In her final months as Minister of Education, Hekia Parata repeatedly quoted a figure for school funding that left principals bewildered and, in some cases, downright infuriated.
In Parliament, media releases and news reports, the Minister stated that “funding for schooling” or “Vote Education” had increased by 35 percent since 2008.
The implication appeared to be that schools were flush with cash and the numerous principals complaining who had to cut support staff and student resources were simply doing a poor job of balancing their budgets.
Brian Eales is the principal of Clive School, in the small but growing town of Clive, nestled between Napier and Hastings. He was so irritated by the Minister’s assertions that he contacted NZEI Te Riu Roa to share the past nine years of operational funding figures from his school.
Clive School has been decile 7 since 2006. In 2008, the per-student breakdown of his operations grant was $1156, compared with $1306 this year.
That’s an increase of 13 percent over 10 years. However, the Reserve Bank’s website calculates that a “basket of goods and services” that cost $1156 at the beginning of 2008 would have cost $1344 by the end of 2016 – $38 more than Eales’ increase in per-student funding. And education costs have arguably increased by more than the CPI. 
NZEI and PPTA were also concerned about the “35 percent” figure and checked the Government’s own budget papers, which found that real per pupil spending on schools increased by just 2.3 percent from 2009 to the end of 2015, or less than 4 percent in total. The figures were verified by economic analysts Infometrics.
The Minister later confirmed what many had assumed – her figures included everything in the education budget, not just what schools received. The 35 percent includes everything from ministry consultants to IES, charter schools, rolling out National Standards and school rebuilds and construction.
So, what do those constrained budgets mean for schools?
The first thing to go at Clive School has been any additional external professional development for staff, including that of the principal. Next is anything but the bare essentials, and as parents’ household budgets tighten there is also a drop off in donations to the school, “and yet we are expected to provide these extras”.
“And yet staff development is the thing we need the most to continue lift the performance of staff or keep their development progressing. And is that wise? Well, what else do we cut back? We can’t cut back the heat, light and water,” says Eales.
“Yes, there is new PLD but only if you use a select number of providers. It’s not always possible when you book a year ahead.”
In addition, Eales points out that the school has had to pick up costs that it never used to, such as training and compliance with the Health and Safety at Work Act, safety equipment, monthly testing of the school’s water bore and additional hours on payroll issues.
“You cannot get the lifts in everything that the Minister demands unless you are willing to fund and support those lifts. We would be the only ‘industry’ expected to spin silk out of number 8 wire,” says Eales.
Fundraising is a constant activity. The community helped raise $70,000 to refurbish the pool and it took two years to raise $37,000 to repair deteriorating concrete playing surfaces – another school maintenance expense not covered by the ministry.
Eales says the school board and community believe in equity. This means paying the Living Wage to the school’s highly valued support staff and ensuring every child gets the learning support they need. The Ministry only makes a contribution towards ORS-funded teacher aides and students.
The school has four children with ORS funding but it doesn’t cover the fulltime one-on-one assistance they actually need, so the school tops up from the operations grant, as most schools do, but that comes at the expense of other children who might be at risk of not achieving.
But Eales is determined to stay positive: “It’s through their professionalism, goodwill and dedication, that teachers get on and do it, principals get on and do it and communities get on and do the best they can for their children. If it wasn’t for that degree of partnership we would have quite a sorry situation in New Zealand.”
Loss of teacher aides
Over the past few years Lepperton School principal Charles Gibson has been noticing that the operations grant is increasingly inadequate.
At the beginning of this year, the North Taranaki school was staring down the barrel of a $75,000 operating deficit.
The board has managed to get the budget back in line but it has come at a high cost – teacher aide jobs and hours.
“We’re a school of 180 kids. We had five fulltime teacher aides and now we have only one fulltime and another two do four days a week until lunchtime,” says Gibson.
“Talking to other principals, they’ve had to lay off even more than me. The problem of course is that we are getting even more and more either behavioural or learning issues with the kids who are coming through and they don’t get support. We presently have no ORS funded kids, so we are paying our support staff ourselves.”
Gibson says the only part of the operations budget that can be cut is support staff, “so that’s where you make the cut, and it’s awful.”
“The cost of everything else has gone up and we’re trying to provide so much more. Even the administration has got so complex and so much more, so you need more hours there. It’s just across-the-board cost increases.”