Education International
Education International

Policy and Advocacy

published 25 March 2014 updated 15 April 2014
written by:

2. Teacher voice

Teachers understand their professional responsibilities and their students’ needs.  Decision-making about changes to the public education system and/or requirements for the teaching profession and teachers should involve teacher unions.  Teachers should also be involved in planning and implementing proposed changes.

3. Teachers as professionals

According to the OECD, countries experiencing consistent success in their education systems have strong, well-resourced teacher unions.  Addressing teacher welfare issues is essential union work.  Additionally, when teacher unions work to enhance the quality of teaching through professional development programs and the definition of professional standards, they lend authenticity and integrity to their role as partners in their national education community, particularly where there is a shortage of qualified teachers.  For example, according to the Uganda National Teachers’ Union (UNATU), the IN-SET (in-service training) and Teacher Action for Girls (TAG) programs have contributed to the recognition of UNATU as a modern trade union that not only fights for teachers’ welfare, but also contributes to other aspects of the education agenda valued by government, such as school drop-out rates and learning achievement in literacy and numeracy.   Teachers in the developed world are also realizing that they are “perhaps the only agents capable of restoring the role of . . . schools as servants of the public good.” [4]

4. Social justice and equity

Teacher unions have been strong advocates for inclusive schools, upholding basic rights such as freedom of speech, freedom of association, and the defence of minority rights.   They have fought for the rights of children, women, LGBTQ teachers and students, and many others.  They have fought for the inclusion of disabled and handicapped persons.  They have fought for democracy.  Social justice and equity are at the heart and soul of public education and make it central to democracy.  Social justice and equity are essential in supporting a vision of society in which all children have an equitable opportunity to learn, develop their abilities and interests, and become responsible members of society.

The value of relationships

Teachers know well the importance of the teacher-student relationship, which is not an economic relationship, but a professional and profoundly human one. Teacher unions believe that policies on teaching and learning must reflect teachers’ care and respect for the children they teach.  Teachers know well the transformative power of relationships with their colleagues, not just in their own schools, districts or countries, but across the globe.  Wherever teachers come from, their shared passion for teaching and commitment to their students create an immediate connection among them.  As they work together, the growth in their shared understanding of pedagogy has the power to be deeply transformative and enriching.  Union members know well the power of people working together to achieve a more just working relationship with their employers and a more democratic society.  They know well the importance of democratic relationships within their own organizations.  Teacher unions do not have the power of great economic wealth or media connections.  Our power resides in people.

This list of principles is not exclusive.  It is based on the beliefs, values, and experiences of the Canadian Teachers’ Federation.  All teacher unions must explore the terrain of their deeply held beliefs, formulate them into policies, and then, along with their members, use their policies to articulate to government and the public at large teachers’ vision for public education and for their profession.  That vision is the basis for teacher union leadership in both defending and nurturing democracy.  In the words of John Ralston Saul, a well-known Canadian philosopher and writer,“….. the only public structure we have which is capable of reaching out to all citizens in all parts of the country and making them feel part of the extended family of citizenship is the public education system. In the classic sense of the inclusive democracy, those simple bricks and mortar buildings, which we call the public schools, are in fact the one remaining open club house of citizenship. Not only is the public education system and its fundamental structure not old fashioned . . . .  We are more reliant on it today than we were through most of the 20th century.


[1] Weiner, L. This Labor Day, Thank a Teacher. Retrieved September 16, 2013 from http://jacobinmag.com/2013/09/this-labor-day-thank-a-teacher/

[2] Shaker, E.  (2005).  On the Front Lines. Our Schools Our Selves, 23, 1, 17.

[3] United Nations. Declaration of the Rights of the Child.  Retrieved December 22, 2013 from www.un.org/cyberschoolbus/humanrights/resources/child.asp.

[4] Green, R.  (2013). Why America’s Teachers Are Going Badass and Why Canada’s Need to Consider Doing the Same. Our Schools Our Selves, 23, 1. 24.

1. Public education as a public good and basic human right

Paragraph 7 of the Declaration on the Rights of the Child [3] states that every child has the right to a free, compulsory education, and that the best interests of the child should guide those responsible for the education system.  Teachers’ advocacy for the right of every child to a quality education has the potential both to resonate with and to educate parents and the public, and may help to build advocacy networks devoted to this principle.


Teacher unions working to advance the cause of public education and raise the status of the teaching profession might not choose policy development as their first strategy.  Compared to public advocacy, meetings with government, or collective bargaining, organizational policy can be viewed as passive and abstract -- a set of words in a manual to which we refer from time to time.

Yet, the most striking feature of the current global context for unions is the struggle with either governments or the promoters of neoliberal ideology, or both, over which basic values should underlie the education of our children and youth and, indeed, society as a whole.   The neoliberal goal of marketing and controlling public services, painstakingly advanced over the past 30 years, has contributed to a shift in thinking, at least in OECD countries, from a more humanistic set of values expressed in a communitarian model for society and government to more individualistic, competitive values expressed in a business-based model.  Both unions and the public education system came about during a period in history in which the communitarian model and the pursuit of the common good were ascendant.

In many OECD countries, teacher unions are working to fend off attacks on labour rights, teacher professionalism, and publicly-funded school systems.  In some countries or regions, education “reform” has already resulted in a wholesale abandonment by government of publicly-funded education, and teacher unions have had to regroup in the face of relentless anti-union and anti-teacher campaigns.

In developing countries, teacher unions are striving to help governments and the public recognize the importance of publicly-funded education and the principles of natural justice and labour rights for teachers, such as appropriate salaries and actually being paid for their work, and in a timely way.  Unlike the Global North, the Global South is attempting this when the communitarian model is under attack.  The implementation of Education for All (EFA) had the laudable effect of bringing vast numbers of children into the publicly-funded school system.  However, national governments typically experienced serious challenges in preparing for this because of budget constraints created by IMF rules that capped funding for public services and wages.   The result has been a dire shortage of adequate school facilities and resources for curriculum development and implementation, coupled with an inability to educate enough teachers quickly enough to meet the demand.  Given inadequate education funding, extremely large class sizes and a lack of qualified teachers, it is not surprising that students experience poor learning outcomes.  Proponents of neo-liberalism and privatized education have been quick to blame teachers and the public nature of the education system for this failure.

Throughout the world, then, the values and beliefs at the heart of public education are being called into question.  Teachers and their unions stand in defence of their profession and of public education, which should not surprise us because teaching is socially transformative work [1].     As Shaker states in the Fall 2013 edition of Our Schools Our Selves, “Teachers and their unions have been at the forefront of struggles for safer and more inclusive schools and learning communities that ensure all students and educators are able to thrive.” [2] Teachers’ vision for public education -- the collective, agreed-upon beliefs, values and principles on which they stand – is expressed in their union’s body of policy, the foundation for statements and action.

Policy development and implementation have two distinct purposes.  Within the union, policy development processes create a consensus about beliefs and values and a shared language and understanding about what matters.  Externally, policy development guides and fosters the authentic, influential conversation with government and other partners in the educational community that can bring about progressive change.

One useful framework for establishing policy needs can be found in Education International’s “Unite for Quality Education” campaign, which comprises three integrated strategies for quality education:  quality teachers, quality tools, and quality learning environments.   Advocacy for quality teachers is supported by policies on teacher education and certification, teacher professionalism and autonomy, teacher professional development, collaboration and collegiality, and professional conduct and competency, among others.  In terms of quality tools, policies dealing with curriculum development, implementation and resources, and education funding are good examples.  Finally, policies related to school facilities, inclusion, school safety, gender equity, minority language rights, aboriginal education, and the like, undergird advocacy for quality learning environments.  The actual policy topics, and the policies themselves, will vary depending on the teacher union and its national context.  However, the foundational beliefs, values, and principles underlying a teacher union’s body of policy are likely everywhere grounded in universal principles related to respect for the dignity of every child, the value of publicly-funded education and the teaching profession, and the common good.  What might those foundational beliefs, values and principles be?