Poorly paid, with no job security and no formal career development, the mostly female profession of teacher aide has been badly treated for generations – and the knock-on effects are keeping others out of the workforce. Jai Breitnauer reports.
Teachers are striking, psychologists are speaking out about the impact of a lack of resources, and as usual, quietly in the corner, the teacher aides are nodding in support, counting their pennies and quietly launching their own pay equity claim.
If you have an NT (neurotypical) child then perhaps you don’t even know what a teacher aide (TA) is, and you may view them on the periphery of the school experience. But for the 11% of children in New Zealand who have a disability, a TA is probably what allows them access to any education at all.
“We are the people enabling our most challenging children in schools,” says Ally Kemplen, who has been a TA in Auckland for 20 years. “I work with a lot of children who have suffered trauma, and my passion is helping individuals achieve incremental goals in their own time. The sense of pride they get from doing something small, perhaps sitting through a whole assembly, is very rewarding.”
And it’s bloody lucky that the job is emotionally rewarding, because the pay is crap.
“Most TAs working in New Zealand are paid under the living wage, which is set at $20.55 in 2018,” says Kemplen. Top TA pay is around $21 an hour. Kemplen is a single mum; she says she doesn’t know how she managed at times. “About 50% of my income goes on housing, you’re in constant crisis mode. It’s embarrassing to admit how broke you are. At one meeting, one TA stood up and said she couldn’t have her grandchildren over for a visit because she couldn’t afford to feed them.”
Kemplen is quick to note how supportive her school have been of her role, and says she is lucky to be on a permanent contract. Most TAs work short fixed term contracts and aren’t paid for the school holidays. There is no guarantee they will have work the following term.
“I currently work 30 hours but next year it might only be ten,” says Maryann Hainsworth, who has been a TA in Lower Hutt for 14 years. “We aren’t centrally funded, schools pay us out of the operational budget, so we compete with toilet paper for our salary.”
She says she is paid for 9am to 3pm, even though she works before and after school to engage in planning activities – something the MoE don’t consider part of a TA role.
“I paid for my own TA certificate. It’s not necessary to have qualifications to do this job,” says Hainsworth. “That’s odd when you think about it. I know I couldn’t do my job without my training. We’ve had to rely on my husband’s salary which is quite demeaning as we work as hard as each other.”
Since 97% of TAs are women, this is a feminist issue, a working women’s issue, and it has a knock-on effect for that other undervalued profession – motherhood.
With only the top 3% of highest-need children resourced, (even though international stats place the need at about 14%) the onus falls on families to pick up the slack. My own challenging child is currently at school just two days a week resulting in me giving up around $40,000 p/a of work to support him. This can feel isolating, but a quick canvas of a few Facebook groups showed I’m far from alone.
“I haven’t been able to work since my daughter was born prematurely,” says mum Vania Scully. “She isn’t considered high needs and is expected to self-manage her issues, so I’ve had to be on call. It impacts on family life a lot.”
“We work one full-time person between the two of us,” says Ros Jaquirey, whose son has a part-time TA and can’t cope with after school club. “[It’s had a] huge financial impact.”
“I’m only realising now the extent of the sacrifice our family has had to make,” says Shannon Clement, who was a marketing manager before having children, but today struggles to get low-paid coordinator work due to her time constraints. They fork out $70 a week for a gifted education programme, and had to pay $900 for the assessment.
“I’m exhausted. At some point the education system needs to front up rather than putting it all on the parents.”
Many of the mums I spoke to felt that if there were an extra pair of hands in the classroom their mildly challenged child could attend school full time freeing them to work if they wanted. Historian and mother to a child with additional needs Dr Hannah Greig recently tweeted that in the UK only 3% of mothers with disabled children can work full time, and only 16% part-time. It doesn’t make economic sense. I’ve done the maths, and if you apply those figures to New Zealand the treasury are potentially missing out on around $700m a year in lost PAYE revenue – or enough to put 9.4 well paid and fully trained TAs in every school.
This is our future we are investing in. In 2013, only 36% of disabled people with no qualifications were working, compared to 71% for those with degrees. Twice as many disabled adults have no formal qualifications compared to the rest of the population. Official statistics from the UK show that around half of male prisoners, and three quarters of female prisoners have no qualifications.
In NZ, the corrections department estimates 65% of prisoners do not have NCEA Level One standards of literacy and numeracy, and are unlikely to have any formal qualifications. Our government spends $100,000 on each prisoner in the system each year, but just over $8000 on each school pupil.
“I’ve seen children who haven’t had the right support go on to struggle with mental health, addiction,” says Kemplen, who would like to see a trained TA in every classroom. “We’ve had to let them go, let them graduate with our fingers crossed. If you can go in with a cheaper low intervention early then you won’t need the expensive intervention later. How awful for a child to be so distressed at school when they could have someone who could be quietly support them to get along.”
TAs belong to NZEI Te Riu Roa, who have been working with the MoE for almost a year to negotiate their future, and the end isn’t yet in sight. But my message as a mother to Chris Hipkins and Tracey Martin is this: Properly resourcing classrooms with trained TAs to support challenging children is key to better education outcomes for all children, and improved quality of life for many women.
So, come on guys, let’s do this.
Jai Breitnauer has worked as a writer and editor for 18 years. She lives in Auckland, with her architect husband and two dance-mad boys, one of whom has additional needs.