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Small school staffing struggles

Mauriceville School pupils [top from left] Matthew, Year 6; Jessica, Year 6; Alexander, Year 3; Ahniya, Year 4; Jacob, Year 5; and [bottom] Keira, Year 5. PHOTOS/TOM TAYLOR

Story by Tom Taylor

Primary school principals and teachers across the country are stressed and stretched to the limit due to inadequate staffing. Meanwhile, rural Wairarapa educators say that working at small schools comes with its own set of challenges.

The New Zealand Education Institute [NZEI Te Riu Roa] published a report this month that recommended sweeping changes to New Zealand’s primary school staffing policy.

The Puaotanga review found that high student-teacher ratios were among the leading issues preventing children from reaching their potential.

At small, rural schools, one or two pupils could make all the difference to those ratios, with the loss of any pupils from the school roll potentially affecting the school’s funding for teachers.

The Times-Age discussed these issues with two of the region’s smallest schools: Mauriceville School in the north and Pirinoa School in the south.

In 2019, Kim Lupo, an educator with more than 20 years’ experience, started her new role as principal of Mauriceville School, 20km north of Masterton.

In her previous job as deputy principal of Konini School in Wainuiomata, Lupo worked with 250 pupils daily.

“To come to a small school – it is significantly different,” she said.

Lupo began at Mauriceville with a roll of 30 pupils. That number had since dropped to just 16 pupils.

Under Ministry of Education staffing entitlements, a school roll must reach at least 26 pupils to warrant funding for two full-time equivalent [FTE] teachers. With 51 pupils, a school could access funding for three FTEs.

One submitter to the review described these thresholds as “magic numbers.”

Mauriceville School principal Kim Lupo with pupils [top from left] Matthew, Year 6; Jessica, Year 6; Alexander, Year 3; Ahniya, Year 4; Jacob, Year 5; and [bottom] Keira, Year 5.
Until the end of last year, Mauriceville had two FTE teachers. However, with just 16 pupils, Lupo was now the school’s principal and its only full-time teacher.

“I teach three days a week, and that’s on top of my load as a principal.”

The ministry had funded a day and a half of release time from the classroom for Lupo to carry out her responsibilities as principal. Mauriceville’s Board of Trustees had increased this allowance to two days using money from the school’s operations grant.

However, Lupo still had the same responsibilities as the principal of a larger school who might not be required to teach at all She said it was a challenge to balance the school’s management with the needs within the classroom – especially with pupils at Mauriceville ranging from five to 13 years old.

“Changing that class number, and reducing the. child-to-teacher ratio, would have a significant impact,” Lupo said.

Pirinoa School principal Eugene Moore agreed, saying staffing allocations had affected his school hugely.

“For me as a new beginning principal, it’s the thing that keeps me awake at night,” he said.

Only last year, Moore had taken on his new role at Pirinoa School, a 20-minute drive southwest from Martinborough. He frequently worked more than 60 hours a week.

According to the school’s website, 46 pupils were enrolled. However, Moore said this number had grown to 49 since the start of the year and would likely increase to the magic number of 51 by the end of the year.

Based on these projections, Moore had asked for a review of the school’s funding, but the MoE declined his application.

Instead, Pirinoa had to rely on community fundraising to provide a third teacher for the school.

“For the sake of two or three kids not on our roll, the ministry did not listen to what we were saying, and we lost about $70,000 of funding.”

Pirinoa teacher Natalie Lagah said this situation was common for rural schools, where roll growth could be slow.

“That’s just because of where we are,” Lagah said. “We rely on the farmers around here to give us kids.”

Lagah taught a class of 21 pupils in Years 6-8.

“Twenty kids is a nice-sized class,” she said. “Fifteen would be amazing, but 20 is manageable. It’s when you start getting over the 25s and into the 30s that it’s really hard to meet the needs of all the children.”

The Puaotanga review recommended replacing the magic number thresholds with incremental increases so that a school could employ a second FTE teacher in stages, growing to 1.3 FTE at 19 pupils, 1.6 FTE at 22 pupils, and 2.0 FTE at 26 pupils.

The report also recommended lowering these thresholds so that any school with fewer than 176 pupils would have a ratio of one teacher to every 20 pupils.

Moore supported the report’s stance.

“I think they need to take away the cap of 51 as a number. They need to listen and have a bit more faith in the numbers that we are projecting.”

Lupo said the thresholds had caused her a lot of stress.

“It’s always on my mind. If one child leaves, what does that do? It impacts our funding.”

Every September, the ministry would send each school a provisional operations grant entitlement notice.

However, the ministry could recalculate this funding during the year if a school’s operational funding components – including the number of pupils on its roll – had changed since the initial calculation.

“If you’ve already budgeted everything – and we run a very tight budget for the year – and suddenly you find you’ve lost even $1000, it can impact where you’re sitting,” Lupo said.

The Puaotanga report would inform NZEI Te Riu Roa discussions ahead of future collective agreement negotiations.

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