Teacher Strike - It is (Mostly) Not About the Money

This week is seeing a rolling teacher strike across the country. It appears the unions and Government have reached an impasse - there is just too much distance between their positions.

The Government claims there is no more money, which is of course nonsense. There is plenty of money in the kitty, but they are rightly worried that if they give in to the teachers then other wage demands will escalate.

What are the real issues behind the teacher’s strike? What light can the international data shed on the situation?

1/ It’s not about the money (mostly)

New Zealand’s teacher pay is roughly average internationally.

In fact when you look at our income as a country, it starts to look pretty generous. We already spend a relatively high proportion of our national income on education, do we want to spend more?

The one area where we do stand out from other countries is in the payment of experienced teachers. Teachers who have 15 years or more experience do generally get paid more overseas. Meanwhile in New Zealand our pay scale maxes out after 8 years. The National Government tried to change that with the Communities of Learning scheme but it isn’t clear how successful that has been at improving retention of talented, experienced teachers.

Sadly, in New Zealand the old adage remains that if you want a pay rise in teaching, you have to get into administration. For people that want to teach that really is beside the point. If the Government does increase the offer further, it should focus on this upper end of the pay scale.

The real problem - just like with our nurses and police and just about every other job in the country - is that our productivity is low. New Zealand’s income per head has languished in the bottom half of the OECD for decades now. The reforms of the 80’s and 90’s stopped our slide. But since then we have not caught up at all. The only countries that we have passed on the international income rankings are the basket cases of Southern Europe - the so-called “PIGS” Portugal, Italy, Greece and Spain. This is hardly an achievement, the only reason they passed us in the first place was because they were borrowing cheap Euros, which it turns out they can’t pay back.

So if you want to pay teachers, or nurses, or whoever more, we have to earn more as a country.

2/ It is about the workload

From looking at the OECD data, our teacher workloads are generally in the top quartile. This isn’t surprising, because our teachers are expected to do all of the things.

We expect them to teach students to think (which is incredibly time consuming) as well as the basics. And at the same time we expect them to rigorously assess the children and continuously report to the Ministry of Education. In senior school we have three years of assessment - one of the largest workloads in the world. In primary school we have some of the longest teaching days for young children in the world. Then we expect teachers to back up and take the netball team after school.

Something has to give in this system. From our perspective it should be the assessment and reporting. We need to spend less time testing, and more time teaching.

Let’s not slip into stereotypes relating to teachers getting lots of holidays either - they need that time for preparation and administration.

3/ It is about the cost of living

If teacher pay isn’t the problem, why is it so hard for them to live in our cities? The problem isn’t pay, it is cost of living; our cities are among the most expensive to live in the world.

The competition of some of our industries - petrol, supermarkets and building supplies - is part of this. But by far the major issue is the cost of real estate. This is due to the supply of cheap credit and tax advantages from investing in property which are driving speculation. Sadly we can’t get rich from buying houses off each other - at some point the price must be paid for this so-called wealth. We are paying that price in homelessness, high rents and by taking on eye-watering mortgages which could be ramped up in a moment if interest rates rise.

Sadly we can’t afford to pay everyone more money to take care of this problem. There simply isn’t the money to go around; unless we lift productivity as discussed above. Besides, if we paid teachers more there would still be thousands of hard working people that can’t afford to live in our cities (Auckland and Wellington in particular).

However, The Opportunities Party does have a plan to take care of this problem. We could eliminate speculation, make our tax system fairer and give everyone a 30% reduction in income tax. Over time our housing would become affordable again.


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