Secondary teachers have cancelled rolling strike action that had been planned for next week, fuelling speculation that the teachers' stand off with the Government is about to end.
Last week Education Minister Chris Hipkins met the unions of primary and secondary schools to discuss the long-standing industrial dispute that had led to last month's mega-strike of some 50,000 teachers, affecting 800,000 students.
That discussion led to the cancellation of planned teacher strike action this week, and this morning the Post Primary Teachers' Association announced that strike action for next week was also cancelled.
"As you know, a ministerial forum took place last week to break the impasse in negotiations for teachers' collective agreement negotiations," PTTA president Jack Boyle says.
"Those talks were very productive and we are pleased to be in a position to call off [next week's] strikes."
Earlier this week, Hipkins would not be drawn on whether a solution to the stand-off had been reached, saying only that an announcement was due in a "few days".
He would also not comment on whether the Government had offered any more money than the $1.2 billion that has been on the table.
This was a change in tone, as Hipkins had previously stated over and over again that the Government would not offer any more money to teachers.
Hipkins also refused to talk about the industrial dispute when he appeared before a parliamentary select committee yesterday, prompting an angry response from National's education spokeswoman Nikki Kaye.
"Teachers striking has impacted not only teachers and their pay, but students who have missed out on hours of learning, and parents who have been forced to either find childcare or take days off work," Kaye said after the select meeting hearing.
"We are at a key point in the negotiations and these are questions the minister should answer.
"National expects an announcement [today] or in the coming days showing the Government has shifted on Mr Hipkins' and the Prime Minister's stubborn statements that there would be no more money for teachers."
She said cash payments for teachers and incentives to reduce workloads could be included as part of this impending announcement.
"National will be scrutinising the details around the shambolic timelines and process so far, whether the promises are recycled and whether the Government plans on binding future governments in aspects of the settlement."
The Ministry of Education and both teacher unions have declined to provide costings of the remaining union claims.
The NZ Educational Institute's original claims included a 16 per cent pay rise over two years, reducing funded class sizes in Years 4 to 8 from 29 to 25, and funding for a learning support or special needs co-ordinator in every school.
Employment Relations Authority chief James Crichton, who was called in to facilitate bargaining last November, said "the total cost of conceding their proposals was costed at around $2.5 billion".
"My prevailing impression of this facilitation is that NZEI came into the process with a series of proposals which taken in their totality had an air of unreality about them," he said.
But seven months later, after three full strikes and another partial strike last week, both the NZEI and the PPTA may be ready to settle for much less than they first asked for.
The ministry has offered both unions pay rises of 3 per cent a year for three years plus an extra step on their salary scales that would take the cumulative pay hike for many teachers to 12.6 per cent over three years - a deal the ministry costed last year at $1.2b over the four years (now three years) to June 2023.
PPTA president Jack Boyle has said the main sticking point for secondary teachers is now workload.
"You can't say that the ministry hasn't tried to do a bit of negotiation in the salary space. They haven't really in the workload space," he said last month.
NZEI wants action on teachers' workload too, and is also holding out for restoring "pay equity" - a 20-year-old principle that primary and secondary teachers with the same qualifications should be paid the same, which has been lost because of timing differences in the last pay round.
On workload, both unions lodged claims for an extra hour a week of classroom release time - a lift from one hour a week to two hours for primary teachers, and from five hours to six hours for secondary teachers.
That would be difficult to implement quickly. Hipkins told striking teachers at Parliament last month: "More classroom release time requires more teachers, and at the moment we have a teacher shortage."
To be precise, on the basis that teachers are paid to work 40 hours a week, it would require boosting the current 51,371 fulltime-equivalent teachers in state and integrated schools by one-40th, or 1284 teachers.
The ministry says primary teachers earn an average of $72,900 a year, or $35.05 an hour, and secondary teachers average $79,500, or $38.22 an hour, before tax.
Hiring extra teachers for one hour a week for every existing teacher at those pay rates would cost about $40m a year for primary teachers plus about $35m a year for secondary teachers.
On pay equity, primary teachers are now paid 3 per cent less than their secondary counterparts with the same qualifications, so restoring pay equity would require an extra 3 per cent pay rise for the 87 per cent of primary teachers who have at least a university degree, on top of the increases the ministry has offered to both unions.
Last month's Budget allocated $2.3 billion for primary teachers' salaries, so that extra 3 per cent for 87 per cent of teachers would cost about $60m a year.
Altogether, the extra class release time and restoring pay equity could cost about $135m a year, or $540m over four years.
Former NZEI president Frances Nelson has suggested looking for "creative solutions" to the workload problem, such as providing more paid teacher-only days, which would reduce teachers' class contact time without requiring more teachers, until more teachers can be recruited over the next few years.
The ministry has also said that "pay equity" should be interpreted as offering deals of similar value to primary and secondary teachers, so that if primary teachers want pay equity they would have to sacrifice something else such as higher pay for teachers without degrees.
The ministry surprised the PPTA last week by deciding not to dock the pay of secondary teachers who refused to teach Year 9 students yesterday, saying it could no longer dock pay for a partial strike under a law passed in December.
NZEI also accepted a pay deal for learning support service managers providing pay hikes of 2 per cent a year in 2020 and 2021 plus a new step in their pay scale. It said the deal would lift the managers' pay by $11,000 a year.