Thousands of educators across the country left their classrooms today, many turning up in droves on Parliament's lawn to protest for better pay and working conditions for primary school teachers.

Education Minister Chris Hipkins met protesters to tell the crowd the Government was listening.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern unexpectedly greeted the protesters.

"I could see you streaming to Parliament and I thought 'I cannot not be here'," Ardern told the crowd.

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The education system has the power to overcome so many of the issues the country faced "and you're at the frontline of that".

There was so much more work to do - "Unfortunately, sometimes radical change takes time."

During question time in Parliament, Hipkins defended what his Government had achieved in addressing the concerns of teachers.

This years' Budget provided the biggest increase in learning support funding in a decade, he said.

"The offer on the table at the moment is more than double what they were offered under the previous government," Hipkins said.

"It is a $484 million offer ... compared to a $215 million offer which was the highest offer which was the highest settlement reached under the previous government."

National MP Nikki Kaye today criticised Labour for building up high expectations around pay rises and working conditions for teachers during the campaign.

"Now they won't follow through, and as a result we have seen the first primary teachers' strike in 24 years."

When National was in government it did not have the same fiscal envelope that Labour had due to the Canterbury earthquakes and the Global Financial Crisis, she said.

Education Minister Chris Hipkins addresses the protest rally of striking primary and intermediate teachers at Parliament. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Education Minister Chris Hipkins addresses the protest rally of striking primary and intermediate teachers at Parliament. Photo / Mark Mitchell

"Labour have billions more than the previous National government, but teachers have not been prioritised while the Government has decided instead to spend $2.8 billion on its fees-free package, $3 billion on Shane Jones' slush fund and huge amounts of cash for diplomats," Kaye said.

Finance Minister Grant Robertson and Labour's deputy leader Kelvin Davis told reporters today the number of strikes that had occurred since the party took power had not caused discussions of concern within the party.

"Not particularly no, people have a right to strike and we are working our way through various state-sector deals that we have to and our focus is on creating a good faith bargaining environment," Robertson said.

Davis said the strikes demonstrated the frustration had built under the previous government.

"We can't fix nine years of neglect in nine months. We are doing our best."

Today, at the rally former principal Laures Park told the Herald working conditions for teachers had been difficult for a long time.

There was a teacher shortage, particularly for kura schools, she said.

It had gotten to the stage where "shoulder tapping" was needed - anything to get a teacher who speaks te reo into a classroom, she said.

"You used to get between 20 and 30 people applying for the same position - that's gone now. Now you'd be lucky if you got one or two.

"You become a little skeptical of the calibre of the people applying."

South Wellington Intermediate teacher Matt Boucher told the Herald he had watched other teachers burn out under the pressure.

He spoke to the gathered crowd about the reaction they had received from MPs.

"Chris Hipkins says he is disappointed that we want more than a few token scraps.

"Yeah, well we are more than disappointed, we are outraged."

Everybody who cares about this country's children should be outraged because "teachers are voting with their feet" and are leaving the profession that disrespected them, he said.

Petone Central School teacher Jeannie Phillips told the Herald teaching conditions in New Zealand have becoming increasingly difficult in the past few years.

"We feel for the kids. We feel for the education system as a whole," Phillips said.

"Things have got to change; if they don't teachers are going to walk out and kids are going to be left without."

A lot of children were coming into school with high needs, she said.

"At the moment 75 per cent of my class have learning or behavioural needs and I can't get support for them.

"It's really hard on me to give them the support that they need."

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.

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.