By Simon Collins
Primary school teachers will jam city centres at lunchtime today to stake their claims for better pay and conditions to overcome the worst teacher shortage in recent memory.
Up to 10,000 teachers, children and parents are expected to march up Auckland’s Queen St to Aotea Square.
Thousands more will march from the Westpac Stadium to Parliament in Wellington, and converge from four locations to Cathedral Square in Christchurch.
This morning About 50 striking primary school teachers and supporters are asking motorists to toot to support them in Blockhouse Bay this morning.
Holding a large banner saying “Teachers matter”, they are getting plenty of support from passing cars.
Rallies are also planned in towns and cities from Kaitaia to Invercargill.
The primary teachers’ union, the NZ Educational Institute, is striking for only the fourth time in its 135-year history, after a protest against the Employment Contracts Act in 1991 and two strikes in 1994 and 1995 which won pay parity with secondary teachers.
“That shows that we don’t do this lightly,” said union president Lynda Stuart.
“This is about not having enough teachers in this country to meet the needs of children because we don’t support our teachers properly.
“We have a real under-investment in education at the moment and we can’t attract people into the profession, and if we do, they leave after a few years. This is a crisis heading for a disaster.”
An Auckland Primary Principals Association survey found this week that 35 per cent of the region’s primary schools have unfilled vacancies, with many schools axing literacy support and extension teaching because specialist teachers have been drafted in to fill gaps in regular classrooms.
Another survey found that 41 per cent of NZ secondary schools have asked teachers to teach outside their specialist subject areas this year because of the shortage of teachers, especially in maths, science, technology and te reo Māori.
Primary teachers are seeking a 16 per cent pay rise over two years that would add $296 million to the Government’s payroll, plus lower teacher/student ratios and other gains in working conditions which the Ministry of Education says would cost a further $291m a year.
So far the ministry has offered fixed dollar pay rises of $7050 over three years for beginning teachers and $4650 over three years for more experienced teachers, which the Herald estimates would cost about $150m a year.
Minister of Education Chris Hipkins said the teachers’ asking point was just too high.
“Look there is always room for movement in an offer but the important point here is their starting position is significantly higher than anybody else is getting,” he said.
“There is going to have to be significant movement on their side.”
But the teachers have strong public support. A poll commissioned by the unions in April found that 83 per cent of New Zealanders believed teachers needed a pay rise and of those, 67 per cent backed an increase of at least 10 per cent.
Youthtown has cancelled 10 of its 12 after-school programmes around the country today due to lack of demand, and some South Auckland after-school providers have shut to support the teachers.
Keryn Grogan of the Parenting Place said the strike would be an inconvenience for parents, who in most cases will have to stay home or find other family members or friends to look after their children.
“Everyone I know is supporting them. We all support teachers and really admire what they do, but lots of people will be inconvenienced by the fact that the teachers are not there,” she said.
Polly Taylor, whose children attend Grey Lynn School, said she planned to take her children on the march up Queen St with their teachers.
“[I’m] hoping to teach my children a little bit about what’s important and what we value in our society and education’s a very important part of that,” she said.
One big employer, Asahi Beverages, is putting on a family friendly day where staff with children are encouraged to bring their kids to work. Advertising agency DDB Group will allow parents to work from home.
DDB chief executive Justin Mowday said teachers were the unsung heroes of society.
“I’ve always thought that given the impact that they have on people that they are underpaid,” he said.
Stuart said children and their parents would be welcome at all strike events.
“Parents are saying, ‘What can we do’, and I’m telling them, ‘You would be welcome, absolutely’,” she said.
Auckland Transport spokesman Mark Hannan said there were no plans to close Queen St but staff would operate traffic lights manually to let the march pass.
Q&A: What’s at stake?
Q. Why are primary teachers striking?
A. They say they need a big pay rise and better working conditions to attract more Kiwis into teaching. Numbers starting teacher training are cyclical, but last year were 28 per cent below the last good economic period in 2008, and 35 per cent of Auckland primary schools now have unfilled vacancies.
Q. Can we afford to satisfy them?
A. Their claimed 16 per cent pay claim alone would cost $296m a year, plus a further $200m or so when it flows through to secondary teachers who lodged their own pay claims last week. That’s comparable with the $500m cost of pay rises for nurses agreed to last week.
The Ministry of Education says the primary teachers’ other claims, such as reduced teacher/student ratios, would cost a further $291m a year.
But the Government has pledged to keep to strict budget limits, so every extra dollar for teachers is a dollar less for other priorities such as housing and mental health.
Q. So how can we fix the teacher shortage?
A. Secondary teachers have asked for a housing allowance of $100 a week targeted at teachers renting, or in their first three years paying a mortgage, in high-rent areas. Only about 12 per cent of teachers would qualify, so it would be cheaper than a general pay rise, at about $9.5m a year.
Ministers may also consider measures targeted directly at recruiting trainees, such as more scholarships or even paid studentships, alongside their broader policy of fees-free tertiary education.
Source: NZ Herald