The online magazine ‘Education Journal’ recently published in its edition 385 a report of Education International’s eighth World Congress in Bangkok by EI Senior Consultant, John Bangs. Education Journal has agreed to its publication for Worlds of Education. It has been slightly edited for EI’s global audience.
EI President, Susan Hopgood, opened the Congress with a blistering (almost literally) speech urging educators to take the lead on tacking climate change. Hopgood, who is also the Australian Education Union’s General Secretary, spoke from the heart. Climate change was here now she said. Sea levels were destroying the Pacifica nations with salination, flooding and disease destroying communities and crops. Flooding was displacing seven hundred thousand people a year in Bangladesh. And climate change was personal. In her home country, there was now a realisation that there was no reliable ceiling to rising temperatures, yet her government had just sanctioned new private coal mines and had dropped its contribution to the UN’s work on fossil fuels.
Hopgood applauded the contribution that climate change activist Greta Thunberg had made. No less an agency than UNESCO had said in its recent Global Monitoring Report that the planet was in a dire state. She said that teachers had the responsibility to call out lies on climate change. Education for sustainable development had to be central to the curriculum. Through creativity, collaboration and critical thinking schools could shift thinking on the causes of climate change. Yet, while an extra 40 billion dollars was needed to ensure that the UN’s goal of education for all could be achieved, hundreds of billions of dollars were still being spent on arms. It was a vintage speech.
No less a powerful speech was then given by incoming EI General Secretary David Edwards on Congress’ second day. Taking over from the founder of EI, Fred Van Leeuwen who stepped down last year, Edwards gave a panoramic view of where the profession was globally since EI’s last Congress. He echoed Hopgood’s passionate warning about climate change highlighting the fact that the International Confederation of Trade Unions was supporting the global climate strike on September 20th. He said that the UN’s Education Sustainable Development Goal was in trouble. Currently 262 million children of school age were not in school. On current projections, that number would only be reduced by 30m by 2030. Sixty-nine million additional teachers were needed.
He emphasised that EI’s Education for All campaign had led to the UN adopting a Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) commitment that all children should be taught by qualified teachers. Its parallel campaign was now to achieve proper working conditions for Education Support Personnel. EI’s research showed that most were women aged between 40- 60. They were poorly paid, prevented from taking part in school decision making and had no career advancement.
While Edwards celebrated EI’s advances in consolidating the International Summits on the Teaching Profession with the OECD he contrasted this progress with the oppression suffered by teachers in countries such as the Philippines, Turkey and Brazil. Edwards also warned against the effects of market fundamentalism on public education. EI’s Global Response campaign had been set up precisely to resist the hollowing out of public education. Bridge academies were one such example. Bridge was trying to establish a cheap privatised for-profit operation to replace publicly provided schools. In Kenya, for example, the Kenyan Teachers Union, with EI’s support, had successfully persuaded the Kenyan government to prevent the expansion of these unlicensed schools.
Edwards welcomed the fact that EI and UNESCO had come together to agree professional standards for qualified teachers. Defending teachers’ status was EI’s core business. The digitalisation of teaching and creation of robot teachers were a real threat that had to be resisted. Reflecting on the Congress theme of teachers taking the lead Edwards finished with the clarion call that ‘we are the ones that we have been waiting for’. These two speeches were the hors d’oeuvres for the rest of Congress. They segued into a strong motion urging EI to support teacher unions fighting to protect public education. Marlis Tepe, President of Germany’s biggest teachers’ union strikingly reminded Congress that teacher unions were often the largest democratic communities. She said she understood how hard it was ‘to keep an upright walk under a fascist regime’. Her own country’s history had taught her that. The rise of the AfD would not make her afraid she said.
She was followed by a motion put by all the Caribbean teachers’ unions on disaster preparedness and response. Their communities had been hit by the worst storms in their history. They welcomed the contribution EI had already made to restoring their education system and urged an expansion of EI’s development fund. Their real concern were governments who saw the storms as an opportunity to outsource the post disaster restoration of their education.
The NASUWT’s Patrick Roach and the EIS’ Larry Flanagan secured an overwhelming majority for an Executive motion agreeing a joint EI/ UNESCO global framework of teaching standards. This was a ground-breaking development for EI since, with the backing of the UN, it was able to put flesh on the bones of the UN’s SDG commitment to enabling all children to be taught by qualified teachers.
Congress debated an enormously wide range of motions ranging from tackling sexual harassment and violence and seeking to protect the children of refugees and migrants through to asserting the profession’s control over the use of technology and AI in schools.
Yet what was astonishing was how the lens of democracy informed many of motions and debates. Congress unanimously agreed an emergency motion condemning Trump’s attack on the four newly elected female non-white members of the US’ House of Representatives by telling them to go home. Dictators everywhere were given succour by Trump’s racist rants, argued AFT’s President Randi Weingarten, leaving the world’s educators to clear up the mess. Accompanying her, NEA President Lily Eskelsen surgically described why Trump’s claims that that he wasn’t a racist were a lie. Trump, she said, was not anti-immigrant, only anti immigrants of colour. She pledged that US teacher unions would redouble their efforts to replace Trump in 2020 by ‘fighting for our public schools and democratic ideals; and achieving a leader our students and educators could be proud of’.
Enforcing these arguments, EI’s former General Secretary Fred Van Leeuwen, launched a book cowritten with Susan Hopgood entitled ‘On Education and Democracy: 25 Lessons from the Teaching Profession’ which was available to every delegate.
And drawing a thunderous ovation was Time’s 2018 Person of the Year, Maria Ressa, a journalist from the Philippines where the Dutete Presidency allowed she and her journalist colleagues to face constant death threats. Duterte had invented the term ‘presstitute’ to describe any journalist critical of him. Without any trace of demagogy and with a touch of humour she remorselessly tracked the sources of social media sites dedicated to promoting false news and linking them with those from US far right populist sites and sites in Russia and Brazil. A lie told a million times becomes a fact she said. If you want to rip the heart out of democracy you go for the facts. What do you do about preventing this she asked? Courage spreads. You start with your areas of influence. Education was essential for teaching respect for the truth. Ressa’s speech was astonishing.
Whether or not there will be a shift towards curricula which include teaching about democracy and climate change will be dependent on EI and its members. EI’s effective campaign against the privatisation of education shows that its global campaigns work.
EI’s Congress is an extraordinary and unique event. What is really striking is how much in common the world’s teachers have with each other. This was no better demonstrated than by Congress being closed by an immensely talented Thai school choir and a scratch band which included NEA’s Lily Eskelsen and EI’s David Edwards, belting out the Beatles’, ’All you need is Love!’
The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect any official policies or positions of Education International.