Brett Sorrenson beams from the cover of The New Zealand Herald. He has a right to be happy: the new teacher, freshly graduated from Waikato University, was selected from over 70 applicants for a teaching position at Auckland’s Mt Albert Grammar School. Good news for Sorrenson, but what about the others?
Current oversupply of teachers
It appears new teachers are emerging from three or four years of tertiary study, rearing for work, itching to put their education into education, ready to make a dent in their student loans, only to find the jobs just aren’t there. A quick trawl through the blogs reveals that Sorrenson’s situation is an understated example; some have applied for jobs with as many as 200 applicants and in some cases, more.
Last year, Manurewa Intermediate principal Iain Taylor told the Herald that 303 people had applied for a learning support teacher vacancy at his school.
“The calibre was amazing,” said Taylor, “In the end we appointed two people for the one position just because we couldn’t choose.”
But as schools aren’t typically recruiting two teachers for every job, the problem remains, not just for new teacher graduates, but for experienced teachers as well. One online correspondent, an experienced teacher, described getting an interview as “impossible”.
How did we find ourselves in this situation? Not so long ago there were cries of a teacher shortage.
Di Davies, manager of the Ministry of Education’s TeachNZ says the global recession has contributed to the situation. “As in other countries experiencing the impact of the global economic recession, we’ve recently seen some significant changes to teacher supply and demand in New Zealand.
“This shift in teacher supply has emerged over the last two or three years. It is impacting on new teacher graduates who were studying to become a teacher before the change became apparent (approximately 2,800 graduate each year), and on teachers who have been out of the workforce, in short-term or relieving roles.”
However, Gary Downey of University of Canterbury argues the fixation with the current oversupply situation ignores the quality of graduates, and regional and international market variances. It is true that much of the anecdotal evidence stems from Auckland, and those in other parts of New Zealand are typically not finding the job market as tough. Highlighting grim cases of jobless new grads conceals that many are actually successful in finding employment.
“In 2012 we had more agents and principals recruiting our students than we have had in previous years and can supply innumerable examples of our graduates being offered
positions before completing their course,”
says Downey. “Whilst official data is difficult to obtain we are confident that a high proportion of our graduates are in employment within a
12 month period.”
Pack your bags
For those who have struggled to find work on home turf, the prospect of teaching overseas becomes more appealing.
While the infamous and ill-advised pep talk from an Education Ministry-contracted speaker to a group of teaching diploma students at Victoria University, advising them to seek employment overseas as there would only be jobs in New Zealand for 20 per cent of them, has perhaps been overstated in the media, it does signal some harsh realities for new teachers.
“I’ve heard anecdotally of university or training college lecturers basically saying, it’s great to have finished the course with all of you, but I realise that most of you are not going to get a job in New Zealand,” New Zealand Secondary Principals’ Council chairman Allan Vester, recently told the Herald.
Last year, Fairfax gave the example of Tara-Brock Sullings Tasi, a teaching graduate from AUT University, who resorted to applying for overseas positions after months of trying to land a job on New Zealand soil. Now teaching at a primary school in Seoul, Sullings Tasi is representative of many teachers fleeing the Kiwi nest for the sake of employment.
However, Professor James Chapman of Massey University believes there is too much emphasis placed on this aspect. “Young people go overseas for a number of years and they do tend to come back,” he told Fairfax.
Yet Kiwi teachers need to be cautious when seeking employment abroad, as it appears New Zealand’s current oversupply situation is echoed in many parts of the world.
Australia is experiencing a similar outcry, with new teacher graduates out of work. The Commonwealth Contrarian suggests that the situation is currently much the same in many countries, notably Canada, where graduate unemployment in Ontario is now running at 68 per cent. The BBC reported in late 2011 that up to 95 per cent of new qualified teachers had been unable to secure full time jobs in Northern Ireland.
Feast or famine
Of course, it wasn’t always thus.
In 2003, the then Government saw it necessary to bring in overseas teachers. Immigration NZ listed secondary school and early childhood teaching in its long-term skill shortage list.
There was even talk of a $1500 loyalty bonus as an incentive to keep young secondary school teachers in New Zealand classrooms.
Then in 2009, a $19 million teacher-bonding scheme was established to help overcome a teaching shortage and prevent teachers from being lured overseas upon completing their training.
A mere four years later, and new teacher grads are being given a gentle nudge to the airport.
But research shows that the sector could be facing a shortage again in just a few years’ time, due, in part, to a boost in the national birth rate. Professor Roger Moltzen of the University of Waikato told the Herald that Ministry of Education figures showed primary school enrolments would increase steadily until 2019, when there would be 44,500 more students than in 2011. An additional 1150 primary teachers will be needed to cope with the increased enrolments, based on an average class size of 27.
The knock-on effect for secondary school student numbers will start in approximately 2019, reaching a peak in 2024 with about 22,000 more students in the system than in 2011.
“We anticipate that New Zealand could actually be facing a teacher shortage in the next few years because of the staffing required to cope with the student increase,” said Professor Moltzen.
The implication of these forecasted trends for teaching students is that those who begin their studies this year, are likely to have improved job prospects in New Zealand primary schools by the time they have graduated.
In addition to a boost in the birth rate, the ageing teaching workforce and the expectation that people will leave the industry is another indication that more teachers will be needed.
However, the ageing workforce is thought to be one of the key factors contributing to the current over supply of teachers.
According to a Ministry of Education report on teaching staff demographics, in April 2012, approximately 14 per cent of state-school registered teachers were aged 60 and over, and four per cent, not including principals, were past retirement age. The below table shows trends over time for both primary and secondary combined. The Ministry did not have figures available for the early childhood sector.
Teacher age over time
20-29 30-39 40-49 50-59 60+
2001 16% 21% 36% 22% 5%
2006 14% 23% 28% 30% 9%
2011 12% 24% 24% 26% 14%
Source: Ministry of Education
Di Davies says age distributions among primary and secondary teachers are very similar, although the secondary workforce is slightly older. The current average age of teachers in primary and secondary sectors is 46 years, she says.
“The number of school teachers leaving the profession is at its lowest point for 10 years and so is the number of teaching vacancies, indicating that teachers are staying in their jobs longer. This is reducing the number of positions available for teachers who are looking for work.
“As a result there is now high competition for teaching jobs and they are being filled quickly. There is still a shortage of highly qualified, te reo-speaking teachers in the Māori-medium and secondary sectors, and strong demand for teachers in some secondary specialist subjects like physics and maths,” says Davies.
Massey’s James Chapman told Fairfax that his prediction in a 2006 study that there would be an exodus of retiring baby boomer teachers making way for a new wave of teachers, had failed to materialise.
The need for financial security at a time of economic hardship, is resulting in many teachers keeping their jobs for longer than expected, past the age of 65 in many cases. Now is not the time for older teachers to take that trip abroad or consider a radical career change. People are playing it safe and with good reason.
Beverley Cooper of the University of Waikato says the number of teachers currently working past the age of 65 is “unprecendented”.
It seems wasteful, this oversupply of bright young teachers waiting in the wings until the demographics slowly change.
Could the Government have anticipated such trends and intervened to prevent the feast and famine see-saw rocking back and forth? Should the tertiary institutions have seen it coming and acted more selflessly? Indeed, the finger has been pointed at both.
It appears eyebrows have also been raised at some schools for recruiting overseas-trained teachers, in spite of the well known predicament of the oversupply of New Zealand-trained teachers.
“I’m all for diversity in terms of teachers, but at a time when it’s hard for our trained teachers to get jobs we don’t need a campaign to bring teachers from overseas,” said Chapman, as reported by Fairfax.
Worryingly, despite the clues from Moltzen and others that change is nigh, that more jobs will become available, it is likely that the current raft of jobless teachers will be competing with the new teachers in a few years’ time. Whether they return to the job market from stints in different vocations, or from teaching overseas, or from relief teaching positions, will the jobs go to them, the hardened and more experienced job seeker who missed out the first time round? Or will they go to the new graduates with their lesser experience but more timely exits from university?
Beverley Cooper of Waikato, says there is an acknowledgement by the Ministry TeachNZ that in the short term graduates need to be prepared for employment in short relieving positions. “It is from this pool that many permanent appointments are made.”
The former group, the current job-hungry new grads, will be anxious to secure a teaching position to ensure they don’t allow their teaching to lapse over a five year period forcing them into retraining.
Alternative pathways should also be taken into account. While most acknowledge the merits of alternative pathways programmes, which essentially provide a sidestep for individuals when the traditional pathway of secondary to tertiary education is not appropriate, what are the implications for alternative pathways into teaching at a time when there is an oversupply of graduates emerging from initial teacher education programmes?
TeachFirst, whose aim is to contribute to tackling educational inequality by attracting top university graduates into a two-year initial teacher education programme that will lead them to teach in secondary schools serving lower decile communities, supports the introduction of alternative pathways. The organisation does not see them as counterproductive to managing graduate numbers because the training places for alternative pathways are often directly linked to real vacancies within schools. In its submission to the New Zealand Teachers’ Council Select Review Committee last year, TeachFirst even went so far as to state that owing to the employment-based nature of alternative pathways, they usually demonstrate higher completion rates than traditional university-based teacher education programmes.
TeachFirst’s submission, and indeed its ethos, appears to be based on Fenton Whelan’s research, which states, among other things, that school systems that are selective about who becomes a teacher tend to be among the top performing school systems in the world. Indeed, the logic follows that the intense competition for jobs must be resulting in some outstanding teachers in New Zealand classrooms. As one teacher who has struggled to find work points out, “I know how good I am, so there must be some absolutely incredible teachers in classrooms this year.”
But does it then follow that if prospective teachers turn their sights in different directions, our schools will be void of excellent staff? Does it follow that in the inevitable event of a teacher shortage, the lack of competition will leave the sector ultimately worse off?
Impact of future teaching students
It is a real concern, that the next wave of students considering becoming teachers will be deterred by the current struggle many new grads are experiencing in finding jobs and decide to pursue a different vocation.
As a recent Herald editorial stated, “[The newly trained teachers’] plight will not go unnoticed by many of the bright students who might be considering a career in teaching.”
However, Downey points out that the media representation of the domestic labour market plays a part in application levels.
“We have actually had complaints from members of the public about spending money advertising to recruit students, which shows people are fundamentally missing the point,” he says.
Be that as it may, the turbulence within the education sector alone is bound to deter some from teaching. After all, surely there can be few things more frustrating than beating the odds to secure a job and then not getting paid properly for it.
And Novopay has been just one nail in the Ministry’s coffin. When a prospective “bright student” takes into account the recent wrangling over performance pay, league tables, charter schools, class sizes, Christchurch, and so on, it will be no surprise they may look to take a different career path.
Beverley Cooper believes the current political climate has had an influence on applications, including the confusion over whether initial teacher education would become a postgraduate qualification, an idea the Ministry backed down on after the teacher cuts were so vehemently rejected.
“The oscillation of policy by the Government certainly unsettled applicants initially and many parents contacted us worried about the impact on their children moving to a tertiary setting. This has died down now and seems to have gone off people’s radar. There has been an overt media presence related to education and associated issues which also may have influenced people’s choices,” says Cooper.
Associate Professor Sally Hansen of Massey University says that while the distinction between graduate and postgraduate status of initial teacher education programmes has not been a concern to the majority of their applicants, it continues to be a concern to faculty, who want “urgent clarity” on the situation.
Dr Louise Starkey of Victoria University also believes that most students do not care whether an undergraduate or postgraduate approach is taken. “Those who want to become a teacher will do whatever it takes to get there,” she says.
Starkey and Cooper agree, however, that the changes surrounding access to student allowances is having some influence for graduate programmes. “Graduate teaching programmes in all sectors traditionally have a high percentage of career changers and over 25 year olds. Many in current economic situation don’t want to add to their already large student loans and are ineligible for allowances under the new rules,” says Cooper.
Cooper also suggests that the lack of scholarships available, particularly in the secondary area, is a deterrent to prospective teaching students. “TeachNZ had scholarships for designated shortage subjects – maths, physics, chemistry, technology English and believe it or not PE! These were $10,000 plus course fees which were levers in the decision making for mature career changers. The focus for scholarships [now] is Māori bilingual/immersion teaching and some Pasifika early childhood.”
However, many are pointing the finger at the institutions themselves. As the Herald editorial stated, “Newly trained teachers without a job have a right to feel aggrieved, especially if they believe they were not fully informed about the employment environment that would greet them when they graduated. In such circumstances, the spotlight will inevitably fall on the training institutions that have continued to churn out teachers. Undoubtedly, they can be faulted for an excessive number of graduates in some subjects, notably physical education, and a shortage in physics, chemistry, Maori and mathematics. In this area, there should be a greater attempt to ensure supply more accurately reflects demand.”
Allan Vester agrees. “When you are training hundreds of graduates in physical education, the planners must have some idea that there’s no way that hundreds of vacancies will become available,” he told the Herald.
However, institutions have hit back at such criticism. Indeed, each institution is confined to working within the enrolment numbers (EFTS) into each category of tertiary course as set by the Tertiary Education Commission (TEC), based on perceived demand.
“There was a slight reduction in initial teacher education EFTS this year, but only minimal,” says Cooper, of Waikato’s situation.
Despite the TEC’s restrictions, institutions must work out how to strike the right balance between supply and demand.
Associate Professor Sally Hansen of Massey University says while they operate within a capped environment, they do not set caps to reflect the New Zealand teaching job market as “we strongly believe that a teaching qualification is an excellent qualification for a diverse range of career opportunities. Determining a cap on selection related to the teaching job market (particularly one that is prone to shifting) could have the potential to be limiting and short-sighted.”
Mary Simpson, Associate Dean of Education at University of Otago describes it as “a complicated picture”. She says at Otago they review their student enrolment numbers each year taking into consideration, among other factors, what is known of the employment market. “We do our best to monitor both national and local trends and we endeavour to track our students as they move into the teaching workforce. We know there are both regional and subject area trends and recognise the challenges in matching the number of graduates with the likely number of positions that will be available.”
On the suggestion that institutions are not being clear with applicants on the likelihood of finding a job in their chosen subject, Cooper is emphatic. “I am confident that all ITE providers make this clear to applicants at interview. Most providers will have a target for each curriculum area based on many factors such as demand, availability of school placements etc,” she says.
Downey from Canterbury says prospective students should be given more credit. “To suggest that these students don’t do adequate market research before entering the programmes is naive. Other factors that will affect their decision revolve around, in the case of PE teachers, their views on the labour market in four years time, the transferability of their skills and, significantly for many, the international labour market. The University is sustainable only if it runs programmes that people want to take.”
Hansen from Massey agrees. “Applicants to our Graduate Diploma of Teaching (Secondary) programme usually come with good awareness of the areas of current demand. They are further encouraged, from the outset, to be realistic in their expectations, understanding that their ideal combination of subjects, levels and school is not guaranteed.”
At Massey’s Institute of Education, applicants’ attention is drawn to the varying demands for different subject specialists in a number of ways: at interview stage, through discussions about what combination of subjects will best serve their interests as they begin the Graduate Diploma of Teaching (Secondary) programme’s ‘subject studies’, and talking to first year students in degree programmes such as the Bachelor of Sport and Exercise (Education) to highlight the need for flexibility in their future career plans. There is a requirement to have at least two teaching subjects in their undergraduate degree.
However, Hansen says that they try not to be too prescriptive. “We accept we have a duty of care to applicants regarding their employment expectations. This needs to be balanced, however, by an awareness that we should not be making decisions for our students, some of whom will wish to use their qualification and skills in locations other than New Zealand and in settings other than the secondary school classroom.”
A similar approach is taken at Otago. “When we receive an application, if it is in a subject area where there is an oversupply of teachers we always discuss this with the applicant. Applicants for secondary programmes are prepared to teach in more than one curriculum area. The combination of subject areas is important to consider,” says Simpson.
“We also provide advice to early childhood and primary students about the current employment situation.”
Like Hansen, Simpson also suggests that care is taken not to be too prescriptive as the institution cannot be aware of the intentions of every applicant.
“A teaching qualification does provide a very sound background for work in other areas and applicants are often very aware of this. It is noticeable how many people working in diverse fields have a teaching qualification. Additionally, many students, for a variety of reasons do not intend to teach immediately.”
Downey says Canterbury’s programmes offer “rigorous professional preparation”, which can lead to a diverse range of employment opportunities both within and outside the education sector.
Whether institutions have always been so scrupulous at keeping applicants informed of the realities of the job market on the other side of their qualifications, remains more of a mystery.
Certainly, the anonymous student at Victoria who went to the Dominion Post after the doom-and-gloom speech about finding a job in New Zealand, questioned the university’s ethics in letting so many students into the course when more than half would not get teaching jobs in New Zealand.
Perhaps the incident, along with the increasing media attention on the current oversupply of teachers has prompted institutions to be more matter-of-fact with applicants in recent months.
Getting the numbers right
In any case, predicting demand is not an easy game to play, especially with so many variables to take into account.
Of course there have been many proposed solutions to the problem. The aforementioned suggestion of favouring New Zealand-trained graduates over those trained overseas, is one.
Others have suggested decreasing class sizes or introducing a ‘team teach’ approach – futile options given last year’s turn of events.
Many, particularly from within the teacher unions, have suggested the now familiar mantra that the Government needs to work more closely with the sector to make sure the teachers are being looked after.
However, TeachNZ manager Di Davies confirms the Ministry is taking a proactive approach in monitoring teacher supply and demand, and has improved the accuracy of analysis, forecasting and modelling of the teacher workforce. The Ministry produces the Monitoring Teacher Supply report each year, which provides a snapshot of the number of vacancies in schools on the first day of term at the start of each school year, and identifies recent trends from that information.
As the change in teacher supply became apparent, the Ministry removed ‘Teaching’ from Immigration New Zealand’s Skills in Demand lists, which means overseas-trained teachers can still work in New Zealand, but the recruiting school must prove that they were unable to find a New Zealand teacher to take the position. The Ministry has also removed financial assistance to help schools recruit overseas. Previously, schools could get a recruitment payment of up to $1,000 to help them recruit offshore.
Davies says there has also been a refocus on recruitment contracts so that the Ministry now has a preferred agency working to support new grads to find work, rather than the previous focus on bringing overseas teachers into New Zealand.
There has also been a refocus on TeachNZ Scholarships and Awards, as Cooper alludes to above. Davies says these are now tightly focused on ongoing areas of shortage, including Māori-medium early childhood, primary, and secondary education; together with Pasifika early childhood.
These measures may help in the short-term, but in all likelihood, the current situation will rectify itself; the economy will improve, along with the number of enrolments in primary and secondary sectors. If the current oversupply is managed too fiercely, the scales might even be tipped back towards a shortage. Despite sophisticated forecasting mechanisms, predicting future demand is not an exact science. Reacting quickly, managing expectations and adapting to change appear to be vital for surviving such fluctuations.