Thursday, May 04, 2006

Editorial: PPTA must take long, hard look

The Post-Primary Teachers Association has reacted with remarkable equanimity to alarming findings on the state of the teaching profession. Teachers, the Massey University report concludes, comprise a fractured workforce, with some decrying their colleagues as lazy, incompetent and uninterested while others buckle under workloads and unruly classes.

That verdict does not faze Debbie Te Whaiti, the association's head. Any workplace would, in her view, have similar fractures when it came to feedback on colleagues' performance.

To some degree, that may be true. But not to the extent outlined in the report, which was commissioned by the Teachers Council and the Ministry of Education. It uncovered a catalogue of woes. Teachers felt "overloaded, inadequately rewarded, undervalued and insufficiently supported". Perhaps most worryingly, the report forecast recruiting difficulties as the next generation spurned a career in teaching, seeing it as "underpaid, stressful and too ordinary".

If, as seems to be the case, the PPTA construes all that as normal, it will be doing teachers a gross disservice. Instead, it should be pondering the reasons for this crisis in morale. And the fact that any objective analysis would conclude that the union's own policies have played a major part in creating, and perpetuating, the situation.

At the seat of the teachers' grievance is the fact that the present system of national pay bargaining denies schools the opportunity to reward those who distinguish themselves in the classroom through excellence and hard work. The same arrangement pays poor teachers too much. Unhindered by appraisal systems, they coast on the coat-tails of better colleagues. It is no wonder many in the latter category feel aggrieved.

The solution lies in payment by performance, through workplace bargaining and individual contracts. While that is the norm elsewhere, it has been thwarted by the PPTA, which foresees, and fears, a greatly reduced influence on the fabric of education. The same impulse prompted the union to oppose the trend to greater autonomy for schools. Once that included bulk funding, the vehicle which allows schools to tackle the workload of teachers by paying staff salaries out of their bulk grant.

The introduction of the National Certificate of Educational Achievement, in place of an examination-based qualification, has undoubtedly placed far more pressure on teachers' time. The report confirms, unsurprisingly, that it has become a significant source of discontent. Reducing the workload hinges on schools being able to employ more, and better quality, teachers. Freedom to pay by performance, and no longer be shackled by a system that sponsors mediocrity, would allow that.

The Government, unfortunately, seems as reluctant as the PPTA to acknowledge as much. The startling message of the Massey report seems barely to have registered with the Education Minister. Steve Maharey says the formula for raising professional standards will centre on "increased salaries, professional development and awards for excellence". In other words, nothing will change.

That approach has led to the present crisis in teacher morale. It is time the Government and the PPTA acknowledged that, and the fundamental reason for it. Teachers may also be demoralised by having to battle what they see as an accumulated lack of respect from the Government, pupils, parents and the public. But the best of them are more aggrieved that their excellence and diligence is going unrewarded. Pay by performance would explicitly recognise their value and their important contribution to society.

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