Education International
Education International

Reading teacher policy

published 12 December 2014 updated 2 February 2016
written by:


[i] Education International (2014) Teachers Assessing Education for All: Perspectives from the Classroom. A survey of 14,000 teachers.

[ii] Michael Fullan (1993) Why Teachers Must Become Change Agents

[iii] Glewwe, Hanushek, Humpage & Ravina (2011) School Resources and Educational Outcomes in Developing Countries: A Review fo the Literature from 1990 to 2010

[iv] Parliamentary Hansard for Commons Debates (2013) Columns 943-980, 30th October, 2013

[v] Dominic Cummings (2013) Essay on Odyssean Eduation, See his blog at http://dominiccummings.wordpress.com/

Who is attracted to the profession? How are they trained? Who completes and qualifies as a teacher? How are they deployed? What are their working conditions? How are they supported to provide quality education? How long do they stay in the job? Mostly, the answers to these and the other central questions facing education reform are decided by policy-makers, donors and technocrats, few of whom have knowledge or experience of teaching. A recent EFA survey finds that 88% of teachers are not consulted on matters that affect their professional lives [i]. Efforts to consult teachers on education reform are seldom in its making; they are usually just an afterthought.

This article draws on the wisdom of the five teachers in Education International’s documentary, Teachers: A Day in A Life, by Augustin Demichelis and Mar Candela, to explore key concerns for education policy and teacher policy. It considers how these might frame a teacher target under the education goal in the Post 2015 Sustainable Development Goals.

Kpassagou Pulchérie from the State secondary school, Hédranawoé Collége, in Togo, teaches French to a class of 105 children in what she describes as a building for cattle: its roof is full of holes, it leaks inside when it rains and is far too hot otherwise. Her children come from poor families; they pay for their education and school meals and often cannot afford to come to school, they sit three to a desk. Of the 80 year-three students, only four have the book they need for her lessons.

“I would be lying if I knew all their names.”

She says education is a human right and that the state should do more to support teachers, she pays for photocopies herself when she feels she can’t do without the text. She is a skilled and forceful presence in her packed class.

“Who can tell me what equitable means?” she asks the 105 faces.

A hand shoots up. “It means fair.”

“Very good!” she says. “Give him a clap.”

The class readily responds: clap-clap-clap, clap-clap-clap, clap, clap, clap!

Kpassagou knows what needs to be done: “There are challenges we need to overcome to have quality schools. On an infrastructural level we need to assess pre-existing buildings and build schools to relieve the overcrowded ones. On a structural level we need reform. The curricula are all the same and are outdated. Nothing changes. If we could change the curricula and adapt them to modern-day realities, this would help us and our children. On a staffing level there is still a lack of personnel. There aren’t enough teachers. We need to recruit more and give them proper training. I think that the training they give us is very rushed. This training doesn’t help a teacher give a class.”

Sharmistra Sharma, a contract teacher in Ghazibad, India, also teaches in a poor primary school. She has only 25 students in her class; her students are given free books and lunch and uniforms as well. She is a contract teacher: paid roughly only half the rate of a permanent teacher, for only 11 months of the year, no benefits. She attends in-service training and studies every evening after her housework, she hopes to become a permanent teacher once she is qualified. She also has clear ideas about what is needed to support quality education:  “My dream school would be equipped with all the necessary facilities and promote the holistic development of the child. Poor children come here to study, but their needs are not satisfied. Some kids do well at school, but without resources they cannot reach their full potential.”

Javier Iriate is deputy head at a second-chance school in Buenos Aires that aims to provide an inclusive quality education. He insists there is no such thing as a “one-size-fits-all teacher” or an instruction manual for teaching. For him, it is the education system that fails rather than students, although it is the students who embody that failure and carry its stigma. The task of education at his school is to “get rid of that idea” and work to rebuild confidence and self-esteem.

The teachers in A Day in a Life think that a particular sense of duty is required for teaching: Javier describes a “universal idea” that he considers links all teachers: “a desire to do something for others.”  Julie Martineau, a literature teacher at École Louis-Phillipe-Paré in Quebec became a teacher because she wanted to “create a better world” and when she realised “she could not do this on her own.” David De Coster, who teachers at a public school in Brussels, considers that teaching “takes on its full meaning” when it engages under-stimulated children and that the “real teachers and those who do this job with real mastery are those associated with so-called bad schools.”  Sharmistra describes a sense of calling: “From a very early age, I always dreamt of becoming a teacher. I wanted to help children in some way. That is why I entered the profession.”  As Michael Fullan once put it, “scratch a teacher, you’ll find a moral purpose.” [ii]

This is the starting point for sound teacher policy: attract the right people. What follows then, as a major review of the recent literature shows, is the need to ensure good quality initial training, particularly to ensure adequate subject knowledge, and sufficient investment in schools to ensure they are fully functioning, adequately equipped and structurally sound. [iii] In other words: professional qualifications and professional standards. These are the prerequisites for quality education outcomes.

The task of building genuine teacher professionalism must take this insight a step further. For a profession is not made from individual excellence; it is a collective endeavour built on collaboration between good teachers and support for teachers aspiring to be good.  The Canadian teacher Julie, empathises with her colleagues in other countries where she knows the conditions are more difficult than her own; she understands that “everyone wins no matter where they live, if the majority of people in the world have a high quality public education.” This sense of professional solidarity shows the way forward for progressive unionism also. It will take determined action by teachers, not mere sentiment, to shape education policy proactively to strengthen teacher professionalism and public education. The Belgian teacher, David, recognises that all the gains won in the past are the results of determined struggles and union victories; that they are not permanent and can be stripped away.  “We know that social gains are never truly gained,” he says. “We have to keep on fighting for them.”

The distinction between qualified and quality teachers, for example, is determinedly blurred in Britain’s eccentric national politics, largely because of the current government’s desire to recruit non-qualified teachers into academies and free schools. While this makes for comic parliamentary debate in Westminster [iv], DfID’s objections to “qualified teachers” in the target language for the Post 2015 education goal risks corroding the teaching profession globally.  There is incontrovertible evidence that quality education depends on quality teaching: jettisoning teacher qualifications is not the way to ensure it. In fact, in the current policy climate it’s not certain that there will be any mention at all of teachers in the education goal.

The way forward for education policy, according to the teacher Javier’s view, is that “the school should accompany and guarantee the right (to education).” He testifies that Argentinian schools inherited the State’s failures in the 1990s, when it adopted the “neo-liberal model in which school is a service not a right.” The teacher David considers that “quality public education does not adhere to the logic of commodification or marketing.” For him, such thinking is as a consequence of a society in which citizens have become consumers: “a citizen answers to ethics…, convictions and ideals, a consumer only answers to his or her wallet and buying power.”

An advisor to Michael Gove, current ideologue and former British Secretary of State for Education, proposed that schools should be run like supermarkets by professional managers. Supermarkets work because, he maintained, “they get very high performance out of mediocre people.” [v] Crass notions like this reflect the market-logic for public sector reforms preferred by many governments; they hold deep threats for teacher professionalism.

This is why teachers must step forward to shape the policies that affect their professional lives. They are the ones who are in touch with young children every day; they see when policies are not working. They will not be thanked and they will need to remember why they became teachers in the first place.