My granddaughter is in Year 2 at her nearest primary school and loving it. For that I thank her teachers. They work hard to make schools happy, lively, friendly, healthy and stimulating for all children. But teachers will never be paid what they deserve until they organise themselves professionally.

I'm not talking about primitive industrial tactics and pathetic placards in the streets, though those are bad enough. I don't know whether my granddaughter knew why we were looking after her on Wednesday. If she did, she didn't mention it, for which I was grateful.

How do you reinforce their respect for teachers who want more pay and have refused to work that day to show how angry they are? Children understand that is what a child would do but not adults in their experience. They are too young to understand that the reason teachers are not well paid is that they adhere to bargaining structures designed to protect the weakest in their ranks rather than sell their best work at its market value.


This is teachers' choice and they are proud of it. Their collective philosophy is opposed to markets. Their representatives are forever proclaiming education is "not a commodity", whatever that means. Education is a most valuable commodity for which a lot of people are prepared to pay. I suppose they mean it should not be denied to those unable to pay, like the other big item of taxpayers' support, healthcare.

But providers of primary healthcare, doctors in general practice, don't organise themselves like teachers, they don't need to go on strike and they are paid better.
The big divergence between the providers of health and education happened at the creation of the welfare state. Doctors fiercely resisted the first Labour Government's wish to make medical services free to everyone and fought to retain the right to charge a fee.

They fought for that right again in the 1980s when the fourth Labour Government changed its financing of primary healthcare from a subsidy for visits to a regular payment based on the number of people enrolled with a practice, much like schools.

But too few education practitioners ever fought for the right to charge fees. Quite the contrary, most of them fiercely embraced a philosophy that state-funded education ought to be completely free. So much so, state school fees had to be styled voluntary donations and principals were apologetic about asking for them, always arguing the government grant was not enough for all the education they wanted to provide.

Most parents don't mind paying some fees for their children's education and most could probably afford to pay much more than they are asked. My parents put five children through Catholic schools and they did it on a primary teacher's salary, supplemented by Dad's work in a wool store in his summer holidays. Teachers have never been well paid and never will be until they stop promoting this philosophy that school should be free.

It's a philosophy readily embraced by some well-off citizens. I was on the board of Takapuna Normal Intermediate School in the 1990s and heard the then principal's honest views of parents he knew could afford to pay but resolutely refused. Equally resolutely they believed their children had a right to the additional delights other parents were paying for.

Boards of trustees had been set up by the fourth Labour Government to make schools a little more like general medical practices, bulk funded with more autonomy to spend their grant as they thought best. Teachers' unions fought to remove their salaries from bulk funding in order to preserve their national bargaining role.

Teachers seemed fearful their pay would be cut in direct bargaining with schools, though almost certainly the opposite would have happened.


Schools would have paid more for the staff they valued, employing them more efficiently, finding savings in expenses much less important than teachers, as charter schools do, and raising their fees if they were allowed to.

Doctors, lawyers, engineers and other professions are better paid because they are business-like. Teachers could be too. Teachers could set up schools in the same way other professionals set up their practices. School administration would not be very different since boards are already dominated by principals and senior teachers. They just need more power to negotiate staff salaries and charge realistic fees.

If salaries and fees were closer to the true value of schooling, state grants could be more heavily weighted to those who cannot afford fees and provide a more equitable service to poor places than the schools struggling to maintain their rolls in those places today.

But nothing will be improved by unions content to make the occasional hit on a Labour government. When teachers lament their low pay they need to be reminded it's their choice.