Education funding, as a share of Government spending, has been falling for several years, and is projected to drop further, according to new research by economists at Infometrics. The figures also show that primary teachers, in particular, are being asked to make up the shortfall.
This is a wake-up call to anyone who might be persuaded by statements about all the billions of dollars being spent on education.
Since 1972, education spending – what New Zealand spends on all forms of education – has averaged 15.8 per cent of total core Crown expenses, going as low as 11.5 per cent in 1986 and peaking in 2006 at 20.2 per cent, when interest-free student loans were extended to all students.
It's a big-picture number of how much, as a country, we value education. The current numbers show a clear downward trend.
The Government seems to expect primary teachers to continue to carry an unfair share of the load that results from underfunding, while more money goes elsewhere.
In 2013, the figure stood at 17.9 per cent of government spending, in 2018 it was 16.9 per cent, and in the next five years, on a conservative estimate, it will fall by at least another half a per cent.
These are some of the findings from the research commissioned by the New Zealand Education Institute (NZEI), which looks at trends in education spending and at how New Zealand compares internationally in education resourcing.
The relative decline in education spending (and also health spending) is in large part due to increased spending in social welfare, including greater demand for superannuation funding,according to Infometrics senior economist Brad Olsen.
But rising social spending is also a function of high levels of poverty. It is simply shortsighted to fund the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff with ever-increasing amounts while short-changing education – the vehicle that can turn around our troubling social statistics in the long-term.
What's more, these headline figures mask some bad news for primary-aged children and their families, who have high expectations of the primary school system.
About 75 per cent of the Government's total spend on education goes directly to centres, schools and tertiary settings (the rest goes to administration, transport, specialist education provision as well as course and living costs for tertiary students).
When it comes to the direct spend, primary education is being singled out as having to absorb a greater share of the relative decline in overall education spending. Keep in mind that while the dollar figure for education spending is rising, its relative share of the taxpayer dollar is falling.
Since the high point of education funding in 2006, funding for early childhood education (ECE) has taken a growing share of direct funding, due mainly to a sharp increase in the number of young children in centres and the number of private services that are publicly funded.
"Future direct spending on education will see continued growth in early childhood education funding, but much smaller increases elsewhere in the education budget," says Olsen. Over the five years to 2023, ECE direct spending is expected to increase by 5 percent a year on average.
By comparison, funding for primary schooling will rise by just 1 per cent a year on average over the next five years in dollar terms (less than the current rate of inflation), while in secondary schools funding is projected to rise by 2.2 per cent, and by 2.5 per cent for the tertiary sector (with an 11.2 per cent jump in the 2019/20 year due to the "fees free" policy).
Given that wages are a significant proportion of the direct spend on education, the Government seems to expect primary teachers to continue to carry an unfair share of the load that results from underfunding, while more money goes elsewhere. Let's hope that primary teachers' and principals' actions over the last months have popped that fantasy.
It's time for the Government to start paying primary staff as the professionals they are. The Infometrics research also shows that in 2016, New Zealand primary teachers were paid an average of $US42,500 a year – about $2500 below the OECD average of $US45,100 for primary teachers aged 25-64.
In comparison, Australian teachers were paid an average $US54,900 a year, or $US12,000 more than teachers in New Zealand. Norway, which is known for its high-performing education system, paid an average $US49,800 to its teachers, while the much lower performing UK paid $US40,600.
It all begs the questions: where do we want to be as a country on education – and what are we prepared to pay to get there? In recent years, New Zealand has been slipping down the international education rankings, and to teachers in the classroom, it is no coincidence that this has happened alongside a slide in relative education funding.
The time and the place to reverse that slide is here and now with a catch-up pay offer for primary teachers.
* Paul Goulter is the national secretary of NZEI Te Riu Roa.