Edi­to­rial

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De­ci­sions have con­se­quences. If the Government thinks it’s keep­ing a fis­cal prob­lem at bay by re­fus­ing to move closer to meet­ing teach­ers’ pay de­mands, it will have a much worse prob­lem be­fore this year is out: more class­rooms with­out teach­ers. The teacher short­age is now so acute, some prin­ci­pals pre­dict they’ll soon have to park stu­dents in assem­bly halls for some pe­ri­ods. Whole sub­jects are al­ready go­ing un­taught in some schools be­cause of a grow­ing in­ter­na­tional short­age of qual­i­fied teach­ers in key sub­jects.

This will be cat­a­strophic for the “smart econ­omy”. More im­me­di­ately, it will feed what the Min­istry of Ed­u­ca­tion now ac­knowl­edges is an ur­gent, in­tractable prob­lem: tru­ancy. Al­ready, an alarm­ing 4.5% of school chil­dren miss so much school their fu­ture op­tions and well-be­ing are se­verely re­stricted.

The teacher short­age will not be ad­dressed, as the Government hopes, by fund­ing “ex­tra teacher place­ments” and lur­ing ex-teach­ers back with re­fresher cour­ses. The cri­sis is grow­ing pri­mar­ily be­cause, be­tween 2010 and 2016, 40% fewer new peo­ple were at­tracted to the pro­fes­sion and ex­ist­ing teach­ers are leav­ing, their pay in­ad­e­quate for the in­creas­ingly chal­leng­ing role they play.

Other coun­tries, in­clud­ing Aus­tralia and Bri­tain, also have chronic short­ages, and our teacher salar­ies are too low to at­tract them as mi­grants any­way. We will sim­ply have to pay to bol­ster the pro­fes­sion. The risk of flow-on wage pres­sures in the econ­omy pales be­side that of a poorly ed­u­cated fu­ture New Zealand.

High­light­ing teacher des­per­a­tion was Fraser High School prin­ci­pal Vir­ginia Craw­ford’s shock-tac­tic at­tempt to dis­suade her stu­dents from wag­ging school. Her teach­ers have to drive around to pick up tru­ants – not their job – and are los­ing the bat­tle, with a for­mer staff mem­ber claim­ing up to 100 stu­dents a day are wag­ging.

Craw­ford told stu­dents what dismal sta­tis­tics awaited tru­ants, and she was largely cor­rect. Lack of ed­u­ca­tional at­tain­ment is a re­li­able pre­dic­tor of low pay or unem­ploy­ment, which in turn of­ten con­trib­utes to poor nu­tri­tion and health, and the temp­ta­tion of drugs, booze and/or crime. High il­lit­er­acy sta­tis­tics among prison in­mates are not co­in­ci­den­tal. Craw­ford in­cluded coded ref­er­ences to the vul­ner­a­bil­ity of tru­ants to gang re­cruit­ment and other sorts of pre­da­tion. Where she went too far was in link­ing tru­ancy to do­mes­tic vi­o­lence, rape and sui­cide. These are fates peo­ple in any walk of life may face.

Such “tough love” tac­tics sel­dom, of course, change be­hav­iour, which is why the min­istry is ur­gently ex­plor­ing more pos­i­tive tru­ancy-re­duc­tion mea­sures. But some of the pub­lic re­but­tal of Craw­ford’s mes­sage sug­gested tru­ancy was a harm­less lark.

Let’s get real. New Zealand’s tru­ancy rate is wors­en­ing, ac­cord­ing to the OECD – not a sign of our young­sters’ su­pe­rior spir­its. Again, de­ci­sions have con­se­quences.

To tell young­sters who reg­u­larly skip school that they can catch up later or go back and get qual­i­fi­ca­tions when they’re older is so mis­lead­ing as to be cruel. For most, school is a one-time chance to max­imise life’s op­tions and ac­quire the skills to be a life­long learner. The time and fi­nan­cial hur­dles in get­ting qual­i­fi­ca­tions later are enor­mous.

Tru­ancy, con­found­ingly, has many fac­tors, as teach­ers well know. They deal with it all: from kids with trou­bled and tran­sient home lives through to kids who sim­ply can’t stay awake be­cause of too much sleep-dis­rup­tive so­cial me­dia screen time. Hunger is, thank­fully, no longer the bar­rier it once was, as most schools now have “break­fast clubs” – of­ten run by, yes, teach­ers.

The com­plaint that schools fail to en­gage kids is spu­ri­ous. Com­puter tech­nol­ogy, art, kapa haka, drama, fashion, sport – to­day’s schools of­fer im­mensely stu­dent-friendly fare. The min­istry’s ten­ta­tive sug­ges­tion that “fun” sub­jects be sched­uled first thing and af­ter lunch prompted a re­minder from prin­ci­pals that schools are not en­ter­tain­ment venues, even if such sched­ules were pos­si­ble in col­leges. To read­ing, writ­ing, sci­ence and maths, it’s im­por­tant to add self-dis­ci­pline, con­cen­tra­tion and the re­silience to en­dure be­ing a bit bored – all nec­es­sary skills for work and life.

We ex­pect teach­ers to do much heavy lift­ing in our chil­dren’s life-skills de­vel­op­ment, and to en­gage stu­dents with phys­i­cal and men­tal-health chal­lenges, and those with fam­i­lies of­ten too dis­tracted by their own over­whelm­ing is­sues to foster their chil­dren’s learn­ing.

But if we don’t re­ward teach­ers suf­fi­ciently, they too will avoid school, and chil­dren will be all the poorer for it.

The teacher short­age is now so acute, some prin­ci­pals pre­dict they’ll have to park stu­dents in assem­bly halls.

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