Boost teacher numbers with one policy: Promoting part time teaching

Ellie Good, freelance researcher / postgraduate student

New Zealand’s critically low teacher supply has been well-documented in recent years, but the events of 2020 have put a substantial dent in the government’s strategy for raising teacher numbers. It is time for the education system to bring its employment culture into the 21st century to address the problem – and help the country back into jobs at the same time.

The scale of the problem

The 2020 Labour Party Election Manifesto notes that ‘as increasing numbers of teachers approach retirement age, we face the very real prospect of a critical teacher shortage unless urgent action is taken to avoid it.’ In fact, findings from the NZCER national survey of secondary schools in 2018 revealed that recruiting quality teachers was already the top issue for principals. That year, the PPTA discovered that while advertised vacancies had increased, the average number applicants per position had declined to its lowest recorded level, with 30% of vacancies receiving no suitable applicants. The impact of these shortages can include forcing school leaders to compromise on quality teaching staff, reducing curriculum options, or increasing class sizes.

Measures introduced in the 2019 budget package to boost teacher numbers included attracting 400 overseas teachers. However, Covid-19 travel restrictions now mean that overseas recruitment in significant numbers may not be possible in the short term. And even when recruitment of overseas teachers is possible, it is a questionable solution. The PPTA study found, for instance, that only one in eight overseas applicants for teaching vacancies were suitable for consideration.

Why part time teaching?

Without large numbers of overseas teachers, it is retaining existing teachers, and boosting recruitment of trainee teachers, that represent our most accessible and sustainable tools to increase teacher supply. However, research published by He Whakaaro revealed that in 2017, roughly 10.5% of New Zealand’s qualified teachers left the profession. This figure has stayed relatively consistent over several years and represents the loss of approximately 2900 experienced teachers every year. In a 2019 survey of primary teachers leaving the teaching profession, the most common reason cited for leaving teaching was for a better work life balance. Could part time work be part of the solution? In a UK study, teachers recommended flexible and part time work as something that would encourage them to stay in their job, as well as a reduction in workload. When teachers’ actual destinations after leaving teaching were tracked by NFER, they found that the number working part-time went up by 20% after leaving.

Part time work is a particularly attractive option for those who have young families and those nearing retirement. New Zealand census data from 2013 revealed that of those working part time, 70% were women and 13% were aged 65 years and over. Research conducted by UK flexible working consultancy Timewise found that 58% of women returning to teaching after a year or more out of the profession would prefer a part-time role. Part time work is likely to be particularly important to teachers in NZ, given that since the start of the data record, women have formed most of the teacher workforce. 76% of teacher were women in 2019, and 9.7% were over 65.  However, while 20% of NZ workers across all sectors work part time, only 17.6% of teachers do. The figures above make little sense unless substantial barriers to part time teaching exist.

Covid-19 is also expediting the already occurring shift towards flexible work. In the ‘Shaping Business’ study conducted by 2degrees, 58% of New Zealand SMEs have introduced flexibility around hours and days in the office for employees since the end of lockdown. Even before the pandemic, Timewise pointed out that job adverts across all sectors mentioning the words ‘part-time’ get 13% more interest than others. With applications for teaching vacancies at a historic low, it appears that part time working could be what is missing from our teacher recruitment and retention strategy.

What are the barriers?

One barrier to part time teaching jobs is simply that they are scarce. A snapshot search on the Education Gazette Vacancies webpage on 8th October 2020 showed that the proportion of part time roles across all 790 advertised vacancies was only 5.6%. This is at a time when we have the highest unemployment figure since records began, and of those who have lost their jobs, 90% are women. While the Government has allocated $3 billion to infrastructure projects to bolster employment opportunities as part of their recovery plan, the jobs created will be in largely male dominated sectors. Industries dominated by women have not seen substantial investment despite the much greater effect of the pandemic on women’s unemployment. If a large number of women are looking for work, and women are more likely to become teachers, and women are more likely to prefer part time work; then why are we not providing more part time teaching opportunities?

While no research has been conducted in NZ on school leaders’ attitudes to part time working, evidence presented by the NFER in the UK found that school leaders were hesitant to offer part time roles because of concerns about its practical implementation. To achieve a culture change, it will be vital to gain the support of school leaders, by showcasing tried and tested solutions to issues of timetabling, continuity, and communication, including switching to fortnightly timetables, revising the pastoral support system, and improving IT systems to enable easier staff communication and remote access for part timers.

Research from the UK suggests that a major barrier for teachers in requesting or accepting part time work was that they suspected their schools would not agree to the request, and their concerns about part-time work limiting career progression. School leaders must make part-time working patterns visible at all levels, including senior management, to demonstrate that career progression will not be limited by part time hours.

It was also important to teachers that they were not penalised in terms of salary or the ability to keep positions of responsibility when taking up part time roles. In New Zealand, then, an obvious barrier is that part time teachers are paid less than full time teachers for equivalent work. Part time teachers are not paid for non-contact time (intended for planning and marking) that full-time teachers are paid for. This inequitable pay system has been contested by the PPTA for sixteen years and is likely to contribute to a persistent gender pay gap within the education system. As changes to the Equal Pay Act (introduced in November) mean that it will now be easier for pay equity claims to be raised directly with employers, the time has come to reward part time teachers with equal pay for equal work.

The research referenced here strongly suggests that the creation and promotion of equally paid and valued part-time teaching roles has the potential to improve teacher retention, increase the appeal and accessibility of the profession in the long term, and boost employment as a whole. However, the lack of New Zealand based research into the demand for, and barriers to flexible and part time teaching roles, means it is difficult to estimate the extent to which teacher supply would be affected by particular policy changes. Further research is needed into the perceptions of New Zealand’s graduates, teachers and school leaders surrounding part time and flexible roles. A well-designed, large-scale, domestic study would enable policy makers to understand the size of the potential impact of changes, and the levers at policy and practice level that would make a more flexible school employment culture work.

As the labour market experiences rapid change, and teacher supply becomes increasingly critical, a change in the culture and conditions in our schools is urgent in order to get talented teachers and potential teachers into our schools and ensure that New Zealand can continue to offer quality education for our students.

Ellie Good is a freelance researcher and Public Policy postgraduate student who has spent 15 years working in education leadership roles in London and Wellington. When not working, Ellie can usually be found drinking too much coffee and letting the dog sleep on her lap.

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