There are exciting times ahead for education workers in female-dominated roles with low pay.

Following the $2 billion provision in the budget to settle the ground-breaking Kristine Bartlett case for 55,000 caregivers, momentum is building for equal pay in education.

Talks for the NZEI Te Riu Roa education support workers’ case with the Ministry of Education are progressing through the agreed three month timeline for a constructive resolution for their pay equity claim.

The early childhood education sector will also be a focus for equal pay, with the low pay in community and commercial ECE services being given new focus.

The Terms of Settlement for the Support Staff Collective Agreement, to be voted on by members in paid union meetings, include a commitment from the Ministry of Education to finalise the process within a month of signing ,  for a teacher aide pay equity claim.

Ally Kemplen is one support staff NZEI Te Riu Roa member who sees the potential the equal pay path has to resolve long-standing concerns about funding and pay for support staff.

“I’m cautiously optimistic about the equal pay process. It could be light at the end of the tunnel. Even though education didn’t get the allocation needed in this year’s budget, I have the sense that what we are doing will effect change.”

Kemplen has been a teacher aide at Newton School in Auckland since 1998, and over the years her role has morphed into more of an education advocate, as she developed a skill set working with children with high behavioural needs who have experiences trauma, neglect and abuse.

“I’m aiding teachers, yes, but I’m also liaising with teachers and a range of agencies.”

She sees the role as being a regular, stable presence in children’s lives – not emotionally attached but able to provide the routine these children need. She felt both sad and glad sitting in a family court group conference which decided that the child shouldn’t be moved to another school, as their only significant relationship was at school.

This stability was made real when her role was made permanent, several years into her role.

“This made all the difference to me. I no longer had the uncertainty of waiting for that letter that would tell me if I had a job the next year I felt valued by the principal and board and it was very affirming for me. And I didn’t have to do the Christmas panic!”

However, the school is still in a constant battle for resourcing for these children, and it feels like resources are diminishing every year. “We currently have two amazing young women teacher aides, talented, and asking all the right questions about the children they’re working with

“These staff are on fixed-terms [contracts], and as a school we’re grappling with the challenge of how do we hold on to them? We want the best people at our school, not just the ones who have a number of free hours per week.”

Kemplen says equal pay would make a huge difference for her and support staff at her school. It would mean being able to start saving and easing of financial worries. She shares the story of her adult son’s friend, in his first job in the construction industry and earning the same as Kemplen, 24 years older and highly experienced.

“I understand the risk and value associated with his work, but it doesn’t seem fair that there is the same financial value placed on our work.”

“Our pay has been kept down by the idea that this is just a mother helper role – lovely to have you around, you can give the kids a cuddle. But we need to update our view. This is a paraprofessional role. We have the same professional responsibilities as other staff across the school.”

She says that there needs to be sufficient central funding for support staff so schools don’t have to make decisions between things and people. “That’s not how schools are. We value everyone and the current funding model doesn’t reflect our values. Teacher aides are working with some of the most vulnerable children. If we want them to be as successful as possible in a school setting – support staff are vital to that. “