How to tackle NZ’s teacher shortage and better reflect student diversity

New Zealand faces a teacher shortage and the government has responded with an urgent drive to recruit teachers from overseas. from www.shutterstock.com, CC BY-ND

How to tackle NZ’s teacher shortage and better reflect student diversity

New Zealand is facing a major teacher shortage. At least 850 new teaching staff are needed to guarantee that all primary and secondary school children have a teacher next year.

Teachers are poised to take rolling strike action next week over pay equity. School principals and teacher unions say low pay and lack of equity are significant contributors to the escalating teacher shortage. The sector claims realistic pay increases will address teacher recruitment and retention problems.

However, the New Zealand government has chosen to respond with an urgent drive to recruit teachers from overseas as part of a package of initiatives.

My research into the unintended consequences of policies for equity and diversity in schools suggests this strategy to import teachers from the UK, Canada, South Africa, Australia and Fiji risks creating a mismatch between the ethnic diversity among school children and the teaching workforce.


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A short-term fix

The government’s main initiative is to recruit teachers from overseas to New Zealand schools to ensure they are fully staffed. According to Secretary of Education Iona Holsted the short-term solution is to “buy ready-made teachers for 2019”.

Schools and unions are not so sure the government’s plan will ease the teacher shortage. They say the money going towards the recruitment campaign would be better spent by raising teacher pay for both recruitment and retention.

Changes in education policy can have unintended consequences, especially short-term initiatives brought in to solve immediate problems. Longer-term policy solutions for teacher recruitment and retention would consider the teacher workforce in context, including its demography and purpose.

Fundamentally, the question of how many teachers we need cannot be separated from the role we want them to perform, and who is best suited to this role.

The education ministry’s recruitment package has tried to mitigate unintended consequences by targeting teachers whose qualifications are similar to New Zealand, including in the UK, Ireland, Canada, South Africa, Australia and Fiji.

The ministry states they are working with the Teaching Council on support for these overseas-trained teachers to induct them into the cultural context of New Zealand.

Diversity in New Zealand schools

Taking a longer-term view raises the question of whether the selected countries can deliver teachers who fit within the New Zealand context better than those in other countries.

For a decade, I have been monitoring data on student ethnicity, collected by the Ministry of Education from New Zealand schools. These data indicate that school rolls are getting steadily and consistently more ethnically diverse.

What the statistics in the following chart show is a consistent decline in the percentage of European/Pākehā students, and increase in Māori, Pasifika and particularly Asian students in New Zealand state schools since 2003.

In 2017, 74% of teaching staff were European/Pākehā, compared with 50.9% students. The total number of European teachers in primary and secondary schools increased from 45,198 in 2004 to 51,117 in 2017.

The greatest percentage increase in students is in the Asian category, yet teachers of Asian ethnicity represent only 4% of the teacher workforce.

In 2004, 9% of teachers were categorised as Māori. While it increased to 11% by 2017, this is still well short of the 24.4% in the student population.

The list of countries from which the New Zealand government is seeking new teachers is likely to further increase the number of teachers with a European background.

Even in the case of South Africa where Black Africans are significantly in the majority, most South African migrants to New Zealand are white. In 2013, just under half the graduates of initial teacher education programmes in South Africa were white, even though they represent only about 8% of the population.

Challenges for the long term

The strategy to import teachers from the UK, Ireland, Canada, South Africa, Australia and Fiji will do little to improve representation for indigenous Māori in the teacher workforce. This should be a priority in keeping with the state’s commitment to the protection of Māori interests through the Treaty of Waitangi. It is also unlikely to provide better cultural recognition for New Zealand’s many Asian migrant communities.

There is a possibility that the campaign attracts teachers from Fiji who identify with Pacific ethnicities. Pasifika teachers presently represent only 3% of the workforce.

If the numbers of teachers brought in through this scheme follow general migration patterns in New Zealand, we are likely to see the majority come from the United Kingdom. Indeed, RNZ’s reporting of the teacher recruitment campaign has focused on British teachers.

While China and India rival the United Kingdom as the main sources of long-term arrivals and migrants, both countries have been excluded from the scheme. There may be grounds for excluding them from this particular scheme, but it is the scheme itself that should be questioned. There are long-term implications of making the teaching workforce more ethnically similar when the student population is diversifying, especially when the ethnicity in question is the group in decline in the student population.

Considering the ethnic and cultural make-up of 21st-century New Zealand, we should be asking why education policy continues to associate a good education with a Euro-centric, and especially British, education. Social justice for New Zealand children includes recognition and representation of their different cultures in public institutions, including schools.

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