In response to the piece on Education Central entitled: Teacher Commutes from Thames as Teacher Shortage Intensifies: With the “supply-demand problem” we have now, the call by the Education Council for a longer-term teacher workforce strategy involving tertiary providers is welcome and overdue. The problem is that it doesn’t solve the problem we have in the early childhood education (ECE) and primary sectors right now. It takes around three years for a student teacher to complete their degree and enter the workforce. We desperately need both short term relief and a longer-term solution.

One tertiary training provider recently announced the cessation of its Pasifika teacher training programme. Combined with the current International English Language Testing System (IELTS) requirements, Pasifika ECE teachers are under severe threat. Most of the universities have completed downsize restructuring of their ECE teacher programmes as student numbers drop.

Before we all get on the pay-gap bandwagon, we need to recognise the lag that occurs. When the ECE teaching profession was first “invented” there was, of course, an instant shortage. That led to a plethora of tertiary training providers popping up across the country. At one time, the number had almost reached 30. This was supported by a previous Labour government’s development of an ECE sector strategic plan. That plan recognised the professionalisation of the ECE teaching workforce, and supported it with incentives: funding bands for ECE services that paid more where services employed more teachers, up to 100%; the Support Grant for Provisionally Registered Teachers (or “PRT Grant”), introduced without rules or monitoring and designed to help provisionally registered teachers achieve full registration post-graduation. This environment created a strong demand. We couldn’t get enough ECE-qualified teachers. To support the limited local supply, an increasing interest in foreign nationals grew. ECE teachers were included in the Immigration Service’s Skills Shortage list.

Then things changed.

In 2010 the global economic crisis hit. The government took urgent steps to cut back government spending. The ECE sector was not left out. The two top funding bands were withdrawn and replaced with a single, lower, 80%+ funding band. The PRT grant was dropped. The Education Council (or Teachers Council as it was then) introduced (retrospectively) the IELTS test as a requirement for foreign nationals wishing to teach in New Zealand. Various other increased compliance costs came in from 2011 (GST went up, Food Act costs were introduced, etc), meaning that the average childcare centre had effectively lost over $100,000 off their revenue line. That impacted on teacher demand.

The demand for ECE-qualified teachers thus dropped through the floor as services struggled to survive in the new environment. No longer was 100% ECE-qualified teachers the goal for many services. Vacancies were not replaced with qualified staff, and some services restructured and down-sized their qualified staffing. That impacted on teacher supply.

The response from the tertiary training providers was to be expected. As student numbers dropped, because the jobs weren’t there, they too downsized. One or two closed their doors. Most shed tertiary training staff and downsized or dropped courses. In 2013, one tertiary provider reported 1,200 graduate ECE-qualified teachers entered the market place and could not find jobs. The Immigration Service dropped ECE teachers off their Skills Shortage list.

By mid-2017, for various reasons, we had lurched back into a teacher shortage. The characteristics of this market are important to consider also. New graduates will generally work for a while, then may leave to travel or to start a family. Ask any childcare centre. The average staff turnover is 15% to 19%. This may appear high and has led some to observe that it must be because employment standards and practices are poor, but it is more likely to be because of the unrelated issues above. Hence, the characteristic of the ECE teaching workforce currently is a “supply-demand” problem.

The Education Council, the Ministry of Education, and the ECC have been calling for a workforce strategy for some time.

Such a strategy, led by the Ministry of Education, should not focus solely on teachers, but all those involved in a child’s learning and development in the wider ECE sector.

It should aim to stabilise the demand-supply issues we have now and enable both services and tertiary providers to better plan for the future. It should embrace standards (for those learning to work in our sector as well as those who train them). It should consider career pathways. And it should align with the expectations parents and government have on providers and the quality of service and learning outcomes they deliver.

That leaves the unanswered question: what do we do right now? While the Education Council is concerned with lifting the standards of the teaching profession, it cannot do that in a way that contributes to the current demand-supply problem, but rather recognises it and adjusts accordingly. The ECC advocates for getting the ECE-qualified teacher back on the Immigration Skills Shortage list – now. Where a teacher meets most of the requirements, including experience, but may need a further 12 months’ study in New Zealand – we advocate for the Education Council to register and certificate the teacher with a caveat that they must enrol and complete their training and, for the duration, cannot act as the Person Responsible.

The approach can be reviewed after the current shortage has abated. Until someone comes up with a better, immediate way of reducing the current shortage, this is our idea.

PETER REYNOLDS is the Chief Executive at the Early Childhood Council (ECC).

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