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PoliticsJuly 5, 2023

A stark warning from Auckland primary school principals

a classroom blackboard with the chalk outline of a teacher teaching
Image: Archi Banal

A shortage of teaching staff means classes are being routinely split. And it is only getting worse, according to a new survey.

Auckland primary schools are confronting an acute shortage of teaching staff, driven by departures from the region and the profession, combined with a paucity of recruitment options. That’s the resounding message from a new survey by the Auckland Primary Principals’ Association, which finds that 71% of Auckland principals consider teacher supply worse than at the same point last year, with most – 43% of all respondents – saying it is “significantly worse”. 

Principals seeking to staff their schools confronted a “high rate of attrition with a shallow pool of people coming in”, said APPA president Kyle Brewerton. “Run that scenario for another 12 months and where are we going to end up?”

Primary pupils were routinely arriving at school to find that the absence of reliever teachers meant they were broken off from classmates and reallocated around the school. “Close to half our classes are being split weekly, if not daily,” he said. That added to the burden of teachers and children who had already “felt the impact of three years of Covid disruption”, but was especially jarring for neurodiverse students.

The survey, which has a 78% response rate across the Auckland region, recorded 698 teacher departures in the first half of the year. Of those, just 127 were moving from one full-time teaching job to another within Auckland. 

Retention was a “growing concern”, the survey report concluded, “with teachers expressing a desire for better work-life balance, job satisfaction, and opportunities for career advancement. Attractiveness of overseas opportunities, challenges in recruitment and retention, workload, pay, and conditions are identified as factors contributing to teacher attrition.” 

When it comes to filling the vacancies created by what Brewerton called a “stunning number” of departures, principals report slim pickings. More than a quarter of advertised roles attracted zero applicants that were considered suitable and worthy of interview. In a further 37% of cases there was just one suitable applicant. 

The survey found that potential applicants were deterred by “high living costs in certain areas, distance from schools, and teachers' preference for part-time or reliever positions”. 

The sentiment from principals who responded to the survey spanned a “mix of positive feelings towards the job, concerns about its sustainability, and an interest in exploring other options or retirement. Respondents express a love for their job but feel overwhelmed, burned out, and unable to sustain the workload and demands … They mention factors such as long working hours, high pressure, lack of support, challenges in managing crises, and the impact on their well-being and personal life.”

APPA called on the Ministry of Education to “prioritise attracting and retaining quality candidates by offering competitive salaries, improving working conditions, and recognising the value of teachers”. 

Four weeks ago a national “crisis summit” was convened to address a survey of primary principals which found that almost a third are considering leaving the profession within two years, while almost a half of those who had become a principal within the last two years saying they intended to leave the role within five years. Just four of the 629 principals who responded to the NZEI Te Riu Roa survey said they had all the staffing and resourcing that they needed to meet the needs of their school or kura.  

After principals presented their concerns to the minister of education, Jan Tinetti, and ministry officials, the message back was that they understood the situation was “tight”, said Brewerton – but that understated the reality. “It’s not ‘tight’, we simply don’t have the people,” said Brewerton. “That’s not a tight market, that’s a broken market.”

Successive battles over pay and conditions had left the sector deflated, said Brewerton. It was a struggle to “get people inspired and excited” about the vocation. “The bigger picture is you’ve got a profession that has lost its glow.” 

Brewerton said the sector in Auckland is “running into some pretty dire months ahead” and that he is concerned those outside the city don’t grasp the seriousness of the issue; that there is a “shrugging of shoulders”. The perception, he said, was of a “lack of appreciation around the Auckland context … unless you’re living and working here I don’t think many people truly appreciate the difficulties.”

Jan Tinetti, the minister for education, said she acknowledged “that regional differences in staffing primary schools exist and that some regions have different supply pressures and more difficulty than others attracting and retaining staff.” She added, in an email: “Teachers choose where they are located and there are a range of initiatives available to support both teachers and schools to attract and retain teaching staff.” 

Tinetti pointed to Ministry of Education data from May 2023 that shows retention for primary school teachers at 88.9% in Auckland compared with 88% in 2019 and said: “The government has committed to investing $69 million to further support a range of supply initiatives.” Those included subsidising the Teacher Education Refresh programme that seeks to attract former teachers back to schools, support for recruitment overseas, and a recent collective agreement for primary teachers that boosted salaries by an average of 11%. Last week principals accepted a collective offer from the ministry at the third attempt.

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