Education status quo increasingly unjust

Education has become a competitive environment between schools, writes Peter Lyons.

I still have a quaint belief in the concept of equality of opportunity.

That a society should ensure that, as much as possible, all young people should be given a decent start in life regardless of the happenstance of birth. The key areas where the state can attempt to redress the lottery of birth are education and healthcare.

In the 1990s, New Zealand adopted a model of a competitive market for schooling. Schools would compete for students. Their funding would be based on how many students they could attract.

The outcome was fairly predictable. Winner schools became larger and received more funding. This allowed them to poach talented staff and students from surrounding schools. It was largely a zero sum game. There was no discernible overall improvement in education outcomes.

We have since moved away from this market model of schooling with the reintroduction of zoning and some changes to school funding. But the competitive environment between schools remains.

The introduction of NCEA has made direct comparison of academic results between secondary schools problematic. Schools have found other ways to market themselves. These include sport academies, lavish school productions and the building of state-of-the-art facilities.

The performance of a school's First XV can become paramount in showcasing the prestige of the school. The announcement of the dux draws little media attention.

In larger urban areas, schools still compete to attract the best students and staff. In rural areas, schools compete with urban schools to attract and retain quality staff.

As we enter a period of teacher shortages, competition for staff is about to go ballistic. Schools are starting to poach quality staff from each other.

The problem is that those schools best able to offer attractive packages to entice staff generally cater to the most affluent in our society. They have significant alternative funding sources such as past alumni, high fees, fundraisers and overseas fee-paying students.

This inequality has always existed but as teacher shortages become more endemic, this unlevel playing field will tilt even further. The children of the affluent will receive an even greater education premium over the children of the less affluent.

Teacher pay has always been a battleground. A war of attrition regardless of who is in government. Teacher unions have fought against performance pay and pay differentials for hard-to-staff subjects while trying to increase overall teacher remuneration. Politicians pay lip service to quality public education while wanting to minimise expenditure on teacher salaries.

There are few votes in raising teacher salaries and it opens a can of worms for pay claims by other public servants. Our politicians work in three-year time horizons. Meaningful educational changes require a longer-term vision.

What has evolved is an antagonistic negotiating environment that demeans teaching as a profession. Teachers are required to periodically tap the wellspring of public support by marching, striking and standing on traffic islands waving placards. It sends a very unfortunate message to our young people about the value of teachers in New Zealand.

What is becoming apparent is that teacher unions need to drastically change their approach. They are slowly losing credibility, particularly among younger teachers who don't appreciate the strength of collective bargaining.

They are helping maintain a status quo that is becoming increasingly inequitable. Affluent schools that have the means to offer teachers better salary packages will do so. Less affluent schools that cater for less affluent students will be left with whatever they can get.

Equality of opportunity for our young people is becoming the stuff of nostalgic musings by elderly economics teachers. There is an urgent need to address how much we pay our teachers and how accountable they are on an individual basis. The system of teacher pay and performance needs to be overhauled.

-Peter Lyons teaches economics at St Peter's College in Epsom and has written several economics texts.

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