'Uncharted territory' for teachers as mega-strike looms

Teachers say their upcoming mega-strike is about more than just money, but National Party leader Simon Bridges says it's about nothing more than just that.

The country's two biggest education unions voted at the weekend to hold a combined strike. About 50,000 teachers from both primary and secondary schools will walk off the job on May 29 in the biggest education strike New Zealand has ever seen.

"We don't have our normal wishlist of claims... because of the extent of the issues in education right now," NZEI vice President Liam Rutherford told The AM Show on Monday, calling it "uncharted territory".

"We know that some of the solution is going to be time, it's going to be pay and it's going to be support for students with additional learning needs. Until we get a package and a plan... teachers are going to continue to rally against offers that are continually falling short."

Boyle and Rutherforld talk to AM Show host Duncan Garner.
Boyle and Rutherforld talk to AM Show host Duncan Garner. Photo credit: The AM Show

Teachers have already rejected a $1.2 billion offer from the Government, but the unions don't think it's enough to make teaching an attractive career. Teacher education enrolments ahve dropped 40 percent over the past decade.

"What we want it to make teaching a first-choice career so our brightest and best come in, and we want to support them to stay in and do that really important work," Jack Boyle, PPTA President, told The AM Show.

"We don't want to have to [strike]. What we want is a circuit-breaker, and that's going to involve both the Government and secondary teachers moving from where they are right now."

But Education Minister Chris Hipkins has said more money is not an option, and called the strikes unjustified.

"We've indicated that over time we will certainly be looking to address all of the concerns that teachers are raising," he told RNZ at the weekend. "But in terms of putting more money into their pockets in this bargaining round, that's certainly not an option."

Bridges certainly thinks it is. The National Party leader said teachers could get what they want if the Government prioritised its spending better.

"It's simply money," he told The AM Show earlier on Monday morning. "How much did Shane Jones get? $3 billion. Winston Peters got $1 billion for diplomats. You've got $2.8 billion going out in fees-free. If you get your priorities right, you can pay more."

Simon Bridges.
Simon Bridges. Photo credit: The AM Show

Teacher pay has fallen behind over the decades. In the early 1980s, a teachers' maximum pay was about 70 percent of what a backbench MP earned - now it's less than half. Much of the slide happened under National and John Key's watch - pay for a beginning teacher went up only 13 percent in nine years, while backbench MPs' pay rose about 22 percent, despite the global financial crisis.

Despite the previous National-led Government's record and then-Education Minister Hekia Parata's failed attempt to increase class sizes, Bridges says he'd put more money in so teacher-student ratios could come down.

"That would go a long way for the teachers because it would be about the quality of education... As the son of a teacher who's surrounded by teachers, they do an amazing job, I'm really sympathetic to their pay claims."

If - as seems likely - the mega-strike fails to extract more money from the Government, Boyle and Rutherford says more industrial action will be on the cards.

"We've been really clear this campaign is going to be over when teachers accept an offer," said Rutherford. "And so if the next piece of industrial action doesn't work, we'll continue to go out and talk to members around what they're prepared to do after that to get their point across. We're in it for the long haul."

"There has to be more," said Boyle. "There has to be something. That's where we're at."

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