Truth or fable: Are teachers underpaid? We unpick the figures on both sides

The PPTA said the Ministry will always find something to suggest they don't need to pay teachers more. Of course, the ...

The PPTA said the Ministry will always find something to suggest they don't need to pay teachers more. Of course, the Ministry disagrees.

In Part Two of our look at the teacher shortage, we take a microscope to claims made by the Ministry of Education and unions about teachers' salaries, along with readers' comments about school holidays. 

While the median wage has clearly outpaced teachers' salaries over time, the Ministry of Education has pointed out the latter has outpaced the Labour Cost Index (LCI). 


In short, the Ministry and the unions disagree about how to measure whether teachers are underpaid. 

Both teacher unions — Post Primary Teachers Association (PPTA) and New Zealand Educational Institute (NZEI) — have raised the subject ahead of pay negotiations next year. The PPTA has said teachers' wages need to increase by 14.5 per cent to restore top teachers to the same relativity of 81 per cent above the median wage that they achieved after their last big pay rise in 2001/02.

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PPTA president Jack Boyle reckons his union is in a "strong position" to renegotiate and it's a matter of "when not if" they will strike. 

But Ellen MacGregor-Reid, the Ministry's head of early learning and student achievement, said teachers' pay has not only kept pace but in fact exceeded the LCI.

If that's the case, then why are we experiencing a teacher shortage?

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The LCI provides an economy-wide measure of changes in pay rates costs, or the the rates employers pay to have the same job completed to the same standard. 

Dr Dennis Wesselbaum at Otago University's Department of Economics said the LCI does a pretty good job of tracking changes for the same type of work over time. One problem with the measure, he noted, was its sample is relatively small


It's important to note the salaries we're talking about here are at the top of the teacher pay scale. A teacher's base salary differs by sector and their actual pay will depend on qualifications, experience, and additional responsibilities.

Teachers got a big pay rise following 2002, which meant the top of the pay scale was 81 per cent above the median income. But the median income since 2003 has increased by 60 per cent while teachers' pay has only increased by 38 per cent over the same time.

Fast forward to 2017, and the top of the teacher pay scale is 56 per cent above the median income, at $78,000. Ideally, according to the PPTA, it should be around $90,000.

But the Ministry has pointed to the LCI as another baseline measure. And over the same timeframe (2003 to 2017), LCI increased by 37 per cent. Essentially, the LCI and teachers' pay over the past 20 years have remained relatively in sync with each other, with teachers' pay slightly above the LCI. Meanwhile, median income has shot up.



Let's be clear: there's no 'right' baseline measure. Your perspective on that will depend on whose side you're on. 

The Ministry's MacGregor-Reid said: "The LCI tracks nearly 6000 jobs and reflects changes in the rates that employers pay to have the same job done to the same standard. Rises to match the market, retain staff, or reflect the cost of living are shown in the LCI, while rises reflecting individual performance or years of service are filtered out."

But PPTA's Boyle contended the LCI was not a good measure. The LCI is affected by a range of factors other than just pay rates, he said.

"You can increase the LCI by firing your lower paid workers without having any impact whatsoever on the pay rates of those who are still working."

Plus, the current teacher shortage proved the LCI was not a good measure, he added. Theoretically, if relative rates had gone up, we should be seeing an improvement in teacher supply, but in reality we're seeing a dramatic drop in numbers. 

"​The LCI is not a measure that is used in teacher supply theory to predict changes in supply because it does not accurately identify relative wage changes and does not predict supply changes."



Next, we asked Wesselbaum, the economist, which measure he preferred.

One problem with the median is that it paints an incomplete picture of income distribution, he said.

"Both [measures] have benefits and shortcomings," he added. "At least the LCI is quality and quantity adjusted and allows to compare the 'same' job for teachers versus the 'same' job in the rest of the economy. I'm usually careful with those kind of indices because they rely on surveys and a lot of things are behind the curtain on how they are constructed. But, I think I personally would prefer the LCI over the median here.

"But, to be clear, the median comparison is not wrong. It is a straightforward statistical measure and using it is perfectly fine. However, it also hides underlying changes.


Plotted alongside other OECD countries, teacher pay in New Zealand sits around the middle.

This year, the Economist Intelligence Unit published the first Worldwide Educating for the Future Index, which assessed education systems in 35 economies. 

The index ranked New Zealand top of the class: full marks for curriculum, effectiveness of policy, teacher education, government investment, career counselling, collaboration between universities and industry, and cultural diversity and tolerance. But when it came to teacher pay, New Zealand dropped to 19th on the list of indexed economies for average high school teacher salary, based on purchasing power. 

The report noted that raising the professional and societal status of teachers, as has been done in Finland, is a better path to more effective teaching than simply raising salaries.


Following our first story, plenty of people were quick to point out that teachers have more holidays than most other salaried workers.

According to the collective agreements, primary teachers are legally required to attend school when it is closed to students for 10 days per year for "school administration, school preparation and coordination, pre-term planning curriculum and/or technical refreshment and/or professional development". Secondary teachers are required to attend for five days per year outside of teaching days.

Secondary schools are open to students for 38 weeks every year, primary schools for just under 39 weeks.

Once the additional out-of-term days are included it equates to a minimum of 39 weeks every year that secondary teachers are legally required to be at work or working and 41 weeks (or just under) for primary teachers.

Both contracts state that teachers should not work more than 40 hours per week Monday to Friday, where practicable, but that "in order to carry out their duties ... it may be necessary for teachers to work for more than 40 hours per week".

So legally teachers are required to work between 39 and 41 40-hour weeks per year. The average salaried Kiwi worker with four weeks annual leave clocks up 48 weeks of work a year.


Teachers will probably scoff at the above hours, with fair cause. 

A report from PPTA claims they work an average of 54.5 hours per week, including "on-site work, off-site work and extracurricular activity". A teacher with this workload would clock up the equivalent of 14 extra 40-hour weeks in a year, bringing their total workload for the year to about 52 40-hour weeks.

Of course, different teachers have different workloads and the PPTA is the very body lobbying for a pay increase for teachers.

A 2015 report by the independent New Zealand Council for Educational Research (NZCER) found that more than 60 per cent of secondary teachers worked more than 10 hours per week outside of the time students were at school, while 18 per cent worked at least an extra 20 hours.

And New Zealand teachers spend 850 to 900 hours in the classroom each year compared to an OECD average of about 700.



The main issue here in New Zealand is running out of teachers. Paying them more will likely help but not solve the problem long-term.

Primary teachers in particular say pay isn't keeping up with the increasing amount of paperwork required for the job, according to NZEI Te Riu Roa president Lynda Stuart. 

While teachers' pay has slipped against median wage, workload has grown steadily as more children present with complications of poverty and additional learning needs that the Government has chosen not to fund, she said.

"The teacher shortage is a direct consequence of poor pay, growing workload, and a lack of time to do what we do best - teach. 

"If we expect children to go to school to learn the critical skills and abilities they'll need when they grow up, then they need teachers: teachers with time to teach, and enough teachers for every school."

 - Stuff


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