Education International
Education International

Teacher unions and governments

published 25 March 2014 updated 15 April 2014
written by:

Further reading

Bangs, J. and Frost, D. (2012) Teacher self-efficacy, voice and leadership: towards a policy framework for Education International. Cambridge University/Education International download.ei-ie.org/SiteDirectory/Research/Documents/Research%20Institute/Teacher%20Self%20efficacy%20GB%20pdf.pdf

Bascia, N. and Osmond P. (2013) Teacher union-Governmental Relations in the context of educational reform. OISE University of Toronto/ Education International. download.ei-ie.org/Docs/WebDepot/Teacher_Union_Study.pdf

Schleicher, A. (2011) Building a High-Quality Teaching Profession: Lessons from around the World. OECD Publishing http://dx.doi.org/10.1787/9789264113046-en

TUAC/Education International (2013) TUAC Survey of Trade Unions Engagement with Governments on Education and Training. Unpublished Paper. Available from [email protected] or [email protected]

Engaging members

The evidence in the study also highlighted how a number of unions, including the North American and Nordic unions, shared the Australian Education Union’s aspiration that(because) there is little system wide approach to teacher development and learning as more and more responsibilities are devolved to the school level…the union’s avowed aim is to restore a system wide professional learning community(Bangs and Frost ibid). Indeed, the study concluded that successful and proactive unions wished to develop sites for their members to engage in professional debate and learning.

However, another study commissioned by EI, by a researcher who has long studied the dynamic of government/teacher union relations, found that Positive teacher union-governmental arrangements are fragile. Structural assurances for consultation are not always sufficient in ensuring collaborative relations. Enduring interactions appear to be more a matter of a culture of cooperation on the one hand and the cultivation of strong personal relationships on the other. For teacher unions, because of the magnitude of government political capital, they require constant attention, maintenance and vigilance; they can never be taken for granted(Bascia and Osmond 2013).

Survey on consultation with governments

With this backdrop in mind, EI recently conducted a survey of unions which regularly attend the OECD Trade Union Advisory Committee’s Education, Training and Employment Policy Working Group on the nature of consultations between governments and education unions.

Twenty four unions responded, 18 of which were teacher unions. The majority of the respondents said that they had partial engagement with governments on the development and implementation of education policies but that it was not fully satisfactory. Only unions in four countries considered that they had full engagement with their governments. Unions in two countries reported that they had none. When it came to engaging unions in policy implementation, there was slightly less leverage than in policy development. Unions in three countries reported full involvement while three reported none.

Unions reported that, usually, it was the governments that had established arrangements for consultation. However, more respondents agreed that such arrangements partly existed than those reporting full engagement. Perspectives sometimes varied between unions in the same country often reflecting the fact that governments may have different relations with unions representing different sectors of the workforce.

Areas of consultation

Engagement differed radically in different policy areas. When unions were asked to identify areas of education policy where they were currently engaged with governments in productive discussions, teachers’ professional development came top with 21 responses, followed by teachers’ working conditions and equity issues with 19 responses. Following closely were curriculum issues (18), pay and conditions (17), support for students with special needs (16), teacher evaluation (15), student assessment (14) and institutional evaluation (14).

Worryingly, only nine unions reported productive discussions on pupil behaviour, seven on educational research, and one each for school development and teaching councils.

Training policies

In relation to training policies, one respondent’s comment is indicative of the general trend of including education policies in consultations:  ‘we generally don’t advocate for one without the other’.

While most respondents chose ‘partial engagement’ as the best description, there were a greater number of instances of full engagement in the development of training policies (unions in four countries) and also a larger number of ‘no engagements’. In addition, more unions reported no engagement on implementation (4) than those reporting full engagement (2). Fewer respondents were able to identify specific topics being discussed compared to education policies. Only 15 unions declared they were able to engage governments when they needed to.

Respondents listed curriculum (17 unions), followed by professional development (16), equity issues (14), pay and compensation (13), and working conditions (11) as the training policy priority topics that were the subject of productive discussion. There was a relatively low level of consultation on specific training policy issues, e.g. adult learning (13), skills (11), youth training strategy (10), and funding for training (10).

Fragility of social dialogue

The survey was a snapshot but a useful one since the majority of TUAC attendees responded. It confirms Bascia et al’s finding that social dialogue between unions and governments is fragile and in need of constant attention. The study shows that unions want to engage with governments in both the areas of working conditions and professional issues. It also confirms that most unions believe they can provide the best possible advice, support and professional engagement for their members.

Proper social dialogue and partnership with unions is a fundamental precondition for successful education and training policies. The evidence shows that while there are many examples of good practice in social dialogue, its overall consistency and quality still needs improvement in a number of countries.