Support staff in schools face uncertain future due to lack of funding
Kids could miss out on the learning support they need as schools struggle with minimal operational grants increases they say won't cover a wage rise for support staff.
Support staff in schools are currently negotiating better pay and are in mediation with the Ministry of Education for pay equity, while the teachers' union NZEI is bargaining on their behalf for a rise in pay in their collective agreement.
Birkenhead Primary School's principal Nigel Bioletti said the school wanted the best possible conditions for its support staff, but the school was constantly fighting for support staff and resourcing for students, and the operational grants freeze last year had only made the situation worse.
On Thursday the Government announced $1.1 billion in new operating funding over the next four years, effectively ending a funding freeze to schools.
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Of that boost, $60.5 million was tagged to increase schools' operational funding by 1.3 per cent over four years. Another $63.3m would be spent on supporting students with additional learning needs.
More than 500 principals across New Zealand have signed an open letter to the Government which appears in the Sunday Star-Times today, asking for more funding to help schools pay their support staff should their wages go up.
NZEI president Lynda Stuart said the operating grants increase was not enough to cover inflation, and schools would continue to battle to make ends meet.
"It's not even a catch-up when you look at last year and this year ... it's a real concern for us in the sector."
The union was working hard to get better pay for support staff, but schools needed the resources to fund that pay increase.
The Budget announcement left no room for any wage increases for low-paid support staff who were going through the collective agreement negotiations with the ministry.
An increase in teacher aides pay could lead to a cut in the hours they worked at a school unless there was more money to pay them, Bioletti said.
"A teacher aide being paid more might get fewer hours. Fifteen hours support for a child next year might work out to 13. We can't create money of out nowhere unless you've got a lot of locally raised funds – in less affluent areas that would be a struggle."
A teacher aide at the school, Nicole Young, said any extra money would be a sign of respect for the work support staff did within the school and the community, but support staff were after job security as well.
Support staff hours could drop as funding hadn't been increased enough to cover potential wage rises, they may find they suddenly lose their job, or the hours offered could fluctuate from term to term due to a lack of funding certainty.
Giovanni Tiso and his partner Justine Fletcher have two children with autism who attend Berhampore Primary School. Their daughter Lucia qualifies for Ongoing Resourcing Scheme (ORS) funding, but that was topped up from the school's operational budget by about $4000.
Their son Ambrose also had autism, to a lesser degree, and diabetes, and he too required the support of a teacher aide.
"I think a lot of schools claim they can't afford it but the principal [of Berhampore School] has a nice analogy for it. He says 'I keep hearing there's not enough money for inclusive education, whereas I think there's not enough money for school buildings'."
The school chose to sacrifice building maintenance where it could, for example, to have more money to spend on inclusive education.
Fletcher said it was clear funding needed to increase beyond the increase tagged in the Budget 2017.
Tiso said anything that improved the conditions for support staff working in the classroom with the most high-needs children was good, as they had no job security from term to term.
Education Minister Nikki Kaye said since 2010 to 2016 the cumulative increase in government spending on operational grant funding was over 16 per cent, almost a third more than actual CPI inflation for the same time, which was 11 per cent.
"Pay increases are wider than just operational grants. For example, we have the Funding Review currently taking place which is looking at potential changes to the way schools are funded," she said.
- Sunday Star Times