JUDE BARBACK meets with new Post Primary Teachers Association (PPTA) president Jack Boyle and catches up with his predecessor Angela Roberts.
Jack Boyle: in pursuit of fairness and equity in education
“We need to throw the kitchen sink at making teaching a first choice profession,” says Jack Boyle.
He loves his clichés and metaphors, I notice. I’m not surprised to hear his background is in teaching English, drama and performing arts.
The new PPTA president has a pretty clear idea of what the proverbial ‘kitchen sink’ entails in this case: among other things, better collaboration between schools, more targeted funding, and culturally responsive, accessible professional learning and development (PLD).
At the heart of all this Boyle has one key priority: he wants to see fairness and equity in New Zealand education. He hasn’t wavered from this objective since he first joined the PPTA at a school level or as he progressed to regional level involvement with the union in 2009. It was around this time that he attended a PPTA conference.
“[The conference] was the best PLD I’d had at that point,” he says. The conference opened his eyes to how important, yet inaccessible, PLD opportunities were for teachers.
Boyle thinks the current one-size-fits-all, centralised and expensive approach to PLD isn’t cutting it.
“There’s an expectation for teachers to do their PLD in their own time, on their own dime,” he says.
The sector has come to rely on this “heroic model”, says Boyle. Senior subject associations for example, are vastly under-resourced – “they run on the smell of an oily rag” – yet could be the perfect vehicle for delivering high-quality, subject-specific PLD if they were adequately funded.
Boyle feels strongly that we need to move away from the competitive model that has infiltrated New Zealand education.
Under the Tomorrow’s Schools approach, school choice amounted to exit, he says, with families overlooking their local school and seeking out the higher decile schools down the road, without a thought given to the teaching quality on offer.
While he views Communities of Learning as a work in progress, he sees huge potential in them to enable more and better collaboration between schools.
“Doing it alone isn’t going to get the job done,” he says.
He is keen to see the CoLs succeed, and wants to be sure that the money set aside for Investing in Educational Success (IES) is being put to good use, after Labour’s Chris Hipkins lifted the lid on a massive underspend of the policy roll-out.
“I’d be really concerned if there was a slush fund sitting somewhere,” says Boyle.
When it comes to funding, Boyle doesn’t get too hung up on the overall level of the education budget. He’s more concerned that the amount being spent on education is bootstrapped to addressing equity in education.
“We want to see that the investment is what is needed and is adequate,” he says.
More focus on producing quality teachers – and giving them flexibility to teach
Another part of the jigsaw puzzle is getting teacher registration right – setting the bar high and providing opportunities for quality mentoring and support. Boyle says the input of ‘critical friends’ in a teacher’s development is such a valuable part of the mentoring process.
He doesn’t want to see New Zealand go down the path of countries that have introduced performance pay measures that have ultimately led to downward pressure on teacher salaries.
“Every teacher in New Zealand should be highly trained and competent and their initial remuneration should reflect this,” he says.
He is tentatively supportive of a postgrad approach to initial teacher education, preferring it to a “learn-on-the-job approach”. But again, the pay would have to reflect teachers’ levels of training and skill.
Teachers’ salaries are currently a contributing factor to teacher shortages in places where the cost of living is high, most notably in Auckland.
“You can’t put lipstick on that pig,” he says of the supply crisis, proffering the best metaphor of the conversation yet.
Ultimately, teachers need to be empowered, he says. Part of this relies on students and school communities feeling empowered as well. Boyle says there is a tendency for schools to foist systems and ideals on to their communities, rather than listen and reflect what they want and need. He’d love to see “cross-partisan consensus” between government, schools and communities.
Less bureaucracy and accountability
Part of this consensus hinges on the Ministry really listening to what teachers and principals need in order to do their job to the best of their ability. Boyle says teachers would like to see less pressure to complete the increasing amount of paperwork that is taking their focus away from teaching. The PPTA is anxious for feedback on the Ministerial Workload Working Group Report, which looks at how to remove, or at least reduce, administrative tasks that are taking teachers away from teaching.
Boyle says the other pressure that needs to be recognised relates to assessment. The way that NCEA is currently set up, with the Ministry’s 85 per cent achievement target bearing down heavily on schools, requires almost constant assessment.
“A student has a high-stakes assessment just about every two weeks,” says Boyle. He thinks the pressure of assessment on students and teachers is relentless and, again, distracts teachers from actually teaching.
Fresh approach to union leadership
Assessment has been brought to the discussion table by Gareth Morgan’s Opportunities Party, with the suggestion that NCEA assessment should be delayed.
Boyle is eager to have these discussions, especially with this being election year. The Greens’ policy on compulsory te reo is another debate well worth having, he says. He says he is driven by policy rather than any allegiance to a particular political party.
Boyle strikes me as having a slightly more diplomatic approach to working with government and other parties – or perhaps he is biding his time.
He doubts he’d ever take a stance like his predecessor Angela Roberts did when she announced she was no longer prepared for the PPTA to participate in the cross-sector taskforce as it lacked genuine sector consultation.
“The Ministry has some really good people and they genuinely have kids’ best interests at heart,” he says.
Even if the union disagrees with the way a certain policy is introduced or with its finer details, Boyle believes the Ministry’s underlying goal will generally be focused on improving outcomes for young New Zealanders.
He gives IES and the funding review as two recent examples of ‘heart in the right place’ policy initiatives with ‘devil in the detail’ implementation.
Boyle appears to be up for the challenge. Roberts was in the role for four years and I muse that he will have “big shoes to fill”.
“Yes, ‘this high’ stilettos,” he laughs, indicating with his fingers the height of Roberts’ heels.
He clearly has huge admiration for Roberts; however, I get the feeling that Boyle will bring his own leadership style to the table.
“I see myself as in a servant role, certainly not a figurehead,” he says, “I’m still not used to having a PA, but I’m getting better!”
Angela Roberts: what’s next after four years at the helm?
I catch Angela Roberts on her last day on the job. Tomorrow she heads back to Stratford, where she’ll pick up where she left off four years ago as HOD for the arts department at Stratford High School.
“My husband says it’ll be like riding a bike,” she says of returning to teaching after four years at the helm of the PPTA. “I sure hope so!”
Four years have apparently passed in the blink of an eye. Her children were young when she started and it’s been years of commuting and compromise to make it all work.
She hasn’t looked back since being shoulder-tapped for the role.
“I believe strongly in the female power of the shoulder tap. When others say, ‘This is something you should think about doing’, it makes you want to prove yourself.”
And proved herself she has. Four intense years is almost too long to boil down into a neat list of presidency highlights.
She walked straight into the Novopay fray when she took on the job .
“Peter Hughes and I were both new to our jobs. We didn’t have time to let egos get in the way. We just had to focus on finding solutions.”
Roberts points to OECD evidence that shows that when governments engage with teacher unions, it results in good policy being developed and implemented well.
“It’s not just about sitting around the table,” she says. “When I turn up to these discussions, it isn’t my opinion I’m sharing – it’s the views of the profession, formed democratically and informed by evidence. I always feel confident that it is robust.”
Investing in Educational Success (IES) is a good example of how the PPTA worked effectively with the Ministry to help develop a policy initiative.
Roberts described that when the Prime Minister presented the initial IES policy, they were suddenly within grasping distance of an opportunity to progress policy they had been trying to advance for about a decade.
IES offered a chance to push back against the competitiveness of Tomorrow’s Schools and to progress professional development opportunities for teachers. However, the model hinged on performance pay, which Roberts describes matter-of-factly as “a terrible idea” as it doesn’t incentivise teachers.
The collective agreements provide an opportunity to shift the emphasis of IES from pay to more teachers benefiting from the system.
Roberts concedes that IES is “not perfect” but rather is a work in progress. There are still supply issues and there isn’t much in it for middle leaders, she says – but with time and patience they can keep honing the policy. The sense of urgency the Minister is trying to inflict on IES is counter-productive, in her opinion.
IES policy was one of the few to divide the PPTA and the primary teachers’ union NZEI Te Riu Roa. Despite their different views on the policy, Roberts says they “kept talking to each other”.
“I think the recent bulk-funding campaign has proved that the relationships are strong enough,” she says.
The same is true with the PPTA’s relationships with the Ministry and government agencies.
“If we’re about to have a tough conversation with NZQA, for example, I’ll always preface it by saying something like, ‘You’ve got to remember the profession has invested heavily in NCEA’,” says Roberts.
NCEA is a good example. Roberts says teachers want to see it flourish, but they need to have “the liberty to play in the sandbox”. After a decade, a little more trust would go a long way.
NCEA is on Roberts’ list of ‘unfinished business’ from her time as PPTA president, although I get the sense that it is one of those jobs for which you never reach the bottom of your ‘to do’ list.
Another item on the list is teachers’ workloads. Teachers are frustrated by the increasing levels of accountability placed on them by various agencies.
“Teachers didn’t get into teaching to fill out forms,” says Roberts. “The focus seems to be on satisfying the needs of a bureaucrat in Wellington and not the needs of students in my classroom.”
Roberts is looking forward to being back in the classroom. She says she is curious to view teaching through a different lens.
She acknowledges that while technology has moved forward, the fundamentals, such as the relationships and reflective practice, will be unchanged.
She will remain on the executive of the PPTA, sliding into the vice-president role, which will see her supporting her successor, Jack Boyle, who, she says, is “itching to get stuck in”.
She reflects on how her role at the PPTA has changed over time. Once the “youngest by about 10 years” and writing up papers on induction and mentoring processes for young teachers, Roberts now finds herself passing the baton to those coming up through the ranks and sharing with them how to write their own papers and bring awareness to issues.
There has been some speculation about her next move – will she seek a senior leadership role? Or will she consider a career in politics? Roberts says both are possibilities.
I get the impression she would relish a political position.
“I really enjoy the work I do in Wellington. I love having a constituency and finding out where the solution lies. And sometimes we do effect change.”
Roberts says timing is everything.
“It might come down to the ‘shoulder tap’ again,” suggests Roberts.
For now, however, she is looking forward to heading back home and back into the classroom. Although I don’t think it will be long before she is tempted into the world of politics.