Education International
Education International

Optimal conditions

published 25 March 2014 updated 7 April 2014
written by:

In recent years there has been a deterioration of the conditions for teaching worldwide: reduced decision making authority for teachers; greater constraints on curriculum and pedagogy; increased surveillance; work intensification; and the diversion of educational resources from the public to the private sector. Austerity measures reduce the availability of resources for educational policy implementation and for educational practice, particularly for children living in social and economic deprivation.

Teachers are clearly at the centre of most current educational reform efforts ( download.ei-ie.org/Docs/WebDepot/Global%20Managerial%20Education%20Reforms%and%20Teachers.pdf), either because the reforms themselves focus on teachers, or because the reform proposals directly impact on their work, and teacher unions are at high alert to respond to teachers’ concerns. Teacher unions’ longstanding attention to teachers’ working conditions are perceived by many outside education as “self-interest,” and it is widely believed that if teaching conditions improve, it will be at students’ expense in a zero-sum equation. But that perception is not accurate: with the deterioration of conditions for teaching comes an equivalent deterioration of the conditions for learning ( www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/02680939.2010.543156) It is impossible to disentangle teachers’ working conditions from students’ opportunities to learn. Reduced decision-making authority for teachers and greater constraints on curriculum and pedagogy mean teachers’ ability to shape educational delivery to address students’ academic needs is constrained.  Work intensification for teachers, particularly if it involves greater time spent on administrative tasks, means less time and attention can be paid by teachers to their students.

Current educational conditions make for difficult and contentious relationships between teacher unions and governments. But at the same time, the reality is more complex.  A recent survey of Education International member organizations, a sizeable majority reported “mixed” relations – somewhat hostile and somewhat positive, and several reported “guardedly positive” or “positive” relationships. There are a number of countries and jurisdictions in many parts of the world where teacher unions and governments work relatively productively together despite the challenges of the current global context.

What are the conditions that support positive union-government relations, even in times of adversity, that lead to quality learning conditions for young people? A study commissioned by Education International titled Teacher Union – Governmental Relations in the Context of Educational Reform( download.ei-ie.org/Docs/WebDepot/Teacher_Union_Study.pdf) identifies several factors that make a difference in whether teacher unions and governments are able to work productively together to support quality education.  While some of these factors are contextual and not easily change, most require the efforts of both parties.

1.      Habits of collaboration.  At the time that the report was written, a number of northern European countries were characterized by collaborative decision making practices between unions and governments at national and local levels.  These countries exhibited longstanding cultures of shared decision making.  Teacher union survey respondents wrote, “Cooperation is a natural way of working.”  “We have a strong negotiation culture and most of the time we find consensus.” “Even when we don’t agree, we still stay at the table.” Shared decision-making can also be a matter of structural arrangements, where agreement is a legal requirement before any legislation can be passed. In these countries, teacher unions tend to have frequent, often daily contact with members of government and ministry of education staff.  Union and government staff are members of the same working groups and committees.  While teacher unions may not always agree with government, they are used to “sitting at the same table.”  There are shared understandings about the importance of education. A teacher union official said, “The number of social conflicts in education in recent years is very low.”

2.      A common discourse.   Language plays a role in shaping the basic terms of social interaction. People share a discourse as a way of indicating that they share a worldview. When a discourse is shared, teacher unions and governments can reinforce a sense that they are working on similar, compatible agendas. In a Canadian province, the Minister of Education wrote to the teacher union president that, “We agree that to reach [our] vision, teachers need more support than ever before to truly transform our system.  And we agree that we need to do all we can to preserve our investment in education and in our kids.”  In the Educational International survey, a Scandinavian union official wrote, “There is consensus that education is of utmost importance for the nation and that teachers as the most important factor for student learning. Therefore educational issues are easily set on the agenda.” In another Nordic country, teacher union and government officials both mentioned that they have converged discursively around efforts to “raise the status of teachers.”  This is manifested, on the government side, in raising teachers’ salaries and, on the union side, in arguing for improved conditions for teaching and learning.

3.      Joint projects.   Strong teacher union-government partnerships require active reform participation on both sides. In some countries, teacher unions can find common ground with government and work together on joint initiatives.  In other cases, unions and governments assume a broader understanding of partnership, each working on initiatives of its own.  In cases where reform involves building infrastructure and capacity, teacher unions can be substantive partners of government through proactive involvement.  In an African country, teacher unions take an assertive role in ensuring basic material and human resources, in some instances by putting pressure on government and in other cases by working to establish infrastructure themselves.  In a Canadian province, the teacher union took the lead in increasing opportunities for teacher learning and improvement of practice.  In both of these cases, while there is some attention to the external reform context, there is also some clear attention to internally determined initiatives.

4.      Governmental stability.  A change of government is fraught with challenges for education systems.  A new government often announces its arrival on the scene with a sizeable shift in educational reform direction as the new leaders attempt to communicate that they have seized the educational agenda.  Frequent reform changes can be deeply disruptive for teaching and learning. A new government always has a learning curve and, often, is not experienced enough to understand that reform agendas require that attention be paid to the conditions that support quality teaching and learning.  With a change in government, teacher unions must begin anew to establish their credibility, and the credibility of their message, with new governmental officials.  With governmental stability, on the other hand, there is time for union and governmental officials to develop the kinds of personal relationships necessary to trusting one another and working together.  There is time for government actors to develop a working knowledge of the supports necessary to support high quality teaching and learning.

5.      Democratic unions.   By representing teachers, unions are the organizations best able to assess, and communicate about, the quality of teaching and learning conditions.  Their ability to capture an accurate picture of conditions across the wide range of educational settings depends on the extent to which they have established effective communication structures and participatory options for teachers.  Many, perhaps the majority of unions, are unable to make good on the claim that they represent all teachers’ interests and concerns; to do so requires careful attention to who is elected into leadership, who participates in union activities, and the kinds of issues that become organizational priorities.  Instead, facing hostility from outside and a growing number of demands from teachers, many unions adopt a “triage” approach, choosing to mount a small number or even a single agenda priority in order to ration scarce organizational resources.  But focusing on a narrowed agenda, resisting reform, or demonstrating “reform mindedness” by promoting a single educational innovation usually backfires.  Teacher unions must find ways of understanding, embracing, and advocating for, a range of educational issues.

It is only when teacher unions and governments work together that a quality education can become a reality for all young people. Recognition of this is an important first step in increasing the likelihood of collaboration.  While context can have a powerful influence on the nature of union-government relations, many of the factors that support union-government partnership are within the control of one or both parties.