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‘School has been reduced to child care’: A principal speaks out

Jai Breitnauer speaks to her sons’ primary school principal Riki Teteina about teaching in New Zealand and the teacher shortage Bill English says doesn’t exist.

This is our final piece on The Spinoff Parents this week about education. We think it’s such an important topic for parents that it deserves this much attention. Monday, we published a post on a Newtown Kindergarten begging for help for their special needs students and on Tuesday, we published a post on voting for education. – Emily Writes, editor.

At the end of August, Prime Minister Bill English claimed there was no teacher shortage in New Zealand. This declaration was slammed publicly by Pakuranga College principal Mike Williams on TV One, and by many other teachers and principals in private.

With 84% of Auckland principals saying the shortage is so bad they will struggle to fill jobs in the coming year, I decided to sit down with my sons’ school principal Riki Teteina to talk about the challenges he faces at Newton Central School in Grey Lynn.

Riki with his wife Lisa and daughter Gabriella

You joined us at Newton Central in December 2016, less than a year ago. What made you take the job, and where were you before?

My parents were missionaries and I grew up in Ponsonby – before it was ‘Ponsonby’ – then we moved to Te Atatu so I have a strong connection with Auckland, and more specifically with the Grey Lynn/Arch Hill area. My grandfather was one of the founding students of Newton Central School, so it’s part of my kaupapa. I felt drawn to come here.

Before that I worked in the private, international sector for 18 years, 12 of those as principal. Part of the reason why I came back to New Zealand was that I wanted to contribute back into the educational system here. It certainly wasn’t for financial gain! I felt my overseas experience would help me look at things in New Zealand from a different angle. I’m coming from outside the system and I think that gives me a unique perspective.

The international private teaching sector is known to be pretty dynamic. It must be quite different from Newton Central?

It’s definitely more competitive. You need to be competitive to be viable. But there are areas where my private school experience is directly relevant to any school, especially state school. A key one of those is being relentless and doing everything we can to improve student learning – and being creative in the way we do that.

The international education sector really is cutting edge when it comes to curriculum and future thinking. My previous school was year 1 to 13 with a vision of cultivating genuine happiness. Embedded in the school were principles of community service and giving back. For example, our grade 5’s worked one day a week in an orphanage. This type of enquiry-led education, giving children responsibility, encouraging mindfulness – that really should be implemented in the New Zealand state sector. We need students who will be leaders in next generation.

You seem to have settled in well, and you are certainly liked by the tamariki and their matua. But I am sure you have faced challenges we haven’t seen?

Yes, absolutely. I knew there would be challenges to face, such as learning about working in the New Zealand context, understanding working with the Ministry of Education, compliance expectations, health and safety and so on. But the real challenge has been a clear lack of funding, particularly in the area of learning support. This has a snowball effect in every other area of the school as resources are redirected.

I believe the funding requirements are too narrow and focus too much on individual children rather than what is best for the community. A good example is Ongoing Resourcing Schemes or ORS. There is a very limited pot of money for children with significant learning needs. Schools have to go through a rigorous process to even apply for ORS funding, and it’s almost certain to be declined. The structure sets priorities based on the severity of specific cases rather than focussing funding on meeting the needs of the school and whānau. Why are we having to fight to outline that ‘our’ child is more important than a child at a school down the road, when both children are valid? Funding for both children could target support for the learning needs not just of that child but of all the children in that community.

Another area that concerns me is mental health. If we were able to target children at this age who are at risk, you wouldn’t see such serious issues coming out as teenagers. Without that support and a wrap-around service for families, the future for children with additional social, emotional and learning needs is bleak.

Do you think the Ministry of Education (MOE) need to be doing more?

The problem isn’t really at the MOE employee level – they’re underfunded, understaffed and undervalued. It is at the purse string level. There just isn’t the necessary funding to support families, staff and schools.

A classic example is that we had a child at school whose behaviour we were concerned about. We requested support from an educational psychologist in February but it’s only in the last week that child has been seen. It’s my understanding that there is only one available psychologist for the whole of the Auckland area.

At the Ministry level there are many vacant positions in the area of learning support. This is having a major impact on our ability to create programmes that are going to support the child’s learning.

I’m particularly interested in children with additional needs, because I have one. But my other son is neurotypical and the funding problems don’t just affect those needing learning support, do they?

No. There is this issue of a teacher shortage that is particularly acute in inner city schools in the primary sector. It is acutely effecting our ability to teach and it’s only going to get worse if it’s not addressed.

There are many more immigrants arriving in New Zealand and in spite of what the government says, the majority are coming into the inner city, putting strain on schools here. When schools increase their staffing need that results in a lack of available staff elsewhere; there’s been particular strain on the new entrant environment in the last six months. I know of three schools in inner city Auckland that have had advertised for new entrant teachers and not had any applicants whatsoever.

The knock-on effect is that those on the relief teacher list – often for a number of years – are being recruited into schools, and the pool of relief teachers is diminishing quickly. I thought this school was very lucky as we had six to eight reliable relievers who had long-term associations with our school. This meant they were familiar with the school, the children, behavioural management plans and policies etc, and this made having them in school a positive and smooth experience. They had a sense of commitment to the school Now, every single one has a full time job – even the ones who didn’t really want to be full time. Not only is it very disruptive to have a reliever off the books who isn’t familiar with the school or the children, there just aren’t many relievers out there right now.

As things stand, we are having to collapse classes or ask senior management to take classes just to survive. I’ve done a lot of relieving recently, which means the administration and planning side of the school comes to a halt. If I’m in a classroom I can’t do the things important to ensuring the smooth running of the school. Instead we are treading water.

If we keep senior management out of the classroom and collapse classes, you could have 40 children in a room, sometimes of mixed ages and abilities. Teachers can’t be expected to run a constructive programme under that pressure. At that point school just becomes day care; there is limited educational value to the children on those days.

This sounds exceptionally stressful for everyone. How are you all coping?

It’s a real vicious circle. Absence without a relief teacher creates increased workloads, which creates stress and fatigue and results in increased absence. The lack of relievers also has a direct effect on our ability to provide professional development opportunities for our staff. I can’t approve a staff member on a training course if I can’t get a reliever, which affects their happiness and also their performance.

Finally, there is the cost of relief teachers. If you can get hold of a relief teacher in Auckland, they could cost $450 for a day, the Ministry of Education pays the school $250 to $320 for a reliever, depending on their experience and qualifications. The school is having to pay the rest from our own, usually $320 to $350, from their already small resources.

If Bill English were to walk in right now, what would you say to him?

I’d tell Bill English he has been misinformed. He needs to be listening to principals, particularly in the Auckland area. There are some incentive programmes but it’s not enough.

What scares us even more is the plan for increased language acquisition in schools. I mean, that would be wonderful if schools were currently running effectively, particularly in the area of learning support. If our foundations were solid that would be a great add-on but you need to get the basics right first.

At the election I would like to see a real focus on increasing funding in schools, in particular around a more robust learning support programme that’s tied in with not only support for schools but the families as well. There also needs to be a real effort to address the staffing issues that schools are experiencing, and also to improving the physical learning environments for children by updating property.

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