he says.

The Government has just given nurses $500 million pay rises of 12.5 per cent over two years and a further 3 per cent in 2020 for nurses with at least seven years' experience.

But so far it has offered primary teachers with at least seven years' service only 4 per cent over two years and a further 2 per cent in 2020, which would cost about $150m all-up.

The unions say 16 per cent pay rise would cost about $266 million a year.

The Ministry of Education estimates that other claims on top of that would cost an additional $291m year.

Ministers are torn. Labour politicians are instinctively sympathetic to raising wages, but they have also pledged to keep within tight budget limits, so every dollar they spend on teachers' wages is a dollar less for other priorities such as housing or mental health.

They need to consider pay as part of a wider response to the teacher shortage, especially in regions with high housing costs such as Auckland.

The teacher shortage

Over the past 20 years New Zealand has been through cycles of teacher shortages and surpluses.

In good economic times when other well-paid jobs are available, both the numbers training to be teachers and the numbers applying for each teaching job are low.

Only 1.9 suitable applicants applied for each secondary teacher's job at the peak of the last economic boom in 2006, and only 1.6 suitable applicants applied for each job in the latest survey this year.

In bad times, when other jobs dry up, more people turn to teaching. Suitable applicants for every secondary teaching job peaked at 5.4 in the year 2000 after the dot-com bubble burst, and 7.6 in 2010 after the global financial crisis.

Domestic students starting teacher training (excluding early childhood teaching) jumped from 3590 in 2008 to 4235 in 2010, then declined to 2745 in 2016.

That decline has levelled out, with 2790 students starting training last year. Indicative Ministry of Education numbers for this year are up by 280.

But there has been a much steeper and continuing decline in students starting training in early childhood education, from 3100 in 2008 and a peak of 3630 in 2009 to just 1500 last year, reflecting the former National Government's decision to stop paying higher subsidies to centres with 100 per cent qualified teachers. Labour has not yet restored that subsidy.

The problem is particularly acute in Auckland. Principals' Federation vice-president Cherie Taylor-Patel says a ministry official told her last term that 80 per cent of Auckland trainee teachers were leaving the city.

Michelle Deacon, pictured with year 7 student Pranz Cortez, chose to start teaching in Auckland, but 80 per cent of Auckland teaching graduates are said to be leaving the city. Photo / Jason Oxenham
Michelle Deacon, pictured with year 7 student Pranz Cortez, chose to start teaching in Auckland, but 80 per cent of Auckland teaching graduates are said to be leaving the city. Photo / Jason Oxenham

There is some evidence that, after allowing for economic cycles, the attractiveness of teaching as a career is on a downward trend, both here and across all rich nations in the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

The OECD's Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) found that the numbers of 15-year-olds expecting to become teachers declined between 2006 and 2015, from 5.5 per cent to 4.2 per cent across the OECD and from 3.7 per cent to 3 per cent in New Zealand.

The result is an ageing workforce. Although the median age of all teachers has been stable at 45 since 2004, those under age 30 have slipped from 15 per cent to 13 per cent, while those aged 60-plus have jumped from 6 per cent to 15 per cent.

Principals have coped partly by giving permanent jobs to their relief teachers, but that has reduced the number of relievers available to each secondary school from an average of 12 in the recession years to just seven this year, the lowest since the surveys began in 1998.

Taylor-Patel says a recent survey of Auckland primary principals found the schools were short of 250 relievers a day, forcing schools to distribute a sick teacher's pupils across other classes until the teacher recovers.

"I don't think it's ever been as bad as it is," she says.

At secondary level, a record 41 per cent of schools say they are asking teachers to teach outside their specialist subject areas this year, much more than the last peak of 29 per cent just before the global financial crisis.

Looking for causes

Mikaelah Cash, a final-year primary teacher trainee at the University of Auckland, believes teaching has an image problem.

"It's not portrayed as a good job," she says. "It's not very attractive when all you hear about is how big the workload is and the lack of resources, and with that you are having to teach 30-plus kids in the classroom.

"People my age are more aware of having a healthy work-life balance. It's just not really possible with a job in teaching because it kind of consumes your life."

Michelle Deacon usually works 10-hour days and at least one day in the weekends. Photo / Jason Oxenham
Michelle Deacon usually works 10-hour days and at least one day in the weekends. Photo / Jason Oxenham

At Balmoral School, Deacon works long hours.

"On average I'd work a 10-hour day. I get here at 7.30am and it's a rare day that I leave before 5pm, and most weekends I'm here at least one day," she says.

There is a lot of paperwork. As a beginning teacher, Deacon has to document everything she does so that her work can be assessed, as well as assessing her students' work.

Even experienced teachers are now expected to be "teaching as inquiry", always trying new approaches to help students who need extra help or extension, and documenting which approaches work and which ones don't.

New Zealand teachers have to cope with marginally more students than most other OECD countries, with an average 14 students per teacher at junior secondary level compared with 12 and 13 in advantaged and disadvantaged schools in Australia.

But the number of students per teacher across the whole NZ school system fell marginally from 17.5 in 2004 to 16.1 in 2009 and has stayed the same since then.

Some policy changes have made it harder for older students to retrain as teachers in the past few years - an important factor because in 2008 two-thirds of teacher trainees were career changers like Deacon aged 25 or over.

Student loans were capped at seven years' lifetime study in 2010, living cost loans for students aged 55-plus were axed in 2011, student allowances for postgraduate study were scrapped in 2012, and student loans for people over 40 were capped at 120 weeks (three years) in 2013.

The result: teacher trainees aged 25 and over have plunged by 32 per cent since 2008, while those under age 25 have slipped by only 9 per cent.

Education Ministry (TeachNZ) scholarships for students training to teach science, technology and maths were abolished in 2010, when there was a surplus of beginning teachers, and were not restored until last year.

Careers and Transition Education Association president Warwick Foy says the ministry also appears to have cut back its recruitment campaigns for teacher training.

"I'm chair of the local careers expo in Taranaki, we have employers and training providers, but you will never see anyone promote teaching," he says.

"We have never had to. But now we do."

However despite all these factors, the status of teaching in New Zealand remains high compared with most OECD countries: 45 per cent of NZ teachers believe "the teaching profession is valued in society", below South Korea (67 per cent) and Finland (59 per cent) but well above the OECD average of 31 per cent.

What can be done?

The former National Government reintroduced the scholarships for 100 science, maths and technology teachers, approved two more intakes of 45 trainees in the on-the-job Teach First programme, and funded Auckland primary schools to employ 40 beginning teachers early in the year before their roll numbers justified them.

Nikki Kaye offered grants of up to $7000 to lure teachers from overseas. File photo
Nikki Kaye offered grants of up to $7000 to lure teachers from overseas. File photo

Just before the election, then Minister of Education Nikki Kaye announced a grant of up to $7000 to lure teachers from overseas and planned to extend a bonus of up to $17,500 for beginning teachers, which was already available in decile 1 schools, to all Auckland schools.

In the end, Labour's Chris Hipkins extended the bonus only to decile 2 and 3 Auckland schools, extended the Teach First and Auckland beginning teacher projects, and waived fees for refresher courses in the first half of 2018 only for teachers who have not obtained full registration six years after training.

Chris Hipkins extended a bonus for beginning teachers at low-income Auckland schools to cover deciles 2 and 3 as well as decile 1. File photo
Chris Hipkins extended a bonus for beginning teachers at low-income Auckland schools to cover deciles 2 and 3 as well as decile 1. File photo

The ministry's teacher recruitment budget was doubled from $1m to $2.4m in the financial year just ended and $2.6m in the current year, with a marketing campaign due to start next month.

More significantly, Labour's policy of scrapping fees for the first year of tertiary education this year, and three years by 2024, should make it easier for teacher trainees as well as other students.

Auckland University's deputy dean of education Wayne Smith believes we still need more incentives both to recruit people into teaching and to keep them there.

Smith trained as a teacher in the 1970s when he was paid to train on a four-year studentship which increased each year until in the final year it paid two-thirds of a teacher's starting salary.

"There were no fees, and I got paid on top of that," he says. "I was then bonded to teach for the same four years."

The Government also matched his savings for a deposit on his first house with a loan that was written off after five years.

"We have to look at how we can offer some support to teachers, especially young teachers," he says.

He also advocates paying higher salaries to teachers who upskill with specialist training during their careers, giving them a reason to stay in the profession.

At Balmoral, Deacon would like to see teachers' workload eased by funding more teacher aides and reducing class sizes. She teaches in Years 4 to 8 where the ministry funds only one teacher for every 29 students, compared with 1:15 in Year 1, 1:23 in Years 2 and 3, 1:23.5 in Years 9-10 and even lower ratios in senior high schools.

"Reducing class size would reduce [time required for] marking, planning, assessment and keeping in touch with parents, because that relationship is important too," she says.

Next week's strike is partly about an NZEI claim for its collective agreement to reduce the Years 4 to 8 ratio to 1:25.

National Party leader Simon Bridges outflanked the Labour Party by pledging to cut class sizes in Years 4 to 8. File photo
National Party leader Simon Bridges outflanked the Labour Party by pledging to cut class sizes in Years 4 to 8. File photo

The National Party outflanked Labour last month by promising to reduce class sizes if it wins the next election, and Kaye says the Years 4 to 8 band would be the priority, although she has not yet specified what any new ratio would be.

So how much?

But all parties agree that pay also has to be part of any answer to the teacher shortage.

The OECD found that the 15-year-olds expecting to become teachers declined most in countries where teachers' salary increases lagged behind increased national economic output per person.

"Results reveal that changes in teachers' relative salaries are positively associated with changes in students' expectations of a teaching career," it says.

Its data is based on only 24 countries, 12 where teachers' salaries increased faster than output per person and 12 where teachers lagged behind.

It does not provide this data for New Zealand, but the salary of a NZ teacher with seven years' experience and no extra responsibilities rose by only 24 per cent from 2006 to last year, well behind a 46 per cent rise in our economic output per person (without allowing for higher prices in both cases).

First-year teachers with a degree and a teaching qualification earned 15 per cent more than the national median wage in 1998. Today their starting salary of $49,588 is 1 per cent below the national median of $49,868.

A teacher at the top of the basic scale, with seven years' service but no extra responsibilities, earned 75 per cent more than the median wage in 1998. Today the top basic rate of $75,949 is only 52 per cent above the median.

The ministry says the average primary teacher's total pay, including allowances, has increased by 30.6 per cent since 2007 to $72,900.

But the national average wage has increased in the same period by 41.8 per cent, to $54,437. Primary teachers still get well above the average, but again their relative advantage has slipped.

Glendowie College principal Richard Dykes says NZ beginner teachers start on much less than their counterparts in Australia. File photo
Glendowie College principal Richard Dykes says NZ beginner teachers start on much less than their counterparts in Australia. File photo

Auckland Secondary Principals Association head Richard Dykes has shown that beginning teachers in New Zealand start on far less than new teachers in Australia, who start on A$67,248 (NZ$73,930) in New South Wales and similar rates in other states.

However this is simply because New Zealand is a poorer country. OECD figures show that NZ teachers' earnings average 86 per cent of those of all tertiary-educated workers, about the same as 87 per cent in Australia and the OECD average of 85 per cent.

Nurses' salaries are quite similar. The pay hike agreed this week will lift the top rate for a registered nurse with seven years' experience from $66,755 to $75,132 by next year and $77,386 by 2020.

The NZEI claim of 16 per cent would lift the comparable rate for teachers with seven years' service from $75,949 to $88,100 by next year.

The Post Primary Teachers' Association (PPTA) lodged claims this week for an immediate 15 per cent pay rise plus a housing allowance of up to $100 a week for teachers renting, or paying the first three years on a mortgage, in the high-rent cities of Auckland, Tauranga and Queenstown.

PPTA president Jack Boyle says the housing allowance is targeted at younger teachers as a "recruitment lever".

PPTA president Jack Boyle sees a rental housing allowance as a
PPTA president Jack Boyle sees a rental housing allowance as a "recruitment lever" to attract younger people into teaching. File photo

It may be a smart move because it is relatively cheap, at about $9.5m a year, and targets the main areas of shortages better than across-the-board pay hikes.

Other housing policies outside teaching may help young teachers like Deacon.

"I'm hoping for a KiwiBuild," she says.

An AUT professor of human resource management, Jarrod Haar, says there is no easy way to say what a teacher should be paid compared with everyone else.

"If we said, 'Yes, you're right, everybody is behind the eight-ball, so let's top you up to where you were in 2003,' then we'll all be paying 50c in the dollar tax," he says.

"A great teacher can have a profound effect. I can still remember my one or two primary teachers who helped shape me, so it's hard for me to criticise the teachers too much. But I do have sympathy for the Finance Minister."

Deacon emailed the Weekend Herald after we met her to explain why she planned to be part of next week's strike.

"As a first year teacher I do feel uncomfortable about striking and asking the Government for more support when I knew what I was coming into," she wrote.

"I knew what the pay was, and I knew that during the first two years, as I worked towards full registration and learned on the job, that I would be extremely busy and often stressed. I signed up for that, I own that decision.

Michelle Deacon says she is going on strike not for herself but to make sure her students still have enough teachers in the future. Photo / Jason Oxenham
Michelle Deacon says she is going on strike not for herself but to make sure her students still have enough teachers in the future. Photo / Jason Oxenham

"However, the reason I'm striking isn't for me, it is for my students.

"At this point in my life, I think that I can handle the teacher workload and teacher salary, and although I don't think it's a fair workload or a fair salary, I'm happy to have a job I love even if it means making sacrifices in other areas.

"But when I see that so many other teachers, who love the profession as much as I do, can't handle the workload and salary after many years in the job, I start to worry that many students won't have teachers in the future.

"The students are what motivate me to ask for more. Thinking about them is what causes me to be unsatisfied with how the teaching profession as a whole has been supported, because a lack of support for teaching is really a lack of support for our students and children."