This week, around 30,000 primary and intermediate school teachers have been on strike, closing nearly 2000 schools for a day.
To date, there appears to have been general public support for the industrial action, but the jury is still out as to whether this will continue if the action is prolonged, especially if it is joined by secondary teachers a little way down the track, as has been mooted.
Signs of lost opportunity
There are early signs, however, that it is in danger of becoming a lost opportunity, just one more round of action across the public sector that has escalated since the current government took office, and let public servants across the board believe nirvana was at hand, an impression Ministers have been keen to foster but not so rapidly deliver.
The case for increased investment in education is strong.
The pace of change in contemporary society, the changing international cultural, social, economic and political environments, as well as new emerging industries to replace old technologies are all placing performance pressure on the education sector.
Parents increasingly look to our having a world class education system to equip their children with the skills and capacities these changes are requiring.
So, the question quickly becomes how the teaching profession contributes to this rapidly changing environment.
Better salaries for teachers
While better salaries for teachers is undoubtedly an important component of this jigsaw, it is by no means the only one, and claims from the teachers’ unions that their salary claims are about a better ‘investment’ in education are questionable.
At the same time, issues about teachers’ conditions of service need to go under the microscope and be assessed alongside other priority areas in education, such as buildings and facilities, access to technology, professional development and training, and performance accountability.
Wider issues relating to recruitment and retention of teachers and the structure of the teaching profession also need to be addressed.
Even the teachers’ unions acknowledge the unacceptably high rates of teachers leaving the profession after the first few years when they strike the bottleneck of insufficient promotion opportunities above them, but they seem less enthusiastic about focusing on them.
A simple corollary of this is that paying teachers more, without addressing these broader issues will solve nothing.
So, while overall salary rates are being considered, the issue of how younger teachers can have a more attractive career pathway must also be resolved. Now this is a much more difficult matter because it inevitably raises the question of how older and poorer performing teachers (by no means the same thing) can be moved on, to make way for their younger, or more capable, colleagues.
To date, teachers seem to have shown less interest in these issues, preferring instead the argument that if all teachers were just paid more, many of their retention and career development concerns would be dealt with.
Given that the deeper questions also lead quickly to other issues – like performance payments to attract and retain better teachers, or flexibility for Boards of Trustees to reward their better teachers in other ways to ensure their retention – the unions’ position is understandable.
After all, more flexibility within the workforce, and differing arrangements for certain groups of teachers, inevitably weakens the strength of the collective approach that lies at the core of the way the unions work.
But here is where the current industrial action risks becoming a lost opportunity. Parents are driven by wanting the best for their children – the best teachers in the classroom, with the best of equipment and resources available to them.
For many of them, the idea of paying good teachers more, and moving poorer teachers aside is a no-brainer. After all, their children deserve no less than the best.
They are far less concerned about issues like collegiality and teaching being a collaborative not a competitive profession, for example, if they see those things getting in the way of their children getting the best.
At the moment, parents broadly support their teachers.
But if the current industrial action becomes prolonged and narrowly focused on just bigger salary increases, that support will likely quickly evaporate.
For the sake of our children, who are ultimately a far bigger part of this equation than teachers or politicians, it is vital that the wider issue of the best structure for the modern teaching profession now assumes centre stage, and that salary issues are considered in relation to that. Failure to take the chance to do so, would be a lost opportunity from which ultimately no-one will benefit.
Peter Dunne is a former Minister in the Labour and National governments from 1999 and 2017. He formed the UnitedFuture Party and dissolved it last year. He lives in Wellington.