The looming teachers’ strike poses a real headache for the Ardern government. In throwing down the gauntlet to Education Minister Chris Hipkins, the teachers’ union has talked of a “crisis” in the schools, a desperate shortage of teachers, and of principals “in tears” with the stress of trying to ensure there is a teacher in every classroom.
Hipkins says he is disappointed, but not surprised, that primary teachers will strike again.
The government has raised its initial bid of an increased 2.2% to 2.6% a year to 3% a year over the next three years but the the gap between this and what the teachers are demanding remains wide.
The NZ Educational Institute is claiming 16% over two years. It doesn’t sound much, and even if the government caved in the top of the pay scale for primary teachers would not reach $100,000.
The NZEI has argued that schools not only need more teachers but more help in the classroom, smaller classes and better accommodation allowances.
As the teachers point out, the government has that huge surplus of $5bn sitting in the kitty. And the government had no trouble – did it? – in splashing out $2.57 billion to free up students from the burden of student loans in their first year at university.
That’s the problem for the government: it has raised expectations so high among its most loyal supporters.
If it meets the demands of primary school teachers — there are 17,000 of them — then there’ll be a queue of others in the education sector demanding even higher increases.
Ministers then will be scrambling to re-allocate funds already voted by Parliament in the $12bn education budget.
Finance Minister Grant Robertson has made a virtue of his adherence to fiscal responsibility. The last thing he wants is a vanishing surplus. He’ll be watching closely the next round of negotiations.
So too will parents, many of whom are sympathetic to the teachers’ claim. But they might begin to lose patience if the teachers escalate the strike action due to start in the week of November 8.
What has been missing from any of the debate about teachers’ salaries is whether standards of education will improve. Critics with an eye on what is happening in places like Singapore contend NZ is falling behind.
Nurses earlier this year settled for a new pay agreement after a year of negotiations (including strike action), winning at the fifth time of asking three pay increases of 3%, two which took effect immediately.
The cost to the government? $520M a year.
If the teachers get better than that, then it won’t be only nurses with their hands out for more.