Rachel Broad, Fightback Hamilton branch, Aotearoa/NZ. Originally published by the Socialist Party of Australia.
Teachers in New Zealand are facing a perfect storm. For the time being they have faced down government attempts to increase class sizes but have also had to contend with school closures and mergers in Christchurch and a move to introduce charter schools.
At the same time large numbers of teachers are going without pay or getting paid incorrectly thanks to the failure of their national payroll system. This is creating huge amounts of stress. Tensions are on the increase between teachers and the government, and the public are increasingly siding with the teachers.
Government’s failed attempt to increase class sizes
In mid 2012 the Ministry of Education attempted to introduce a new policy that would change teacher-student funding ratios in schools and would have increased class sizes and created job losses. Some school principals said that they would have to cut up to three jobs in each school if the policy was carried out. The student-to-teacher ratio would have been standardised at 27.5 students per teacher for year 2 to year 10 classes.
The policy was deeply unpopular. Some polls showed up to 89% of people in opposition to the policy. Teachers and many members of the public rallied against the proposed changes.
The government tried to carry out the changes within both primary and secondary schools at the same time. Usually, using divide and rule tactics, the government has attacked the primary and secondary sectors separately. By attacking both sectors at the same time the government had bitten off more than they could chew and were forced to back down.
These events were the beginning of a sharp decline for Hekia Parata, the Minister of Education and puppet for the government’s education plan. Parata was paraded by the ruling National Party as a high-flying Maori MP and was quickly promoted to cabinet.
During one teachers’ meeting about class sizes where Parata was under constant fire she condescendingly lectured teachers by telling them that one of the main problems with the education system was not underfunding but that many teachers don’t pronounce Maori and Pacific Island children’s names correctly. Without hesitation this divisiveness was roundly rejected by broad layers from the Maori and Pacific Island communities. Parata is now deeply unpopular.
Christchurch school closures and mergers
Christchurch is the third largest city in New Zealand and its population is still reeling from the earthquake that killed 185 people in February 2011. Instead of fixing and reinstating all the primary schools the Ministry of Education sought to close 11 of them and merge 24.
In the aftermath of the earthquake the schools and teachers had acted as community hubs for families. Teachers went beyond the call of duty for their pupils, including by teaching through a double-bunking system whereby multiple schools would share one physical locality by starting classes early and finishing late.
The government’s proposal was a slap in the face after everything the teachers had done. Parents and communities rallied around them in the face of the attacks. In December 2012 the NZ Education Institute (the teacher’s union) announced that its Christchurch members had voted to go on strike in opposition to the closures and mergers.
The strike was scheduled for February 19 – the day after the government was scheduled to make its final announcement on the fate of the schools. In late January teachers reaffirmed the strike vote. On February 18 the government announced that 7 schools were to be closed and 12 merged.
Unfortunately the strike was called off. This was a mistake given the other attacks on the sector that were in the pipeline. Instead a public rally was held with more than 1,500 people attending including parents, pupils and members of the public.
Charter schools and Novopay nightmare payroll system
As part of the coalition government deal between the National and Act parties (in which the junior partner is Act) National agreed to implement legislation allowing for charter schools. Essentially these are publically-funded but privately run schools that are exempt from the checks and balances that apply to public schools.
The charter school system will divert public money to the education of the wealthy. The schools can be run by people with little or no education experience and the teachers will not have to be qualified. This will create downward pressure on the already meagre wages of teachers. In fact one of the key reasons for introducing the charter schools policy is to curb the influence of teacher’s unions.
Another major issue confronting teachers is the nightmare of Novopay, the failed pay roll system which has been dogging teachers since it was introduced in August last year. In the first pay week 5000 teachers received the wrong pay and 15 received none.
Since then tens of thousands of teachers have received the wrong pay and 90% of schools have reported pay errors. Some individuals have gone for months without pay. Some people have also been overpaid. In one instance a teacher received $39,000 NZD, returned the money, and was then forced to go unpaid for two months! In March it was discovered that 100 teachers were wrongly designated to be terminated at the end of the first term. These are just a few examples of the problems teachers are being subjected to.
Many teachers who have been overpaid are being pursued by private debt collectors. As of February, 14,000 teachers and support staff were owed $12,000,000 NZD dollars in back-pay. Some schools are using their own funds to pay teachers while a number of teachers are walking away from their jobs.
Strike action desperately needed
Fed up, teachers have voted for a nation-wide day of action on Saturday April 13. They have stated that they are readying themselves to send a clear message to the government that they are united against the attacks on public education. While weekend protests can play a role, they will not be enough to beat the government back. National strike action will be required.
The union should tie the issues of school closures, charter schools and the payroll system together and outline plans for an industrial and political campaign to defeat the government. While industrial action would be illegal under New Zealand employment law, these are laws that will have to be broken if we are to seriously defend public education.
If mass strike action was taken, it would be hard to see how the government could get away with imposing fines on tens of thousands of teachers who have persisted with incorrect pay, unpaid overtime and community support roles. There is overwhelming public support for teachers, and mass anger at the government’s role. The union should take advantage of this mood and act quickly.
Ordinary people have a real interest in supporting the teachers struggle. Good quality public education is beneficial to everyone in society. Well paid teachers with good conditions deliver a better education to students. We need to fight to ensure that education is not seen by governments and profiteers as just another commodity. Free, good quality education from childcare to university should be a right that is enjoyed by all.