Worlds of Education

Photo: Rafael Lopez / Flickr
Photo: Rafael Lopez / Flickr

“Trade Union Action in a Country in Transition towards New Public Management” by Laurent Frajerman.

published 30 August 2019 updated 3 September 2019
written by:

The neoliberal doctrine of New Public Management (NPM) is the essential reference for education policies all over the world. It seeks to destroy the professional autonomy of teachers.

In some countries, like France, it has become only partially established thanks to resistance from teachers combined with bureaucratic traditions [1]. NPM is gradually being introduced and it establishes an expectation horizon that guides the action of the politico-administrative elite [2]. This situation reflects a power relationship, but teachers’ perception of how the policy works in practice also affects the issue. For many years, the ministry’s communications have systematically presented their reforms as painless for staff, concealing their true intentions behind educational arguments.

Trade union responsibilities are greater than ever: their capacity for thought is essential to decipher the policies carried out and to exploit the room for maneuver they leave for teachers. In a situation marked by a changing, challenging but by no means catastrophic division, they are required to demonstrate their flexibility and their capacity to be called on in very varied contexts, basing their action on a precise analysis that includes the teachers’ state of mind.

The French trade union debate in this respect can be characterized by a fundamental tension between two opposing forces:

  • An anti-establishment group prioritizing campaigns against NPM and in favor of preserving statutory protection.
  • And a reformist group who refuse to accept the underlying existence of an entire project as a starting point and insist on propositions, particularly on educational reform, that include users in their planning.

French organizations are attached to well-known trade union traditions, such as opposition, including an insistence on struggles and power relationships, while they prioritize negotiation and social dialogue. While, as a result of this, their discourse on NPM comes more from one side than the other, it would be oversimplification to assimilate them with that particular group. This would be to ignore the strong internal nuances and, above all, agreements on action, as shown by their common rejection of a law seeking to weaken the status of public servants [3]. This is a tension running through every organization and every activist. No purist position and, therefore, neither side fully meets the requirements of the trade union struggle:

  • On the one hand, a very general critical discourse ultimately gives a feeling that neoliberalism has triumphed and risks developing into fatalism.
  • On the other hand, a discourse concentrating strictly on each measure inspired by NPM risks not perceiving their cumulative effect because, by the time the puzzle is all fitted together, it will be too late.

To be effective, the trade union discourse must begin with teachers’ state of mind and it must therefore accept their ambivalence. To illustrate this idea, let us take one of the issues at the heart of the neo-liberal project: management.

The challenge of local management

Successive governments have wanted to strengthen local management at the expense of teachers’ independence. Militens [4] research shows that high school teachers are not, in principle, hostile to headteachers, but they occasionally become angry with them, frequently psychologizing the issues involved. They consider their disagreements as personal disputes and not as a result of principals’ new, more managerial role. According to a representative questionnaire, 54% of teachers use favourable vocabulary to rate their relationship with the principal, describing it as either “based on listening and exchange” or “friendly and trusting”. Of seven priority trade union claims, “a hierarchy that respects teachers’ autonomy” is rated only fifth. While things remain the same, teachers will not support an anti-hierarchical trade union position, despite what the anti-establishment group may think. But nor can this issue be neglected, contrary to the opinion of the reformers, as shown by the increase in local disputes and the damage to the image of local management (the number of teachers who think management intervenes “too much in teaching at the expense of teachers’ freedom” grew from 17% to 40% between 2014 and 2018 – CSA and IPSOS surveys for SNES FSU).

NPM offers a distorted response to aspirations corresponding to our society of individuals [5], such as the desire for individual recognition. So, many teachers, whether in Britain [6] or in France, approve of the idea of a merit-based career (30% of French high school teachers prefer an egalitarian career, Militens). Trade unionism must therefore convince teachers either that a collective solution showing solidarity should win the day because it provides more protection, or that it can offer alternative recognition to that of management which does not discriminate and which corresponds to this desire for individual recognition. Another example is the principals’ demand to set up a hierarchical corps differentiated from other teachers in schools, based on their undeniable specific nature. It is supported to some degree by 71% of headteachers but by only 30% of their deputies who are normal schoolteachers. However, a recent failed attempt shows that, while the ministry uses this claim, setting headteachers against their deputies, it does not necessarily intend to establish a status for all the tens of thousands of headteachers. From a managerial point of view, it wants to concentrate power in a few hundred headteachers who themselves will be controlled by high school principals. This relaunches the debate among trade union organizations so that they can respond to this category’s desire for recognition: must non-managerial status be proposed, or should acknowledgement be improved in another way?

The tensions generated by gradual reform

Time management is essential when a profession is faced with gradual counter-reforms. The ministry advances in the direction it has laid down but so slowly that there are fewer objections from the profession. Teachers also have time to adapt, using the weapon of inertia, which has made it possible to neutralize many reforms. The response of each group involves risks:

  • To mobilize supporters on technical issues, which are softened by official communications, the anti-establishment group prefers an plaintive register and tends to dramatize the dangers. The negative effects of this method are multiplied by its frequent use: as teachers are generally restricted to short-term thinking and the immediate effects of the reforms, their specific experience appears to contradict this discourse, which requires the ability to anticipate problems. They might doubt the trade union analysis and, when the feared effects eventually happen, even forget that they had been predicted.
  • The more reformist trade unionists negotiate temporary flexibility in their status, notably for teaching objectives. They try to use the internal contradictions of education policies (for example, between the ministerial desire to control teachers more and the concern to release their capacity for initiative) as well as differences between their interlocutors: between the local and regional management (education officers), between higher levels of the administration who think in accounting and elitist terms, and those who want progress in the education system... However, the joint effects of these measures can lead to an irreversible imbalance in the power relationship and the establishment of NPM. The teaching unions would then be reduced to playing a sporadic role in debates on education policy.


It is difficult to combat NPM without being conservative. For example, critical trade union arguments often deny the need for measurement tools to reflect efficiency and the quality of teaching work. Public services must, however, make an effort to respond to the social demand; in order to be maintained, these services need users, whose demands must be taken into consideration. Otherwise, there is a risk of establishing a measurement system presented as being aimed at students but which will also be used to judge French teachers according to narrow, standardized criteria, as in Quebec. [7]

How can the neoliberal response be questioned without arguing against modernizationor being aggressive? Each group stresses one aspect of the true situation. The French unions must work on this tension to escape pessimism and denial, initially within the organizations. A debate on the idea could result in analyses shared by all the trade unions, strengthening the unity of action they already sporadically achieve. Because, in the many countries facing this danger, teaching trade unionists are not lacking in resources: their organizations have a pragmatic culture based on the capacity for struggle of teachers themselves, one of the most anti-establishment groups in the world.

[1] https://www.taylorfrancis.com/books/e/9781315735245/chapters/10.4324/9781315735245-16

[2] https://journals.openedition.org/sdt/8348

[3] https://www.liberation.fr/france/2019/05/06/fonctionnaires-c-est-la-premiere-fois-que-le-gouvernement-se-retrouve-face-a-tous-les-syndicats_1725248

[4] http://institut.fsu.fr/Militens-Une-recherche-sur-le-rapport-a-l-engagement-des-enseignants-et-l.html

[5] https://books.openedition.org/pupo/3886?lang=fr

[6] http://theconversation.com/teachers-remain-divided-on-performance-related-pay-27664

[7] https://journals.openedition.org/sdt/1353

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect any official policies or positions of Education International.