The union conducted an email survey of 1749 primary and intermediate principals on Monday, with 700 responding within 24 hours.

Of those 700, 30 per cent reported no suitable applicants for vacancies and 90 per cent said they struggled to find relievers.

Almost 52 per cent of principals said they did not have all the teaching staff they need this term, and the problem seems to be much worse for low decile schools - 62.5 per cent in deciles 1-3, compared to 39 per cent in deciles 8-10.

NZEI Te Riu Roa President Lynda Stuart, above, said children’s education was suffering already and without urgent action, the crisis was destined to become a disaster.

“This is why we had a day of action on August 15 – this is desperate and the Government has to take the bold steps to make teaching a sustainable career choice again.

“We simply can’t wait.

“Teachers’ heavy workload and low pay for their qualifications and responsibilities has seen many leave the profession,” she said.

Comments from principals on the survey demonstrated this sentiment.

One principal said a teacher had switched professions to become a builder “because it pays better and he says he will finish work at the end of the day and not have all the work he usually does at night or on the weekends”.

Another commented, “my teacher left for more money, less work, flexible work hours, less stress.

"[Just] 27 years old and lost to the profession”.

Other principals detailed advertising for months and receiving no applications, pausing Reading Recovery to use that teacher in a class, and using walking deputy principals in classrooms.

The union said many relievers have taken up permanent teaching positions, making it harder to find relievers when needed; just 10 per cent of principals said it had been easy to find suitable relieving staff this winter.

Principals also detailed the measures they were taking to address the lack of relievers, including 34 per cent who said they had split classes and spread the students around other classrooms more than five times this term.

Another 50 per cent of principals had been forced to do so fewer than five times.

Stuart explained shifting children or ‘splitting classes’ was a desperate last resort, usually taken after a principal and other senior leaders had put their usual duties on hold to teach for the day.

“I’ve never heard of this happening so frequently before.

“It’s really disruptive to teaching and learning – for those who are spread around other classrooms, for the children who find themselves with extra classmates, and for the teachers who are trying to continue a quality teaching programme with a significantly larger group of students,” she said.

Many principals also reported having to cancel or postpone release time for teachers because relievers could not be found – adding to teachers’ stress and workload.

Meanwhile, 81 per cent of principals said sick teachers had still come to school on occasion because they knew there were no relievers available to take their class.

Other findings from the survey included:

  • 28 per cent had to increase class sizes this term to try and manage staffing issues.
  • 46 per cent had to alter curriculum or programmes because of a shortage of teachers this term.
  • 36 per cent don’t yet know whether they will have all the teaching staff they need at the start of Term 4.

The survey’s findings come as negotiations continue between NZEI and the Ministry over the primary teachers’ and principals’ collective agreements.

It's more than two weeks now since a national day of strike action that saw almost 30,000 teachers, principals and their supporters take to the streets on August 15.

Responding to the survey, the Ministry of Education pointed to data showing strong retention of primary principals and teachers: 95.4 per cent and 98.3 per cent, respectively, in 2017.

A teacher is considered to be ‘retained’ if they appear on the payroll from one year to the next.

In a statement, Acting Deputy Secretary of Early Learning and Student Achievement Pauline Cleaver acknowledged that there was a shortage in Auckland and in some areas like science, technology, engineering, maths and te reo Māori.

Cleaver pointed to a number of initiatives begun by the Ministry to increase teacher supply, including:

  • Funding more than 1000 teacher education refresher places to remove cost barriers so that teachers can return to teaching faster.
  • Paying 145 overseas relocation grants making it easier for New Zealand teachers to return home and overseas trained teachers to relocate to New Zealand.
  • Expanding the Auckland Beginner Teachers programme to 60 places in 2018 with another 60 places available in 2019.
  • Increasing the number of new teachers training through Teach First NZ to 80 in 2018 and 2019.
  • Expanding the Voluntary Bonding Scheme to encourage new teachers to work in decile 2 and 3 Auckland schools and nationwide in identified subjects and Māori Medium Kura.

“To meet population growth, Budget 2018 sets aside $370 million for 1500 new teaching places by 2021 and the Ministry is developing better data about the education workforce, both in Auckland and nationally, to ensure that future supply better matches demand,” she said.

“The Ministry is already working with the sector to develop a workforce strategy, which includes improving recruitment and retention.”

SECONDARY PRINCIPALS NOT IMMUNE

Jack Boyle, president of the Post Primary Teachers' Association (PPTA), says "things are just as bad in secondary schools".

The PPTA also conducted a survey of 1100 teachers from its membership database, to gauge the shortage of relievers, based on the first four weeks of term three this year.

449 teachers responded to the survey, which found that "more than half had covered relief classes because of a shortage of secondary relief teachers" - an increase on the same period in 2017.

Commonly cited solutions included combining classes for supervision, while 15 per cent of respondents said they had used untrained relievers or support staff to cover classes.

"There are reports of school closing for a day because of the relief teacher shortage," Boyle said.

Teachers also indicated through their responses that many were uncompensated for exceeding their contractual maximum contact hours by acting as relievers.

The PPTA estimated the value of the uncompensated extra time to be $2.5 million dollars.

"There is no doubt that this is failing our students," Boyle said.

"Each time we merge two classes into one, or put an unqualified person in front of a class of students, or send them home, or supervise a class when we should be preparing for another one, students’ education is suffering.

"Attracting teachers into the profession, and making sure the conditions of work are sustainable, are essential if we are to bring out the best for every child."