The staffing formula, education’s third rail

At budget time, interested observers will notice that there's a lot of discussion about school operational funding, whether it's gone up or down, and how it's tracking compared to inflation, but there isn't the same analysis of how much is being spent on teachers. The reason for this is simple: the order in council that establishes the staffing formula.

Two of the biggest scraps in education in recent years have essentially been about the same thing, though that’s not what it looked like on the surface.  Understanding why these are related, and why teacher and public outrage led to government back-downs should be a salutary lesson for new or aspiring Ministers of Education.

In 2012, Minister Parata’s self-declared ‘annus horribilis’ , her main ‘horribilis’ was the plan to increase class sizes, or more precisely change  the staffing ratios for students in years 2-10.  Teachers and principals’ reactions were predictably outraged, cartoonists had a field day and barely any one spoke up in favour.

I was on a flight from Christchurch to Invercargill during the thick of this and sat next to a young dairy farmer who’d just sold his farm and gone into consulting.  This well off southern father of three didn’t think it was a good idea at all, despite his party allegiances. When usually conservative principals of schools in John Key’s electorate started writing in, the story goes, Cabinet got cold feet and reversed their plans.

Then in 2016 as part of the funding review one of the seven plans for changes to the funding system involved getting rid of the staffing formula altogether and cashing up teacher funding for schools.  As is well documented, NZEI and PPTA held the biggest union meetings the country has seen in decades, and the rest of the sector including principals and trustees backed us.  Again, the government backed down.

A less well known attempt at the staffing formula almost happened in 2009 soon after National came to power. This was when the formula for year 1 students came down to 1:15. Treasury and some people in government were trying very hard to get out of following through on the commitment that the Labour government  had made, but Cabinet, no doubt predicting the sad pictures of five year olds and their outraged parents, didn’t have the stomach for the scrap. And it’s worth noting, in 2012 when they did have a go at the staffing formula, the plan wasn’t to touch the year 1 ratio.

While the change proposed in 2012 was in reality pretty minimal – shifting the formula up at some levels and down at others, with an overall saving of just $43 million a year, the public response was revealing. There seems to be an iron law, and it’s one which Treasury officials and  politicians will hate but should probably learn well: the staffing formula can only move one way, and that’s down. The political damage of the reverse is just too high.

The reason why the staffing formula’s such a popular target for government is of course the same reason why it’s so valued by teachers. It creates a rock solid calculation that, combined with the salary costs in collective agreements, commits a significant proportion (around 60-70%) of public spending on schools. As the numbers of students aren’t able to be controlled by government (yet), and salary costs can’t always be as managed as they’d like (thanks to union members’ willingness to take industrial action), this is a good few billion dollars that is bloody hard to subject to public policy fads… such as social investment, or austerity.

Spending that’s committed like this has some real advantages for the public, the ultimate beneficiaries of our education system, and it seems to me that there’s a widespread tacit understanding of this.  Basically, there’s transparency and equity in the way in which the most critical part of education – teachers working with students – is resourced. While health funding can be fudged and switched between ‘buckets’, benefit thresholds can be shifted, infrastructure spending can be ‘committed’ and then delayed – whatever school your child is in they’ll be generating a predictable ‘portion’ of a teacher. This basic fairness of this is something that most people seem to agree is worth maintaining.

Shifts that save $43 million a year in the health or social welfare sectors might not even be visible without a forensic analysis of budget documents, and even then Ministers and their comms teams will fudge it and claim it’s being spent more effectively somewhere else.  But as a result of the staffing formula, this sort of change is crystal clear in education. That’s one of the main reasons why, even though I think the government probably didn’t actually intend to cut costs right away with the proposed move to a ‘global budget’ last year, it was worth fighting off.

While the third rail metaphor may be a bit strong (i.e.  it’s not actually ‘killed’ a government’,  possibly because they’ve backed down before actually going to an election on this), it’s probably the closest thing we have in education to those other infamous ‘third rails’, with the classic being raising the age of super. Maybe a more kiwi metaphor would  work instead: a bloody strong electric fence;  you can touch it, and even hold onto it for a while if you’re tough or mad enough, but it’s going to hurt a lot.


Image by Kreuzschnabel/Wikimedia Commons, License: artlibre

Last modified on Friday, 26 May 2017 14:29