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Jen McCutcheon Speech To PPTA Annual Conference





E nga iwi

E nga mana

E nga hau e wha

Nga mihi nui ki a koutou

Tena koutou, tena koutou, tena tatou katoa

Talofa lava

This is a conference for celebration; it’s our 50th birthday and we’re still here; still going strong. We have a proud history; we must celebrate that.

It is also a conference for reflection on what must surely be the most turbulent year in our history. And it’s not at an end either; delegates at this conference are going to be asked to make a number of decisions that will have far-reaching implications for secondary education.

It has been a year in which the stability of the organisation has been severely shaken and our strength and unity has been sorely tested. That we are still here united and as determined as ever is testimony to the unique place PPTA has in the hearts and minds of secondary teachers. We are family; and like all families we may fight amongst ourselves but woe betide an outsider that threatens the well-being of any of our number.

We belong to an elite group - there are few secondary-only unions remaining in the world and I know that out colleagues in other countries regard our “boutique” status with some bemusement. From time-to-time well-meaning public figures take it upon themselves to tell us that it’s time we were married off to NZEI or as the Minister put it, even less kindly, that we should not exist.

But if ever there were a year when secondary education needed a secondary-specific teachers’ union, this was it. Although bargaining had begun in April last year, in an environment when it was clear that the sector was facing unprecedented shortages, the government’s response, 3.5% “take it or leave it” - because that’s what NZEI had accepted - bordered on negligent. Moreover, it flatly rejected guaranteed non-contacts and refused to speed up the process of implementing the new staffing. This didn’t feel like good faith bargaining - especially once it became clear that PPTA was bargaining (without its agreement) on behalf of 30,000 NZEI members, as well

Good faith was troublesome in other ways too; in order to meet the requirements for bargaining integrity under the Employment Relations Act, unions (and in fairness employers too) have to be circumspect in the way they communicate with their members. Members felt “under-informed” and a sense of mistrust of the negotiators developed. Meanwhile, the reality of the NCEA workload was biting in schools, feeding into the frustration and disillusionment. When Executive finally broke through the non-contact barrier, at the end of last year, and succeeded in persuading the government to implement the staffing over five years instead of ten, it seemed significant progress had been made.

Members thought otherwise, assisted in this belief by the news of the significant pay rises given to judges and MPs over the summer. What followed was a series of difficult and intensely acrimonious Paid Union Meetings which tested the resolve of executive members and those staff members who had been drafted in to help. While non-ratification of an agreement is not unusual and certainly occurred under the Employment Contracts Act as well as under the current legislation, it is unusual in the context of a national collective.

An intriguing part of the next phase was that while it was clear what members didn’t want; what they did want was less apparent. For many members, the money was not enough but for others the workload controls were unsatisfactory. Interestingly enough, the multitude of faxed, emailed and telephoned communications to National Office, suggested a broad gender division with men indicating concern about the money and women mainly concerned about the workload.

Industrial action was called on immediately after the non-ratification to the surprise of some members who wrongly believed that we were dealing with a reasonable Government which would shift merely because members had rejected the settlement. At the same time, we went about polling members to find if there was a consensus on what it would take to settle. The message was “more money” which immediately raised the problem of the NZEI entrenchment clause. The challenge the negotiators had was, basically, how to get around it. The answer they came up with was a broad National Qualifications Allowance because that was seen as one of the factors that differentiates primary teaching from secondary.

The Government offer, finally made after a late-night session while Trevor Mallard was out of the country, was a much more limited NCEA allowance of only $1,000 and apparently restricted to three years. Members responded with outrage to the divisive nature of the proposal. Refusing to wait for the formal opportunity to reject the settlement at meetings, a number of branches tangibly demonstrated their opposition by organising wild-cat strikes.

Their staunchness reminds us that it is truly the members who run this union and it always will be. We owe them a vote of thanks for their courage and commitment. It was however, a dangerous time for the union when the loss of internal discipline led to increasing disunity on both sides - not just those who wanted to take stronger action but also those who wanted an excuse to avoid participating in any action at all.

The second rejection of the settlement surprised no-one. Executive got the message. The subsequent action including the ban on extra-curricular activity demonstrated just how angry and bitter teachers had become. Students responded unexpectedly with strikes of their own - some because they genuinely understood the issue and wanted to support their teachers; others because they were distressed by the loss of sporting activities. Regardless of the reason, there was clearly a severe threat to public order that required Executive to call off the action and indirectly led to the offer of arbitration.

By now everyone accepted there was a crisis in secondary schools. For the first time, the Minister acknowledged that there might be problems with workload. With the election looming, the Government responded with a publicly-stated commitment to abide by the outcomes of the ADR process. (It’s amazing how an intense industrial campaign and a threatened strike on the day before a general election can focus a government’s mind.)

The findings of the Alternative Dispute Resolution panel vindicated all we had said throughout this bitter dispute. The panel rejected a solution based around the NCEA but accepted there was a serious workload problem which the Ministerial Taskforce will need to explore. The panellists recognised the retention and recruitment crisis in the 12.5% increase and the need to address the corrosive effect of the three-year bachelor of teaching on the salary scale. It is this latter qualification which has caused the delay in settling the matter of the G3 equivalence because it must be done in a way that recognises those qualifications which are essential to the delivery of certain curriculum areas in secondary schools while excluding the Bachelor of Teaching and Learning.

While it is unfortunate that the panel could not meet long enough to consider fully the G3 equivalents issue, it is clear that it did not intend to leave these teachers out in the cold. And nor do we. We have not come so far in this struggle that we will be divided at the end of it. We have made an attempt in good faith to meet with the Ministry and resolve the matter as the Panel instructed, only to find the Ministry has returned to its old obdurate ways. We have begun formal mediation as the first step of a legal response. As well, Executive will present a plan of action to this Conference to be used in the event that this issue cannot be settled in a way that is fair and just to affected members and that recognises the curriculum requirements of secondary schools. The plan includes industrial action - a number of branches have already signalled their willingness to follow such a course if it becomes necessary.

We may have won over a quarter of a billion dollars but it has been a long, bitter campaign and there have been hard lessons to learn. But we continue to exist and fight for the educational needs of secondary students and the quality of the secondary teaching profession, despite the best efforts of many to annihilate us. And in this, the 50th year of existence of the New Zealand Post Primary Teachers’ Association, it is timely to look back on some of its significant achievements:

„X Professionally, ground breaking reports on curriculum and teaching changes in the 1970s and 80s, the abolition of University Entrance in the early 1980s and the current development of a qualifications system based on standards-based assessment - despite the resourcing and implementation debacles - are testimony to PPTA’s commitment to a quality secondary school education system.

„X On the equity front, Association policies promoting the educational interests of girls, Maori and Pacific Islands students, and the professional interests of women and gay and lesbian teachers have led the country, and other parts of the world.

„X Industrially, since the late 1960s PPTA has fought strongly for and won significant pay increases for secondary teachers. These included the historic Government Services Tribunal (aka ADR!) decision in 1986 to award secondary teachers pay increases of between 20-35 per cent, and the 1996 12.5 per cent pay rise.

„X Politically, over its lifetime PPTA has developed a fine reputation for fighting educationally and industrially unsound government initiatives, whether it be proposed legislation in the mid 70s to remove the negotiating rights of state sector workers, or fundamentally flawed social, industrial and educational policies throughout most of the 1990s.

PPTA has emerged a stronger union from each of these struggles and campaigns. After our most recent fight, membership is up and branches have been revitalised. We are left, however, with some tough questions about our national structures particularly about the extent to which they reflect membership opinion. We have already begun conducting a review.

The challenge now is to support the continuation of branch activism so that schools never again return to the punishing practices which have so intensified workload over the last 10 years. The efforts of the national agencies in constantly driving up workload while simultaneously driving down resourcing must cease as well. It is this that lies behind much of the increasing workload. Later in this conference, there will be a set of workshops on workload controls which will give delegates a chance to trial some of the material that will be sent to branches next term.

The debate over NCEA Level 2 is a case study in how not to introduce change. There has been a total implementation failure at Level 1. To the extent that it has succeeded it has been because teachers have held it together often at the cost of their own health and well-being. Disregarding that, the agencies are pressuring teachers to shoulder the double burden of Level 1 and 2 because they see it as the only way out of the mess they have created. And it is a mess. The supplementary conference paper on the NCEA recognises this and picks a path through the minefield which basically calls on members to recognise that a “one size fits all” answer is no longer possible because left to their own devices schools and departments have fashioned their own solutions. Of course, we are heading into the territory of a compromise that pleases no-one but given the circumstances we find ourselves in, it may be the only option. (“Can we fix it? No we can’t.”) This is not an act of spiteful defiance as implied by some but a realistic assessment of what is achievable.

The other conference papers speak similarly to a failure by our “employer”, the Government, to create the circumstances that enable secondary teachers to be effective in their jobs. Much is made of theories about the relationships between teacher expectations and student achievement and the academic community seems to be relentlessly preoccupied with research that focuses on teaching and learning at a micro level while the wider political and socio-economic context of schooling is ignored. In this climate, it has become possible to dismiss every example of social failure with the glib platitude that “schools are failing” or that “teachers are failing”.

Why is this? Perhaps it is because the various devices that put in place the fiscal controls of the 1990s have simply become too hard to fight so that officials and bureaucrats have given up suggesting real solutions because they cost money. Academics chasing research dollars in a competitive environment are similarly driven to seek answers that do not involve significant cost. They end up then focusing on the one area they imagine is cost-free - teaching and learning. In my term as President, I have followed with interest the Strengthening Education in Mangere and Otara project and am full of admiration for the changes that have been achieved there but let’s not forget that some $6 million has gone into these schools and that in most cases class sizes are as low as 15. We could all be highly effective teachers if we were working with bottom lines like that!

The papers to conference about cannabis use and violence in schools describe an every-day reality for secondary teachers. They are not things that can be fixed by attending a course which seeks to change teachers’ views on student behaviour. It is not teachers’ perceptions that are the problem here; what we are facing are objectively observable, nation-wide social problems that are neither caused by schools nor will they be solved by them. The standard bureaucratic response has been to sweep them under the carpet by, for example, creating a legislative and educational framework that makes it difficult for schools to suspend students; the national suspension figures look better but no rational, long-term solution to the problem is ever proposed.

One of the reasons that boards of trustees and parents have been so supportive throughout our long dispute is that unlike the Ministry of Education they see first-hand the immense difficulties facing secondary education. I want to acknowledge here our thanks for this support and for the commitment that so many parents make to secondary education not just through boards of trustees but also through PTA activities and by assisting with fundraising and providing adult input on social, cultural and sporting occasions; schools would be poorer in all respects without this partnership.

I think we should extend a special thanks too, to principals, who have supported us throughout this campaign and coped with angry teachers on the one hand while managing community expectations and disappointments on the other. It can’t have been easy and the unresolved issues around assessment don’t make next year look any easier.

We look forward now to the Ministerial Taskforce which will begin meeting in Term 4. Its prime focus is obviously on remuneration and the link between that and recruitment and retention but as well the ADR Panel directed the Taskforce to consider workload, particularly with respect to HoDs, as well as student loans, superannuation and exit provisions. This offers the possibility that the Taskforce can come up with some far-reaching proposals that revitalise the profession. On behalf of all secondary teachers, I’d like to take this opportunity to thank the panel members, Bruce Murray, Dame Margaret Bazley and Doug Martin for seeing the problems and having the courage to do something about them. While the Government may not exactly feel grateful for what they have done, future secondary students will no doubt have cause to thank them.

I stand down as President at the end of this year. It has been a rocky and exhilarating experience. I want to acknowledge the work of PPTA staff and Executive - many of whom ended the year with considerably more grey hair than they took into it. Through it all, they remained focussed and loyal. Management Committee too have been a source of strength - called together by teleconference, often late at night and after a day’s teaching and asked to make very significant decisions under intense time-pressure; they did not falter. I especially want to thank Senior Vice President Graeme Macann who as a local has been a tremendous source of support in some dark and difficult times, and junior vice president Hamish Duncan who has been a supporting and caring vice president. Lastly, I want to thank you all - without whom PPTA could not exist. As one of the regional reports to conference noted, it has been “hell in the regions this year,” sandwiched between the often contradictory demands of the membership and the intransigence of the Government. You should be proud of yourselves. I know I am certainly both proud and grateful for your efforts this year.

Kia Kaha.

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