Primary teachers are threatening a fresh two-day strike next if they fail to win a big pay hike and improved staffing.

NZ Educational Institute president Lynda Stuart asked thousands of teachers in Auckland's Aotea Square today whether they would support either rolling regional strikes or a two-day national strike.

Only a handful put their hands up for regional strikes and an overwhelming majority roared their support for a two-day stoppage.

Stuart said afterwards that no dates had been set for a further strike, which would only happen if the next round of talks with the Ministry of Education failed to make progress on August 24.

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"We are just getting a sense of what people are feeling," she said.

"The message was pretty clear."

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Thousands of teachers have massed today at Auckland's Aotea Square and at Parliament to demand better pay in the first teachers' strike in 24 years.

About 7000 teachers and supporters gathered in Aotea Square after a noisy march up Queen St.

Meanwhile at Parliament Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern came out to see the protest first-hand, flanked by Education Minister Chris Hipkins and several other MPs.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, flanked by Education Minister Chris Hipkins to her left.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, flanked by Education Minister Chris Hipkins to her left.

Ardern told the crowd she hadn't been scheduled to speak at the rally, but when she saw teachers streaming in to Parliament, she knew she had to be there.

"I didn't have this sense of them and us, I just had this sense of us.

"You're all here because you're passionate about kids. You know that the education system is at the front line of so many problems we face."

Ardern said scrapping National Standards was part of her Government listening to teachers, in what they believed was best for kids, and best for teacher workloads.

"When we value people we often put that in terms of money," she said.

"But it's also in the time you get with kids, and the workload.

"Thank you for the work that you do. Thank you for joining with us in lifting kids up."

Hipkins said he knew teachers wouldn't have made the decision to strike lightly.

"I want to let you know that this is a Government that is listening to you, we have heard you.

"We have heard the concerns that you've been raising with us. We have heard that you want to be a respected, trusted, and valued profession.

"We have also heard the concerns you've raised about the education policies that you do not think are in the best interest of future generations."

Hipkins said a select committee had that morning had been abolishing National Standards and charter schools, which he felt was a "good use of their time".

He blamed the current problems on the previous National government - and said they couldn't fix nine years in nine months.

"We are here to show you that we are listening, and we are here to work with you for hopefully longer than the next nine years, so that you get the support you need to thrive and children need to thrive."

Day of strike action

Primary and Intermediate teachers are striking today to demand a larger pay rise and better working conditions to attract more New Zealanders to the profession which is facing a major staffing shortage.

Striking teachers make their way towards Auckland's Aotea Square. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Striking teachers make their way towards Auckland's Aotea Square. Photo / Brett Phibbs

Just before 11am a boisterous crowd of teachers and supporters had started gathering in Auckland's Lower Queen St before marching to Aotea Square.

The crowd were singing chants such as, "All we are saying I'd give kids a chance."

Banners proclaim slogans such as, "How can we put children 1st if we put teachers last?"

Meanwhile in Wellington teachers and supporters filled several aisles of Westpac Stadium.

NZEI collective agreement negotiator Louise Green told strikers that they were committed to doing what it took to get a settlement that addressed their issues.

She said they would consider escalating to a two-day strike, a proposal which received loud cheers from the crowd.

Green asked for noise from the crowd to indicate the group's preference between a "geographically based rolling strike" or a two-day strike. The applause overwhelmingly supported the latter.

In Wellington teachers gathered at Westpac Stadium, before crossing the road to Parliament. Photo / Melissa Nightingale
In Wellington teachers gathered at Westpac Stadium, before crossing the road to Parliament. Photo / Melissa Nightingale

At Auckland's Aotea Square, police cleared traffic from the street between Fort St and Wellesley St.

Many teachers have brought their children along on today's strike.

Aaron Pickett, a 10-year-old school ambassador at Kaurilands School, came with his dad, a teacher at another school.

"I came to support my teachers because they are not getting paid enough," he said.

Richmond Rd School teacher Tessa Harvey, who came with her daughter Hayley, 11, said she was still earning only about $47,000 a year in her third year teaching.

"I'm already considering a change of profession," she said.

"Children have always been my passion. I love it. But it's getting too hard to live in Auckland."

Daphne Mika, principal of Te Kura Kaupapa Māori o Manurewa, said her most urgent need was more specialists to work with children who have learning differences.

"The main issue is the Senco [special needs coordinator]," she said.

"It should be one teacher running that whole thing instead of doing it on top of a teacher that is teaching."

Sir Edmund Hillary Collegiate Middle School teacher Marleen George also wanted more specialist help.

"We need more teacher aides on staff to help the children that have learning difficulties," she said.

"There are too many of them and only one of us [in each classroom]. There's not enough one on one time."

What do teachers earn - and what are they asking for?

• Teachers beginning with a degree and a teacher's qualification currently start on $49,588, just below the national median wage of $49,868. Twenty years ago they started on 15 per cent above the median wage.

• Teachers at the top of the basic pay scale, reached after seven years' experience, earned 75 per cent more than the median wage in 1998 and now earn only 52 per cent above the national median.

• The union is claiming a $296 million, 16 per cent pay rise over two years that would take the top of the basic scale up from $75,949 to $88,100.

• Other claims include reducing the teacher:student ratio in Years 4 to 8 from 1:29 to 1:25. The Ministry of Education says these non-pay-related claims would cost a further $291m a year on top of the extra $296m a year for salaries.

'Teachers matter'

Today's strikes had kicked off earlier with a demonstration in Blockhouse Bay where about 50 striking primary school teachers and supporters were asking motorists to toot to support them.

Holding a large banner saying "Teachers matter", they got plenty of support from passing cars.

Some of the striking primary school teachers protesting at the Blockhouse Bay shops this morning. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Some of the striking primary school teachers protesting at the Blockhouse Bay shops this morning. Photo / Brett Phibbs

New Windsor School teacher Rebecca Ashworth, who was there with her 5-year-old daughter Madison, said she hoped the strike would ease work and financial pressures in teachers.

"I'm lucky, my husband is our main earner. There's no way I could support us on my wage.

"I've had to cut my hours. I was doing 65 hours a week, without any management units or doing any sports or anything.

"I now do four days a week so I can spend some time with my own family. It's a shame, I'd rather work five days."

Madison, clutching a soft toy that she named Aurora Jumper, said she missed going to school today.

New Windsor School principal Glenn Bermingham, who is celebrating his 40th year in teaching this year, said he was holding a placard for his three grandchildren, the oldest of whom will start school soon.

"I'm here for my grandchildren because I believe we are at a tipping point and I have real fears for the quality of the state-funded education system," he said.

"We are losing our young teachers coming in. Four years later they are gone."

He said he had 130 applications for a teaching vacancy in 2013, but only seven this year.

His school is fully staffed, but he said that was only by "being creative", with several part-time teachers job-sharing classes.

"The pay is a factor," he said.

"For me personally as a principal, I'm okay with my salary, but I know we have a number of staff who are paid less than our caretaker, and that's not okay."

An older woman who declined to give her name but said she started teaching in 1971 said she had gone part-time.

"I'd never be a fulltime teacher now, there's just too much. I got sick of the Government putting new things on us, 'Oh, do this, do that'," she said.

"I'm just making my stand because I can't complain about the education system if I don't come here."

Some of the striking primary school teachers protest at the Blockhouse Bay shops this morning. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Some of the striking primary school teachers protest at the Blockhouse Bay shops this morning. Photo / Brett Phibbs

'We want the Government to invest in us too'

In Stratford teachers chanted and waved homemade banners and flags up the main street this morning.

More than 20 teachers and their supporters gathered with placards outside The Well Cafe on the corner of Broadway and Regan St to gain attention for better pay, conditions and incentives to attract new teachers.

After a short and loud protest met by cars and trucks honking their support, the teachers headed to New Plymouth and Hawera to join other groups of teachers doing the same.

Ratapiko School principal Lisa Hill says parents supported and understood the reasons which were about pay but more about getting greater learning support for children.

''The workload just keeps increasing and we are seeing more and more children with anxiety and trauma - we are not set up to support these children.

''Teachers love their jobs. We love what we so and invest so much time in children. We want the Government to invest in us too.''

She says retaining teachers was a concern, as was drawing them into the profession.

There would be an estimated shortage of teachers by 2000 in the next five years and it was also hard to get relievers.

''If you are not going to pay teachers for what they do, you are not going to get teachers at all.''

Hill has worked in the profession for around 25 years and says over the past 12 years conditions had eroded badly.

''It's got worse under both National and Labour - it's not a political thing but a professional thing. Enough is enough.''

Today's marches

Up to 10,000 teachers, children and parents were expected to march up Queen St, from Fort St to Aotea Square this morning with thousands more marching in other centres around the country.

About a third of the union's 29,000 primary teacher members live in the Auckland area.

It will be only the third time primary teachers have gone on strike in the union's 135-year history, after a 1991 strike in the year of the Employment Contracts Act and a 1994 strike which achieved pay parity with secondary teachers.

"That shows that we don't do this lightly," Stuart said.

"This is about not having enough teachers in this country to meet the needs of children because we don't support our teachers properly.

"We have a real under-investment in education at the moment and we can't attract people into the profession, and if we do, they leave after a few years. This is a crisis heading for a disaster."

Schools struggling to fill vacancies

An Auckland Primary Principals Association survey found this week that 35 per cent of the region's primary schools have unfilled vacancies, with many schools axing literacy support and extension teaching because specialist teachers have been drafted in to fill gaps in regular classrooms.

Another survey found that 41 per cent of NZ secondary schools have asked teachers to teach outside their specialist subject areas this year because of the shortage of teachers, especially in maths, science, technology and te reo Māori.

Primary teachers are seeking a 16 per cent pay rise over two years that would add $296 million to the Government's payroll, plus lower teacher/student ratios and other gains in working conditions which the Ministry of Education says would cost a further $291m a year.

So far the ministry has offered fixed dollar pay rises of $7050 over three years for beginning teachers and $4650 over three years for more experienced teachers, which the Herald estimates would cost about $150m a year.

READ MORE: Teachers' strike: the claims

Minister of Education Chris Hipkins said the teachers' asking point was just too high.

"Look there is always room for movement in an offer but the important point here is their starting position is significantly higher than anybody else is getting," he said.

"There is going to have to be significant movement on their side."

But the teachers have strong public support. A poll commissioned by the unions in April found that 83 per cent of New Zealanders believed teachers needed a pay rise and of those, 67 per cent backed an increase of at least 10 per cent.

Youthtown has cancelled 10 of its 12 after-school programmes around the country today due to lack of demand, and some South Auckland after-school providers have shut to support the teachers.

Keryn Grogan of the Parenting Place said the strike would be an inconvenience for parents, who in most cases will have to stay home or find other family members or friends to look after their children.

"Everyone I know is supporting them. We all support teachers and really admire what they do, but lots of people will be inconvenienced by the fact that the teachers are not there," she said.

Polly Taylor, whose children attend Grey Lynn School, said she planned to take her children on the march up Queen St with their teachers.

"[I'm] hoping to teach my children a little bit about what's important and what we value in our society and education's a very important part of that," she said.

One big employer, Asahi Beverages, is putting on a family friendly day where staff with children are encouraged to bring their kids to work. Advertising agency DDB Group will allow parents to work from home.

DDB chief executive Justin Mowday said teachers were the unsung heroes of society.

"I've always thought that given the impact that they have on people that they are underpaid."

Stuart said children and their parents would be welcome at all strike events.

"Parents are saying, 'What can we do', and I'm telling them, 'You would be welcome, absolutely'," she said.

Auckland Transport spokesman Mark Hannan said there were no plans to close Queen St but staff would operate traffic lights manually to let the march pass.

Q&A: What's at stake?

Q. Why are primary teachers striking?

A. They say they need a big pay rise and better working conditions to attract more Kiwis into teaching. Numbers starting teacher training are cyclical, but last year were 28 per cent below the last good economic period in 2008, and 35 per cent of Auckland primary schools now have unfilled vacancies.

Q. Can we afford to satisfy them?

A. Their claimed 16 per cent pay claim alone would cost $296m a year, plus a further $200m or so when it flows through to secondary teachers who lodged their own pay claims last week. That's comparable with the $500m cost of pay rises for nurses agreed to last week.

The Ministry of Education says the primary teachers' other claims, such as reduced teacher/student ratios, would cost a further $291m a year.

But the Government has pledged to keep to strict budget limits, so every extra dollar for teachers is a dollar less for other priorities such as housing and mental health.

Q. So how can we fix the teacher shortage?

A. Secondary teachers have asked for a housing allowance of $100 a week targeted at teachers renting, or in their first three years paying a mortgage, in high-rent areas. Only about 12 per cent of teachers would qualify, so it would be cheaper than a general pay rise, at about $9.5m a year.

Ministers may also consider measures targeted directly at recruiting trainees, such as more scholarships or even paid studentships, alongside their broader policy of fees-free tertiary education.