Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Secondary Teacher Strikes

I’ll approach the subject of the secondary teachers’ strike obliquely. A while ago some bright spark in Treasury had an idea. Why should Government Departments be housed in Government property? Especially as they were on prime real estate sites. (That is, close to their political masters). Why not lease or sell them off and let the departments rent the required office space.

So the powers-that-be went ahead with gusto to implement that idea. Offices and officers were uprooted. New premises were modified to meet the department’s requirements. But over time market rentals were seen as another drain on government expenditure. So offices were again relocated.

Often to more rundown areas of the capital. Often to areas with few bus routes nearby and limited parking. Old, frail, ill, poor people have difficulty accessing these places. Government saved some money. But it has been at the expense of service and accessibility. Each upheaval has its one-off cost. It is symptomatic of change in the nature of the public service. And politicians still rail about the bureaucracy. I notice they have not cut parliamentary services.

I know the ‘Yes Minister’ arguments. I’ve seen them in action. I have seen the various departments acting like baronial kingdoms, conflict without the armour and therefore less lethal. But present day suits still have the capacity to engage in civil warfare. It’s a question of common sense and balance.

I can’t enter the secondary pay argument. I’m not up with present salaries. But I suspect what really bugs the teachers has been the gradual erosion of their professional status.

The New Zealand school system is unique. About 97% of our children attend state schools (this figure includes integrated schools). Unlike the medical profession where many doctors work in both the private and the state sector teachers are entirely dependent upon the state for their income. As governments down the years have tried to balance the books teacher incomes remain an issue. Not just pay, conditions of service.

Muldoon asked his ministers for an overall cut of 3% from their departments. I watched Merv Wellington wiggle and squirm to avoid making those cuts. To his credit he never reached the magic figure. Unpopular with teachers I understand he got a rocket from his Boss.

A popular Minister of Education is an oxymoron. Successive ministers have been at the receiving end of teacher anger. Each education minister has to relearn a lesson which their predecessors have already learnt the hard way. You can make education policy in offices in the Capital, but you cannot implement it without the cooperation of teachers.

It seems fair comment to say teaching as a profession has been steadily devalued. Everyone has been through school. Not only is there nostalgia, things are different now, but everyone has ideas about what must be taught and how. It’s hard work encouraging learning with so many distractions out there. It’s always been stressful. It’s more so now. Changes like NCEA have increased the workload. Respect is now something to be gained. 

Which is why I come back to conditions of service. Class size, resources, support, all the myriad of things that assist and improve the teacher’s task. I get very angry when I hear people arguing class size doesn’t matter. I know from experience it does.

Last night’s poll showed 49% supported the strikes, 51% didn’t. In other words the country’s very divided on this issue. And when that happens there is no clear winner. Which is why Government and teachers shouldn’t retreat to trench warfare. Sooner or later they will have to sit around the negotiating table. Teachers need to beware that they do not lose any more popular support. The government needs to be aware that turmoil in the sector will undermine it’s own credibility. An all-out attempt to smash PPTA will do the nation great harm.

What’s the link to Government property. Cost reduction does not necessarily improve service. To tell teachers that class size is a matter for the local school trustees and staff is a cop-out. It’s Government’s baby. There's the National interest at stake.

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