Partnership requires trust and transparency
When Education Minister Chris Hipkins spoke at the recent PPTA conference and committed to “working in partnership” with teachers and the union, the general view was that he meant it, (some in attendance were a bit more cynical, of course).
Chatting to a couple of activists afterwards I heard a few comments like, “actions speak louder than words” and “we can’t talk about partnership when there’s daylight between what we know we need and what we’re being offered”. No doubt our current negotiations are front of mind for teachers and politicians alike, but leaving that aside - for the moment - It’s worth examining the evidence for partnership after a year of a new government.
The legislative changes made in the last 12 months have dealt directly with some of the issues we’ve raised for years.
After a decade of ‘squeeze and measure’ educational policies that eroded teacher agency, drove up compliance-related workload and seriously damaged the trust between government and the profession, the swift removal of National Standards and charter schools and the re-democratisation of our regulatory body must be acknowledged.
There has definitely been a more explicit ‘partnership orientation’ in the design of the Education Work Programme and in the operations of ministry working groups than we experienced around the creation of the Education Council, Communities of Online Learning or charter schools under the previous administration.
It’s also pretty clear that this ‘partnership’ approach has come from the top, having been articulated by the minister at the International Summit of the Teaching Profession in Portugal earlier this year – in a commitment he made with union leaders that, “anything affecting the profession would be designed and implemented with the profession”.
Whether or not we’ve completely escaped the ‘non-sultation’ of the last decade may remain to be seen but things have certainly looked more promising over the last year.
Shared problem solving
Despite these positive signs, there are some pretty big issues on the horizon and we know much more will be needed for genuine and sustained partnership to make possible our shared commitment to the best education for all our rangatahi.
The people needed to deliver on the government’s vision are not choosing education as a career. The decreasing relative salaries and burgeoning workloads of our workforce are why we cannot recruit, and will continue to be unable to retain, sufficient numbers of teachers to deliver on the government’s vision.
Sadly, the quick ‘fixes’- from relocation grants for teachers living overseas, to increased money for recruitment companies have not been designed in partnership. I rather suspect the government hopes they are some kind of alternative to properly resolving the current collective agreement negotiations…
If we really are working together in partnership, we should not have to spell out to ministry officials that they need to be totally upfront about the challenge, stop ignoring our evidence and overselling the effectiveness of their ‘solutions’ - because that does not build trust.
Making “she’ll be right” statements knowing full well that the new Ministry of Education teacher shortage model underestimates the size of the shortage is basically the same as saying unions are over-egging the whole thing – we are not.
The same goes for showing no obvious qualms about describing 2000 people clicking on a website in a foreign country as if they were already in front of our students. In fact, there are only about 200 overseas teachers assessed as ‘ready to teach’ and they aren’t in jobs, haven’t been through an interview process and won’t have accessed the sort of preparation for teaching in Aotearoa that our kids deserve.
And there’s the rub. While ‘partnership’ doesn’t mean you always end up agreeing, it has to mean you keep trying to find solutions - and that requires trust and transparency. Dressing things up or deliberately downplaying them limits partnership.
As the minister declared in his recent speech – the sort of partnership that happens around the negotiating table “is much harder”. No doubt acknowledging how far behind teachers’ salaries have dropped, how heavy their workloads and how bad the shortages really are, will cause all sorts of political consternation.
But at the same time, without a commitment to working in genuine partnership to redress these issues, there is a real risk the minister’s speech imploring the profession to, “think beyond the current collective agreement negotiations and resolve to work with us over the longer term” could actually end up eroding the trust he has worked so hard to build.