There has been a lot to talk about among primary principals during this year’s conference season – putting it very mildly. Problems that have dogged the sector for years around teacher recruitment, remuneration, workload, and training have seen last resort industrial action become reality, something education hasn’t had to weather in many years.

Conferences mean that principals and leaders come back to school armed with fresh perspectives, and after a recent gathering in Western Australia, president of the New Zealand Principal’s Federation Whetu Cormick seems to have returned with some ideas. He told NZ Herald’s Simon Collins in a recent article that he welcomes the grants package announced by the Government, which aims to tempt immigrant and returning Kiwi teachers to these shores. However, Cormick said that this is a job that shouldn’t just be handed off to third party recruitment agencies, and that schools should turn to their networks.

In a great example of collegial reciprocity, Ian Anderson, president of the Western Australian Primary Principal’s Association has last week been in Wellington, attending the NZPF’s own conference.

At first glance, Western Australian administrators seem to be on top of some of the problems that plague New Zealand’s primary sector – there is currently a teacher surplus in the region. As always though, the situation is far more complex, and involves dynamics that don’t affect our country. Anderson explains while waiting to board a very long flight home.

“We had a huge problem in Western Australia a number of years ago. We were getting teachers from other countries, and all that sort of thing. One of the things that then happened was that our university intake increased, and eventually became an oversupply – but not in every location. You can appreciate the size of Western Australia – we have lots of people that want to get a teaching job, but they’re not prepared to go to some of the remote regional towns. So our problems are more related to geography than to supply.”

Ian says that student intake eventually resulted in oversupply because of government funding policy.

“It’s to do with the way the Government funded universities: the more students you’ve got, the more money you’ve got.

“To some extent, we were critical of that in Australia because universities ended up taking students who had low entry scores. We would like the entry score to be much higher, and the number coming in to be reduced, so that we’re getting the best and the brightest. But of course we would like those who are coming in to get jobs. If there are 2000 jobs needed in five years time, and training takes five years, we would like to see universities taking in 2000 students right now, so that the workforce is managed.”

Back when Western Australia found itself with a critical lack of teachers, particularly in remote regions, their government pursued some of the same measures that ours has introduced. Ian says that their experience was a mixed bag, and that there were consequences New Zealand would do well to anticipate.

“We went really heavy with overseas recruitment. For some, it worked out great. Our problem though was that for some of those teachers, English was their second language, and often they struggled. There was also the issue that some of those international teachers were placed in locations where they didn’t have great support.

“Those teachers that we got from places like New Zealand, from Tasmania, and from other Australian states, they worked out really well.”

Ian thinks that the relocation grants in particular stand New Zealand in good stead, at least to meet the sector’s immediate needs – but that beyond that, it comes down to money.

“We’ve probably got more teachers in Western Australia than we need. Would they be prepared to come to New Zealand? I’m not sure. And would they go outside the metro area?

“Yes, I do think it will come down to money. I’ll be getting some details on the package that’s being offered [in New Zealand], and I’ll be pushing that around universities in Western Australia, so they can talk to their graduating students.

“I think one of the critical things is the relocation allowance. I think there’s a good chance that will attract some Australian teachers. If you’re a graduate teacher, and you don’t have a job, what a great way to get some runs on the board.”

Ian says also that perhaps we should be cautious of trying to inflate teacher supply at the training end. The Western Australian experience of motivating universities with ‘bums on seats’ funding resulted in a system that’s certainly addressed teacher supply issues, but at what cost to graduate teachers?

“We have a lot of students going in, and they don’t all get jobs. It’s a competitive market I suppose, and when you’re finished university, if you don’t have marks or you’re not willing to go to where the jobs are, or your practical experiences weren’t of a really high level, well you’ll miss out.”

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