25 Nov 2020

Principals struggle with meeting needs, despite teacher aides pay deal

From Nine To Noon, 9:08 am on 25 November 2020

School principals say they are caught in a vice of how to employ teacher aides with a funding matrix that is too hard to use.

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Principals say the teacher aide pay boost is difficult to implement and calculating for the variability of teacher aide hours may leave schools out of pocket. Photo: RNZ / Richard Tindiller

Principals' Federation President Perry Rush told Nine to Noon the degree of needs principals were seeing in schools was massive and climbing, despite a welcome pay deal that kicked in this month.

The historic pay equity claim kicked in for 22,000 teacher aides, backdated to the start of the school year, costing the Ministry of Education $348 million over five years. 

While principals welcomed the pay boost, they said it was difficult to implement and calculating for the variability of teacher aide hours could leave schools out of pocket, and having to sacrifice money elsewhere. 

Rush said while they welcomed a pay deal, the funding matrix was too hard to use.

"Unfortunately after these employment expectations were agreed with teacher aides, the ministry and the union then issued a set of guidelines that substantively ... changed the ballpark.

"Many principals then had to go back to their teacher aides and they had to wind those expectations back and say 'actually look, we've been generous, but the guidelines that have been issued after the fact paint a very different picture."

Last month Otago principals wrote to the government to say the chronic underfunding of high-needs students was placing an untenable burden on schools and putting teachers, support staff and students at risk. 

He said the need when it came to violent behaviour and learning support was massive and climbing.

President of the Principals Federation Perry Rush.

Perry Rush. Photo: supplied

"There's insufficient funding to deal with that reality and principals are just increasingly being caught in a vice - the vice of being asked to discharge their duties responsibly and professionally, but having insufficient support and funding to do that adequately."

He said the biggest challenge was the nature of the needs, which were "impossible to budget for it because it's hard to predict".

Rush said the difficult conversations were yet to be had around how to meet the needs of young people in serious difficulty.

The head of a decile one school said poverty, stress and trauma were leading to rising levels of behavioural problems in students.

Lynda, who did not want her last name used, was among those speaking out about the complicated funding tool for teacher aides that was causing unintended problems for schools.

She also welcomed the pay deal for teacher aides, but said support was still needed for high-needs children such as those who were non-verbal, violent or self-harming.

"Then we have children in nappies, we have children with high health needs - sometimes life-threatening health needs."

Rush said there was a large and growing need nationally to help young people who self-harmed.

"These are young people who take a blade to their bodies. You can't get assistance - any psychological support for young people who choose to damage themselves through self-harm.

"It's not deemed to be serious enough to trigger a serious help response, including teacher-aide support to oversee that young person to keep them safe.

"That's the degree of challenge we are facing in schooling - we have teachers putting up with that reality at the moment, without sufficient funding to get to those young people to help them."

The ministry said in a statement it was continuing to work with schools and kura to support them as they implemented the new rates.

In the statement, deputy secretary for early learning and student achievement Ellen MacGregor-Reid, said was a complex claim involving 18,000 teacher aides employed by 2400 schools and kura across New Zealand. 

"Most teacher aides have received an increase ranging from 19-30 percent on their pay rates in 2019. Starting in August this year, schools and kura have received additional pay equity funding to pay the new rates to their teacher aides. The value of the settlement over the next five years is $347 million.

"The work done in partnership with NZEI Te Riu Roa and the New Zealand School Trustees Association (NZSTA) ensured that teacher aides received their first payment on 4 November, just four months after the ratification of the settlement in June."

The ministry has been approached for further comment on the issues raised by principals.