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NZEI Te Riu Roa, mourns the loss of past president

Helen Duncan, Tireless Advocate For Quality Public Education

The country’s largest education union, NZEI Te Riu Roa, mourns the loss of a past president

Helen Duncan, who was an inspirational leader in New Zealand’s union movement and a tireless advocate for quality public education.

The New Zealand Educational Institute has more than 45,500 members. They work as teachers and principals in primary schools, early childhood teachers, support staff in primary and secondary schools, special education staff in primary and secondary schools and school advisers in education faculties at universities.

Helen Duncan was an active member of NZEI Te Riu Roa for 27 years. She served as president of the union from 1993 to 1995 and was a Labour Member of Parliament from 1998 to 2005.

“We pay tribute to the major contribution Helen Duncan made as a teacher, a union leader and staunch advocate for women’s rights and quality public education,” says NZEI Te Riu Roa National President, Irene Cooper.

Helen Duncan was president of NZEI Te Riu Roa when the union achieved its historic victory in winning pay parity for primary teachers with their colleagues in secondary schools.

“She was the public face of the union during the pay parity campaign,” says Irene Cooper. “Her warmth and sincerity was clearly apparent as she presented our case in her television appearances.”

“It was Helen’s calm and well reasoned advocacy for pay parity that was a key factor in winning public support for the campaign,” says Irene Cooper.

Helen Duncan was a member of NZEI’s National Executive for 10 years from 1988. During this period she played a prominent role in the battle to prevent primary teachers’ salaries from being bulk funded.

She was also at the forefront of the successful battle that ensured primary teachers pay and working conditions remained protected by collective contracts, despite the pressure imposed by the Employment Contracts Act to force workers onto individual contacts.

“Helen Duncan was also a strong advocate for women’s rights within society, the education system and within unions, ” says Irene Cooper. “She also advanced the rights of children and education workers around the world.”

She did this through her active roles in Education International (EI) and the Council for Pacific Education, (COPE) serving as COPE’s vice president from 1994-98.

After entering Parliament as a Labour MP in 1998, Helen Duncan served on and chaired the Transport and Industrial Relations select committee. The committee oversaw the passage of the Employment Relations Act, which replaced the Employment Contracts Act, and improved the industrial environment for all workers in New Zealand.

She was also a member of the Education and Science select committee and has been involved in shaping education and housing policy.

“But we must also remember that Helen Duncan was a great teacher,” says Irene Cooper.

She began her teaching career in 1972 and taught in Lower Hutt, Masterton, Auckland and overseas. Much of her teaching service was in intermediate schools but she also spent 10 years as a senior teacher at Starship Children’s Hospital, where she campaigned to improve the provision of education for children with special needs.

Helen Duncan was made a Life Member of NZEI Te Riu Roa in 2004, the highest award the union bestows on its members. She was also made a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit (MNZM) in the 2005 Queen’s Birthday Honours.

“We mourn the loss of Helen Duncan and remember her commitment and hard work for teachers, for education and for the workers of New Zealand,” says Irene Cooper.


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