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The Nation: Education Minister Chris Hipkins

On Newshub Nation: Simon Shepherd interviews Education Minister Chris Hipkins

• Education Minister Chris Hipkins says what teachers are asking for is "well out of kilter with everyone else" and the "financial bucket is not unlimited".
• He says the increase primary and secondary teachers will get is "not of the quantum that they have been asking for."
• Minister Hipkins says the first year of free fees policy for tertiary study will "benefit the future generation of teachers" and incentivise people into teacher training.
• He says the polytechnic sector is going to see "some pretty big changes" and "it’s likely there will be fewer polytechnics".

Simon Shepherd: Primary teachers are set to walk off the job later this month in frustration over their most recent pay offer. They say their needs aren't being prioritised and something needs to happen now to address the massive teacher shortage. Education Minister Chris Hipkins joins me now. Teachers are saying that we have in a crisis in education. Do you agree?
Chris Hipkins: I think what you’re seeing from the teacher community is a lot of built-up frustration that’s built up over a long period of time. I think that’s coming to the surface now, and I do take that very seriously. I think we’ve got some big challenges ahead. We know we don’t have enough teachers coming through teacher training, for example, and that’s something that we’ve absolutely got to get on top of. There are big and legitimate workload concerns that teachers are raising, and we do need to get on top of those as well.
Okay, so it’s a crisis.
Look, I’m not going to call it a crisis. It is certainly challenging, and there are certainly some parts of it that are more challenging than others.
People at the coalface are calling it a crisis. Should we believe them?
I think that teachers at the coalface are raising some really legitimate concerns, and they’re ones that I’m listening very, very carefully to.
They’re walking off the job, they’re not enrolling in the courses to become teachers – all the hallmarks of something seriously wrong.
Look, I think there are many, many things that we’ve got to look at as part of this, and obviously I am concerned that not enough people are training to be teachers.
Okay, let’s get to that in a moment. One of the first things you have to deal with is this forthcoming strike over pay negotiations. They’re asking for 16 per cent over two years. You’re offering about 7.2 per cent over three years. Why should teachers accept that?
What we’ve offered teachers is roughly double what they got, on average, under the previous government.
Less than half of what they’re asking for.
We know that there is built-up demand there, and we do, again, take that seriously. It’s not just about pay. Many of the issues teachers have raised during this negotiation process aren’t actually about the salary. There are other issues too.
That’s true, and we will get to those. We’re talking about the level of remuneration right now. Under your offer, how much will an average teacher get extra?
It depends, because through the Ministry of Education, the offer has been loaded up at the beginning-teacher salary rate. So a beginning teacher, for example, stands to gain almost 15 per cent increase over three years. Those more experienced teachers would get less under the offer that’s on the table at the moment.
And the majority of those teachers are the more experienced teachers. The average age is 57 or something like that. They’re higher into the pay scale. So do you know how much they’re going to get?
Again, it depends on where they’re at on the salary scale, but also about 40 per cent of primary school teachers are earning over the top of the salary scale because they have additional allowances or additional management units or whatever. So it’s quite difficult to put nice clean numbers on it, because the pay scale and the pay system for teachers is quite a complex one.
But if they’re still earning over the top of the salary scale, and yet we don’t have enough teachers and they’re walking off the jobs, if that’s what you can afford, how are we going to keep teachers in the classroom?
Workload is definitely an issue that we’re looking very carefully at. Now, for primary school teachers, National Standards was an issue that was raised for many, many years, and their concerns about National Standards fell on deaf ears until there was a change of government, and we moved quickly to address that. National Standards did increase their workloads significantly for no real benefit for the kids. Educational improvement didn’t result from National Standards, so we’ve addressed that.
But the other issue that they have raised, which I think is an incredibly important one, is the number of children who are arriving in our schools with special needs, because that puts a huge amount of additional strain on teachers. And this year’s Budget gave the biggest increase in funding for kids with special needs in over a decade. We do recognise that we’ve got a lot of work to do there.
Yeah, but the current offer doesn’t do anything about teacher aides and increasing their remuneration, and that’s where the teacher aides to come in – to ease the workload of special needs children in the classroom.
That’s right. Those are separate negotiations, obviously, but the money comes from the same bucket of money. There’s not an unlimited bucket of money, and we need to do a lot of things at the moment.
Well, that’s true.
And so we have to balance all of those things quite carefully.
Yeah, if you need to find more money from somewhere, why not just raise that debt cap that you’re religiously sticking to? Why not throw out your free tertiary first year?
The fees-free tertiary education actually will benefit the future generation of teachers. Let’s be really clear about this. One of the challenges with teaching is the Baby Boomer cohort of teachers are the ones who are nearing retirement age. Now, many of those got their education, their post-school education for almost free, and what I’m saying is the future generation of teachers should also have a better deal when it comes to their teacher training and their tertiary education.
But it’s the teachers right now that we’re talking about. We’ve talked about pay, and you are offering half of what they’re asking for. But you’re also talking about easing the workload. Now, the current offer gives two hours extra planning time, lesson planning time, per term. That equates to, like, 12 minutes a day [correction: 12 minutes a week]. Is that enough?
Again, classroom release time is not the only thing that contributes to teacher workload. Again, I think that there are some really legitimate issues that teachers have raised around the workload pressures that they have, the release time that they have, and over time I think we can address many of those issues. We can’t do everything at once, but we can, I think, working together, address many of the concerns. In fact, all of the concerns can be addressed over time.
Okay. You talked about having to do a lot. Another part is the secondary teachers. They’re expected to ask you for 14.5 per cent. Do you have enough money for them as well?
We have money for primary and secondary teachers. It’s not of the quantum that they have been asking for. That much is clear. But we’ll go into those negotiations in good faith, as we have with the primary teachers.
So you’ve just told me that they’re not going to get 16 per cent, the primary teachers, and the secondary teachers are not going to get 14.5 per cent. That’s what you’ve just said.
That’s true, and I think if you look at the pay rises that the rest of New Zealand is getting across the board, the claim that they have on the table is certainly well out of kilter with everybody else.
But teachers have only been given 17 per cent over nine years – an average of 1.2 per cent pay increase per year. They haven’t actually been getting decent pay rises for years. Surely they need this pay jolt, as they call it.
I’d just point out that every one of those three collective agreements that were settled under the previous government were endorsed by the teaching profession, and there wasn’t a hint of a strike at that point. We’ve got an offer on the table at the moment that is double what they were getting under the previous government. We do recognise the concerns that they’ve been raising. But, as I’ve been clear, we can’t do everything in the first year that we are in government.
Okay. You just mentioned the strike. Why is it that under a Labour Government that the teachers have decided to strike?
I think that teachers have seen that this government is more receptive to their concerns than the government they’ve had for the last nine years. That’s a good thing. We are working very closely with them. We are listening. But the financial bucket is not unlimited.
Did you over-promise them? Have you created an air of expectation that cannot be fulfilled?
No, not at all. I’ve always been very realistic with teachers that any pay increases would be a matter for bargaining. We didn’t make any commitments during the election campaign as to how we would resolve those pay claims. I do absolutely acknowledge the concerns that teachers are raising are quite legitimate. But my message is we can’t do everything all at once.
So you want to – just to read something back to you – ‘The government has a drive to raise the status of the teaching profession and restore their trust and confidence.’ I think that was in the Cabinet paper that you presented. Are you actually living up to that with what you’re offering teachers?
I think we’re living up to that in a number of areas. So, for example, we’ve got a bill going through Parliament in a couple of weeks that gives teachers the right to elect representatives to their own professional body, which is something the previous government took away. We have listened to teachers when it comes to things like national standards and the review of the NCEA. We are listening to them on workload, and we are listening to them when it comes to things like increased number of kids with special needs. So we’re working with them across the board; the pay negotiations are a small part of that, and I do appreciate, of course, that at the moment for teachers, that’s very front of mind.
But also one of the other issues for them is class sizes. Are you going to reduce primary school class sizes before the next election?
We haven’t made a commitment to do that.
The opposition has.
Yeah, we haven’t made a commitment to do that because we acknowledge that there are other things that are very, very important, including special needs. I make no apology for the fact that I’ve made special needs the number one priority in this year’s budget. It was the biggest increase in funding for kids with special needs in a decade, and that was one of the highest priorities that we set out there. The thing about class sizes is – it’s very expensive to make a modest change to class sizes, and that’s something we want to talk to the teaching profession about. Is that the highest priority for them? Or are things like more classroom release time a bigger priority?
If you had the money, you had that big bucket of cash, what is the optimal class size?
Well, that depends on the circumstances. I mean, even Simon Bridges acknowledged that the other day when he said that employing more teachers doesn’t necessarily mean class sizes will be smaller, because nowadays you have more team teaching, where you might have a number of teachers working with a group of students and so on, so there isn’t an optimal number.
The teachers in their particular claim - in the years four to six, seven, eight, want a class size from 29 to 25. So they’ve decided that 25 is the right size.
Well, there’s a difference between actual class sizes – so how many kids are in an actual classroom – and the funding ratios. If you look at the biggest funding ratios of that one-to-29er, it’s the intermediate school age. But then we also provide additional teachers at that intermediate school age for technology. So it’s quite hard to draw a clean correlation between the number of teachers we fund through the ratio system and the ratio of teachers who are actually in the classroom.
You mentioned before that we have 40 per cent less teachers going through college than, say, almost a decade ago. We currently have 30,000 full-time primary teachers. How many do we actually need?
Well, we’re going through a process at the moment of modelling that out and looking at the age profile of the profession. And, Simon, I have to say – I’m surprised that this hasn’t been done before. This is something that I had to commission when I became the minister as a workforce strategy that looks at the demographics of the workforce, what their needs are, and we’re working very closely with the teaching profession to get those numbers right.
When will you have those numbers?
I think that we’ll start to see the results in the coming months, and I’ll hope that they inform the next part of the bargaining process. It’s important that we make our decisions based on really solid and sound evidence, and that evidence base hasn’t been there, and I think that that has been a frustration for everybody.
Okay. Let’s talk about priorities. So, you’ve got this teacher strike looming. They’re calling it a warning shot. You could have to be prepared for more warning shots, more strikes, if this negotiation doesn’t succeed. Surely you should have addressed this first before coming in and giving a free year of tertiary education to students going to university and other NZQA-qualified institutions.
That was a clear commitment we made during the election campaign, and we were absolutely clear that that would be our highest priority. We’ve funded–
Sure, you’ve made a commitment, but is it the right priority?
We funded that out of cancelling the previous government’s tax cuts. So that was not money they were intending to spend on education. It is money that we are spending on education. And as I indicated, the future generation of teachers will benefit from it.
Sure, but what about this current crop of teachers? You could have used that money to benefit them and get this pay dispute settled.
It’s not necessarily an either-or. As I’ve indicated, the offer that’s on the table for primary teachers at the moment is double what they were getting under the previous government. We do acknowledge that more money is required for teacher salaries.
Okay. This particular policy of free tertiary education with the first year – how do you think it’s going?
Look, it’s early days yet. I think we’ll really see how that’s going to pan out probably a few years down the track. We introduced it right before Christmas. Obviously a lot of people had already made decisions about their plans for this year, particularly young people that had already locked in their plans for this year–
Because the tertiary school numbers have only increased by 0.3 per cent since this policy has been in place.
Although, if you look at the long-term trend, we’ve halted a significant decline. So, universities, polytechnics, PGEs, wananga were all reporting significant declines in recent years, and that’s levelled out, so that’s a good sign that people are coming back to tertiary education. Now, the mid-year numbers are looking very promising from the anecdotal reports I’ve received, particularly from the polytechnics–
Right, so, you’re due to report back to cabinet in June about these numbers. What are those numbers, then?
Well, the mid-year numbers, it’s too– I don’t have official numbers. All I’ve got is the anecdotal reports from the polytechs in particular, who are saying their mid-year enrolments are up, and that’s a good sign.
Is this particular policy benefiting people who are already going to go to tertiary or second- those kinds of educational institutions? It’s benefiting the middle class, who are going to send people there already.
I think when you look at any universal entitlement like this, it’s going to benefit a wide range of people. It’s going to benefit people who wouldn’t otherwise participate, and it’s going to benefit people who would have otherwise participated. We know that we’ve got $150 million less borrowing under the student loan scheme for fees this year. That’s around, I think, 25,000 fewer people borrowing for fees. Those people are going to enter the workforce with less debt. They’re going to be able to buy their first home faster, because they’ll be able to save for the deposit for their first home quicker. All of those things are going to benefit the country as a whole, bearing in mind that people with higher levels of education go on to earn higher incomes and therefore they pay higher rates of tax.
It’s not living up to your promise where you budgeted for a three per cent increase in full-time students – an extra 2000 students – in 2018. We don’t see that sign yet.
We budgeted it at the upper bound, which was the upper limit of what we thought the increase could be, because it would have been irresponsible to introduce a policy like this and not budget for an increase in participation. Now, we haven’t seen the degree of increase in participation that we’re looking for over the longer term yet, and that’s understandable. We’ve got a very strong labour market, for example, so for a number of school leavers, there’s pretty strong financial incentives for them to go directly into employment, because the pay on offer is pretty good, because the labour market’s very tight.
You’ve just mentioned polytechnic numbers there, and that it’s stabilising, but is that enough to save a sector that is in dire straits? Your own cabinet documents say that 80 per cent of polytechnics are going to be making a loss by 2022.
No, look, stabilising participation numbers sadly for the polytechnics isn’t going to be enough. There’s going to need to be a much more significant change there.
So we’ve got too many of them?
Look, I’m not going to draw a hard and fast conclusion about that. Just to put that into context, though, there are 16 polytechs in the country, and collectively they add up to the same size as the University of Auckland, so there is an issue around scale for some of those small polytechnics.
It sounds like there’s too many of them, doesn’t it?
I’m not going to pre-empt what’s coming out of the discussion we’re having at the moment. But clearly I think the polytech sector is going to be seeing some pretty big changes in the next little while. Because let’s put the bottom lines on the table – we must have a very strong vocation in educational and training system in New Zealand, particularly in the regions. We desperately need those work-related skills, those foundation skills, in regional New Zealand, and that’s what we risk losing if we don’t sort out the issues with the polytechs.
So are you going to pump a lot more money into the polytechnics to get those skills out there?
Well, we already are. We’ve already had to put significant money into Tai Poutini Polytechnic and Unitec just to keep the lights on, and we know when we look at those projections for the polytech sector that we’re going to need to put significant amounts of extra money in just in the next 18 months to keep that sector afloat while we come up with a more stable solution for it in the longer term.
So, yes or no – will you merge or close some polytechs?
I think that’s probably likely. I think it’s likely there will be fewer polytechs at the end of this exercise. I hope that we’ll actually have a better vocational education and training system at the end of it.
Chris Hipkins, Education Minister. Thank you very much for your time this morning.

Transcript provided by Able. www.able.co.nz

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