Fair Go: English test holding teachers back, prompts petition

At Bizzykids Early Childhood Learning centre in South Auckland, the children are just finishing a lesson counting in te reo before heading over to the story mat. 

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It seems we have too many school children and not enough teachers. Source: Fair Go

Their teacher, Razia, quickly engages them in a tale of an angry bear and his quest for honey. 

Razia is on a quest of her own too, and like the bear, she's angry.

She wants to be registered as an Early Childhood Teacher.

It's been three years now since she achieved her Bachelor's degree with flying colours here in Auckland and she feels stuck.

Stuck on $18 an hour, rather than at least $23 an hour that she'd get as a registered teacher.

Stuck in the position of being unqualified which means she can't be promoted, and she can't even open or close the centre where she works by herself. 

Razia's problem is that she was born in Fiji, where English isn't the first language, so she has an additional requirement to pass an English Language test before she can get her registration.

To listen to Razia, you wouldn't think this was much of a barrier.

She chats away in good English, throws in typical kiwi expressions, and with the children she also speaks in te reo.

Despite this, Razia, and many others like her, are at breaking point.

Despite taking the test repeatedly, she's narrowly failing to get the marks she needs. Razia has scored the required level of 7 in her reading, speaking and listening every time. In writing though, she repeatedly gets 6.5. Her biggest frustration is that the tests are never returned so she never knows where she's going wrong. "Are you losing point five from grammar? or spelling? or not putting things in the right paragraph?" Razia is never sure, and the costs keep mounting. Each test is $385. Razia has taken the test five times. She's also spent a whopping $14,000 on tutoring over three years. She says she can't face taking the test again and is considering leaving the profession to find work that is better paid. 

The testing is set by the Teaching Council of New Zealand. They use four tests designed and assessed abroad. The most popular is the IELTS test as it's easily accessible, but many involved in Early Childhood Education question whether the tests used are the right ones. IELTS was designed in Britain some thirty years ago. It has been updated, but many still believe it's too hard, and that a New Zealand specific test would be better. It's fair to say everyone involved in Early Childhood Education wants high standards, but not at the cost of losing good teachers. In fact, a petition has been started which now has nearly 700 signatures asking for a change to the current testing practice. 

If we go back to Razia, it does seem a little crazy. She was educated in English where she grew up in Fiji. She came to New Zealand, and did her Bachelor's degree in Auckland in English. She can't understand how her language isn't good enough, after all the reports, essays and speeches she has completed, along with three years using English in her daily work. One parent at the centre said "from day one, I remember Razia being the best in the classroom with my daughter Harper. Personally, I think [the testing] is a little ridiculous, she is more than capable. I don't think an English test improves her ability at all."

The Teaching Council stands by the fact that it has a responsibly to maintain standards, but does admit IELTS can be frustrating for some, especially regarding tests not being returned. Rex Smith, Team Leader of Registration, says they have been listening to the profession and are now looking at alternative tests. They're also considering working with Colleges that provide tertiary education to get them more involved in ensuring high standards of English Language as people begin their degree.

This is all very good news. But it's too late for Razia. When we got involved in her plight, her employers at Bizzykids were trying one last ditch attempt at getting her registered. They'd put together a dossier of testimonials from parents, teachers and staff, all praising Razia for her command of English, along with records of all her qualifications. Thankfully this story has a happy ending. Whether it was down to the dossier, or to Fair Go's involvement, we're very happy to report that just before Fair Go went to air, Razia was called to say her registration application had been granted, without her having to re-sit the test.

An over-joyed Razia couldn't quite believe it.

"There were lots of tears! This is a big, big achievement. Thank you to everyone who supported me, and thanks to Fair Go for showing how people are struggling with their career."