Education International
Education International

Returning to the core values of education

published 27 November 2014 updated 5 August 2015

Opening remarks by Education International General Secretary, Fred van Leeuwen, at the ETUCE Conference on the future of the teaching profession, Vienna, 26-27 November 2014

Last weekend, when preparing my remarks for today, my mind kept returning to two young men; one, a 26-year-old American from the state of Indiana, a humanitarian aid worker in Syria whose father is an active member of the NEA, and who was decapitated on camera ten days ago by that other young man I was thinking of; a French citizen, I understand, 22-years-old, from Normandy who joined the Islamic State some time ago.  ‘An ordinary catholic boy,’ I heard a neighbor of his testify on French television. ‘He used to help me around the garden.’

I was thinking of these two men: one, an innocent victim; the other, a cruel executioner; both born Christians; both converted to Islam; both ordinary youngsters; and both, not so long ago, still attending our classes in the US and in France. I thought of sharing this thought, although an incomplete, unfinished thought, with you because of two reasons. The first reason is simple: we conveyed - also on your behalf - our condolences to our NEA colleagues, the parents of Peter Kassig, who, as you will understand, must not only face each day with the devastating loss of their son, and live out the rest of their lives knowing the horrific manner in which he died, but will forever be plagued with the question of why. Why did another young man, raised in Western society, abandon his upbringing, and his morality to commit such acts against a man dedicated to helping those in need? Don’t you think that society owes them an answer?

Some 3,000 Europeans are currently fighting within the ranks of the Islamic State – or ISIS – in Syria and Iraq. Three thousand. The search to find whatever drove them to join this conflict and inflict such violence must begin here.

And this brings me to the second reason for sharing these (Sunday afternoon) thoughts with you today.  Is there, I wonder, a correlation between the thousands of displaced young men AND women fleeing Europe to fill the void of belonging, and the deficient capacity of many of our school systems? Is there a relationship, I ask you, between quality education and teaching being under pressure by austerity measures, by league tables, by lopsided curricula, and the growing number of children falling through the cracks, becoming victims of indoctrination? There may well be a connection. In any case, it is a relevant question to ask in a discussion we are going to have on the future of the teaching profession.

The future of the teaching profession is, of course, directly linked to the future of our education systems. Nearly twenty years ago, the European Commission President at the time, Jacques Delors, presented UNESCO’s groundbreaking report – one that many of you are familiar with – “Learning: The Treasure Within”, which threw the spotlight on the future of education in the 21st century. It still considered just as important today as it was in 1996.

The report is built upon four pillars: Learning to Know; Learning to Do; Learning to Be; and Learning to Live Together. These four pillars were designed as the basis for successful learning in what the report referred to as ‘a rapidly changing world.’ Well, we are living that world today.  When I look at these four pillars, I am afraid that we are falling far short on two of them.

For all that education teaches us to know and how to do– the practical skills that help us navigate life - it also holds the immense importance of passing along the democratic values on which our cultures and societies are based. And I am afraid that when I look at the events taking place in the Middle East, at what is going on in Europe, at growing inequity, at right extremism once again raising its ugly head, at the spread of xenophobia, racism, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, homophobia across the region, when I look at all that, it appears to me that two of Jacques Delors four pillars, Learning to Be, and Learning to Live Together, which help establish identity, tolerance and cohesiveness, need some serious maintenance.

We run the risk of all four pillars, which stand for a holistic and life-long learning approach to education, crumble and be declared a UNESCO’s world heritage site, when the teaching profession, which is to bring Delors’ concept to life, will continue losing its strength, confidence and attractiveness.

In Europe and around the world, with some notable exceptions, teachers are increasingly working on limited contracts, their work load is increasing, their professional space is shrinking, their autonomy challenged, their access to professional development limited, they earn salaries often below the average wage, and in some countries they even lack the qualifications, skills, support, and learning materials to teach and teach well. The current generation of teachers is ageing and alarming numbers of new teachers are leaving the profession within the first years of employment. We call it de-professionalization.

For months now, we have been surveying teachers in 123 countries about their working conditions. Let me share what they have said:

•          Almost 60% feel they are not at all consulted on measures taken by the public authorities to reform education. And if they are, 30% says their views are completely ignored

•          68% feel that that their workload continues to increase.

•          50% says that their pay is just enough to cover their basic needs, while

•          20% says they need to have a second job to make ends meet.                                                     •          Finally, 45% want to leave the profession.

Depressing figures. Next March we will present them to the Fourth International Summit on The Teaching Profession, when Education Ministers from 25 countries and leaders of our member unions in those countries will discuss “Teachers’ leadership”. Our message is clear. If national governments are serious about improving education, then they need to start listening to teachers. Teachers, as actors in the education process, qualified and experienced professionals, know what the students need to succeed. They have the experience and professional competence to contribute to education policy development, and to decisions about the curriculum and teaching methodologies.

Listening to teachers means listening to the class room teacher, the lecturer, at their workplaces, but it also means  listening to their representatives, to the education unions, at all levels where education policy is being developed. To listen, not only when we get together at International Summits, but also back home.  In too many countries, even in countries where collective bargaining rights are fully applied, a meaningful dialogue on the future of the teaching profession does not exist. There are some disturbing examples of a complete disregard of the professional expertise we, collectively, represent. De-professionalization is not just a matter of individual classroom teachers being dumbed-down and stripped of important professional responsibilities; it is also manifesting itself in education unions being bluntly ignored as the guardians and sole representatives of the teaching profession.

In Hungary, for example, curriculum, teaching methods, text books, (maximum two per subject, selected by the minister himself I believe) are now all dictated by the education department. No consultation with education unions.  The government is also setting up a teachers’ chamber, a teachers’ register, to which all Hungarian teachers are invited to subscribe. Again no proper consultation with education unions. On the other hand, I was heartened to hear the new Swedish education minister speak two weeks ago at Lararforbundet’s congress in Stockholm. He said that he wanted to help rebuild and strengthen the teaching profession and to keep politicians out of the classroom. “I will not tell teachers’ how to teach,” I heard him say, “like I would not want my colleague minister of healthcare, dictate the medical profession how to diagnose their patients and which medication to prescribe.”

Is he a rare bird, like the white raven from the North? I hope not, for we will indeed cease being a profession altogether on the day we leave it to governments, politicians and others to set its standards and determine its future.

This, colleagues, is probably one of two main challenges ahead of us: countering de-professionalization and retaking control over the profession before others destroy it.

The other challenge is a familiar one also.  Across Europe, and the world, we are seeing a tide of conservative policies. Policies that are placing our public services under attack, and education is caught squarely in the crosshairs. Austerity measures are being touted as the solution to economies’ fiscal problems – problems that began far from the classrooms. Inequity, even poverty, is on the rise. Last Saturday our Hungarian affiliate SEH organized a large demonstration in Budapest. Congratulations, Piroska Gallo. You do not mind me sharing here what you said last Saturday. “Mr. Prime Minister,” you said, “If you do not believe there is poverty in Hungary, go to our schools, come and see for yourself and look in the eyes of the children. Some are hungry, Mr. Prime Minister”.

The miracle remedy, we are told, should come from the private sector. We beg to disagree. We believe in the role of the State in securing equity, we believe in quality public services, we believe that education is a public good and a human right; that high quality, high professional standards and strong professional unions go hand-in-hand. Our struggle for quality education does not stop at our national borders, but is one that is being fought both at the European and at the global level. And we all are on the front lines.

When an education system is weak, its schools underfunded, and its teachers robbed of their professional standing, the market and privatization vultures begin to circle, waiting for the right moment to strike. We cannot let them.

Last week the African Development Bank called for massive private sector involvement in primary education. Ok, that is Africa, you say. But the majority of you here today are well aware of the dangers of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, or TTIP, currently being negotiated between the EU and the United States. Were education services to be covered by the Agreement, our sector as we know it today will soon be unrecognizable. Another worrisome sign is a recent initiative by the OECD to establish, following the example of our annual summit, an ongoing dialogue between private education businesses and education ministers. The ministers will be encouraged to bring innovative teachers, read: leave your democratically elected education union representatives at home. We are not amused, to say the least, we have told them so, and I think they now reconsider.

Colleagues, we must be self-confident. And we must mobilize. We must organize. People power works. Big numbers of people cannot be ignored. Our Unite for Quality Education Campaign has demonstrated this already. And let me thank all of you for your engagement and dedication.

Since we launched the campaign in October 2013, 109 member unions in 74 countries, representing about 40% of our membership, organized 318 events mobilizing their members. And since day one our message has been clear and simple: We want our schools, from early childhood institutions, to our colleges and universities to be accessible to all. We want quality teaching, quality tools and safe and healthy learning environments. And that message is finally getting through!

One year ago the UN had no intention to include education as a stand-alone goal in the UN’s post-2015 development agenda. But after twelve months of campaigning we are on their shortlist. Now we need to move national governments to support us when a final decision is taken by the UN Assembly next September.

But we should not be naïve. While we are discussing the development goals for the next fifteen years, the current Millennium Development Goal: Universal Primary Education For All Children by the end of 2015 has not yet been accomplished. Only 13 months away from that deadline, there are still 58 million children out of school. Those who still remain excluded are the poor, girls, and disabled children, children in rural, conflict and post-conflict situations and migrants, among others.

This is why our mobilizing efforts need to strive for another level. A few weeks ago the EI Executive Board decided to extend our Global Campaign to the World Congress next July and probably beyond the Congress. As part of the Campaign, and together with the UN Envoy on Global Education, we have a couple of days ago made a worldwide call to our membership to sign a petition, the #UpForSchool petition.  There is a window of opportunity to put the pressure on world leaders to keep their promises, making 2015 the year all children secured the right to go to school, to have a qualified teacher and to learn.

We believe that in the coming 12 months we, the teaching profession, should be able to collect millions of signatures worldwide. So, I am asking you to invite your members to go to our website and sign the petition. Spread the word, engage your members in the work of their International, we need their support.

Since we started our campaign in October 2013 we live in a different world. We are living in a period of great geo-political change and upheaval, both far and near. Close to home, we are seeing how one country can threaten the peace that Europe has largely been able to maintain since the end of the Second World War. The meddling in the stability of Ukraine cannot be tolerated. We also know that the stories of Peter Kassig and his executioner are not unique. It all reminds us of how fragile our international order is, and how democracy, human rights, even the rule of law itself, cannot be taken for granted.

[Their achievement and protection] [It] is an uphill battle.

It is during these times of uncertainty that we, the unions of education, must stand together, defending the values that bring us together in Education International, promoting quality education for a better world. We, the unions of education, must stand together in order for quality, publicly-funded education to not only be, but to thrive for generations to come.

Thank you.