How teachers' pay has fallen behind over the decades

Primary school teachers went on strike on Wednesday, asking for a 16 percent pay rise over two years.

But figures provided to Newshub show even that will fall short of getting their pay back to where it was, compared to the average Kiwi's weekly wage, 20 years ago.

The Ministry of Education has offered most teachers pay rises between 2.2 and 2.6 percent a year for three years. Teachers who've been in the role three years or less have been offered slightly more - 4.3 to 4.7 percent - but with few people opting to go into teaching nowadays, only one-in-seven qualify.

University-trained entry-level teachers were offered a 14.7 percent boost to $55,030. Principals have been offered between 2 and 3.6 percent a year for three years.

As part of its preparation for pay talks, the New Zealand Educational Institute - which represents primary school teachers - collected data on how much its members have been paid over the last two decades, compared with salary data supplied by Statistics NZ.

The report shows that in 1998, beginning teachers on average earned $596.15 a week - 6 percent more than the average wage. Regular pay boosts over the following decade kept their pay around about that, but a pay freeze in 2010 saw their earnings fall below the average Kiwi by 2012 - and it is yet to recover.

By last year, the average beginner teacher was earning $953.62 a week - 60 percent more than in 1998, but now 14 percent below the average income. In 1998 they earned 127 percent more than the minimum wage in 1998 - down to 61 percent in 2018.

How teachers' pay has fallen behind over the decades
Photo credit: Newshub.

It's a similar story for teachers earning the most. While their income has increased 61 percent, they've fallen back when compared with other New Zealanders.

In 1998 they earned 62 percent more than the average Kiwi; by 2018, that was down to 32 percent more. Twenty years ago they were paid 245 percent more than the minimum wage, down to 147 percent more in 2018.

How teachers' pay has fallen behind over the decades
Photo credit: Newshub.

Education Minister Chris Hipkins told The AM Show on Thursday many experienced teachers would be earning more than what the pay scale suggests.

"Senior teachers are far more likely to be earning extra allowances on top of that - about 40 percent of the country's teachers earn over and above what the base salary scale is.

"Those beginning teachers of course don't get those extra allowances usually. That's why we've loaded up the offer at the beginning teacher end."

Since 1998, the average weekly wage has gone up 97 percent, and the minimum wage up 125 percent.

If beginner teachers got the 14.7 percent pay rise the Ministry of Education is offering, they would still earn about 4 percent less than the average Kiwi.  If they win the 16 percent they're asking for, they'll be almost bang-on the average wage - but still 6 percent behind where they were, comparatively, 20 years ago.

Education Minister Chris Hipkins.
Education Minister Chris Hipkins. Photo credit: Getty

Teachers vs MPs

When you compare primary school teachers' income to the salaries of those who decide what to pay them, the decline in purchasing power is even clearer.

In 1978, the top pay for a primary school teacher was $253.94 a week - 73 percent of what a backbench MP earned. By 2003, MPs were earning double the best-paid teachers.

In 2018, the very top primary school teachers' income had slipped to just 46 percent of that paid to the lowest-ranked MPs.

How teachers' pay has fallen behind over the decades
Photo credit: Newshub.

Who gives teachers the biggest pay rises?

Though it might seem obvious, given Labour is the political arm of the union movement, the reality isn't quite that simple.

When Helen Clark's Labour Government took power at the end of 1999, the beginner teachers' wage averaged $634.62 a week. By 2008, they were on $844.17 - a rise of 33 percent. But as incomes overall rose faster in those nine years, beginning teachers went from earning 11 percent more than the average wage to only 2 percent more, a fall of 9 percent.

The best-paid teachers saw their pay go up 32 percent.

Under National Prime Ministers John Key and Bill English, beginner teachers went from an average $844.17 a week to $953.62 - a rise of only 13 percent. Compared to the average Kiwi, they dropped from 2 percent more to 14 percent less. The best-paid teachers saw their pay increase by slightly more - 14 percent.

The Fifth National Government did have the global financial crisis to deal with however, which saw incomes stagnate across the board. Once the pay freeze was lifted in 2013, teachers' pay rose about 1 percent a year. Mr Hipkins has repeatedly said the Ministry of Education's present offer to primary schoolteachers is at minimum double what they were getting under National.

The previous National Government, led by Jim Bolger and Jenny Shipley, fared much better - boosting the best-paid teachers' pay 34 percent - slightly faster than they increased backbenchers' pay, and a pip ahead of the Labour-led Government that would follow. Statistics NZ data shows average incomes rose 18 percent in that same timeframe.

Both National administrations in recent decades and Ms Clark's regime fare poorly when compared to the Labour Government of the 1980s - at least on paper. In six years, the reform-focused Government boosted teachers' pay 87 percent - but at the same time more than doubled their own pay.

The drastic economic reforms of the 1980s may also have had an outsized effect on public sector pay packets, compared with the post-Rogernomics years.  Statistics NZ income data only goes back as far as 1989.