12 Feb 2021

Teacher shortage: Schools make do but 'it's not going to last'

11:57 am on 12 February 2021

Auckland principals warn the city's ongoing shortage of secondary teachers is causing schools to make compromises or abandon some subjects altogether.

education, school, learning, teaching and people concept - group of students and teacher talking in classroom

Covid-19 has prompted more teachers to return to the profession, the president of the Secondary Principals' Association says. Photo: 123RF

The Education Ministry has forecast a shortfall of 30 secondary teachers in the city this year, falling to 20 next year but rising to to 60 by 2023.

The ministry said the figures were a significant improvement on forecasts made in 2018 when the national shortage of secondary teachers was expected to exceed 2000 by 2025.

The figures were also better than previous years - in 2019 the ministry forecast a shortage of 130 secondary teachers in Auckland.

But Secondary Principals' Association president Deidre Shea, principal of Auckland's Onehunga High School, said schools were already using unusual measures to cope with the shortage this year.

"We can usually attract somebody either who had perhaps retired or into teaching a subject that isn't their specialty normally, that kind of thing, to cover the shortfall. That's the sort of thing you can do for a fixed period of time," she said.

Concern about borders reopening

Shea said such solutions were short-term, and things were likely to get worse when the borders reopened, allowing New Zealand teachers to go overseas and foreign students to return.

"We're in a bit of a wee bubble at the moment. Clearly when things move to more frequent travel and communication between countries that will change again and so there's lots of unknowns around the future, particularly around the luxury that we have at the moment of not having such a big shortage of secondary teachers. It's not going to last."

She said schools had noticed more people returning to teaching this year.

"It's mainly because of the situation we find ourselves in with Covid with people having lost jobs in other areas who perhaps are trained teachers already and people coming back to New Zealand because we export teachers quite frequently."

But she warned schools needed a longer-term solution and that was an increase in trained secondary teachers in specific subject areas - te reo Māori, technology, maths, chemistry and physics.

The ministry's forecast said Auckland secondary schools would need 7870 secondary teachers this year and Steve Hargreaves from the Auckland Secondary Principals' Association said principals had told him that staffing their schools has been easier than in previous years.

But he was worried by the outlook for 2023, when more than 8000 teachers would be needed.

"It's a real concern. If we're 60 short then that probably means that we're having to find teachers who aren't best suited to be in front of students. We're having to cajole people to delay retirement; we're having to put non-specialists in front of classrooms and that's far from ideal," he said.

Hargreaves said even next year's relatively small shortage of 20 teachers would be a problem.

"My concern is that we see a number like 20 and we think that's not too many teachers that we need to find, but it will be a shortage of chemistry teachers, mathematics teachers and in critical subjects like that we've got schools that just can't find those teachers and therefore they're having to put non-teachers in or give up subjects completely," he said.

Steve Hargreaves from the Auckland Secondary Principals' Association 

The president of the Secondary Principals Association and principal of Auckland's Onehunga High School, Deidre Shea

Steve Hargreaves and Deidre Shea Photo: Macleans College / Supplied

Bigger pool desirable

Hargreaves said schools should be able to choose from a bigger pool of teachers so they could put the best teachers in front of their students, but it was hard to encourage high-quality graduates to train as teachers.

"We just don't have those high-quality graduates training in sufficient numbers to staff our schools, particularly in mathematics, physics, chemistry, te reo Māori," he said.

"If you've graduated with a good mathematics degree or a good science degree the chances are you're not going teaching because the prospects elsewhere in other professions are much better."

He said his school was one of several training new teachers on-site with the University of Waikato and such programmes could help to increase the number of qualified teachers.

The ministry's deputy secretary early learning and student achievement, Ellen MacGregor-Reid, said the forecast for Auckland was a lot better than previous estimates and the pandemic had had an impact.

"Our forecasts have been positively affected in terms of demand and supply by both retention being high in the profession, so teachers remaining teaching, teachers not going offshore, Kiwis coming home, but equally we do not have the same level of international students in the country so that has reduced some of the demand for teachers," she said.

MacGregor-Reid said nationally and in Auckland primary school rolls were flattening or declining, while secondary school rolls were rising.

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