Reclaiming our global profession

There is a global debate about the future of education that involves two competing educational visions, Susan Hopgood, President, Education International, writes.

The first vision is grounded in the understanding that without publicly funded schooling and highly qualified, and highly motivated teachers with a high degree of professional autonomy, there is little chance of all children getting the education they deserve.

Neither is there much chance of countries having stable societies or sustainable economies. The second vision is sustained by the illusion that education can be delivered more cheaply and efficiently by the free market, preferably with fewer, less qualified staff and a liberal dose of one size fits all online programs and standardised testing. This is not our vision. Education is a public good. The values of quality education are essentially the values that underpin democracy and social cohesion, as well as our prosperity.

Yet, in many places portions of our school systems are being carved out and outsourced to private businesses, while market principles increasingly determine what happens in our classes and schools. The simplistic transfer of ideas from the corporate world will not advance the quality of our school systems.

The idea that you can somehow improve quality by introducing standardised testing, league tables and performance pay, by ranking schools, by measurement, is wishful thinking. It does not work. Not in Australia or anywhere else in the world.

Commercialisation of education is weakening the teaching profession

Education International is mobilising education unions around the world to resist this global trend which may cause irreparable damage to our publicly funded school systems and to the teaching profession. Particularly in low income countries where governments find it difficult to achieve children’s right to quality education, for profit schooling is on the rise. International enterprises are entering the public domain claiming that they can help resolve the education deficit. One of these enterprises, Bridge International Academies, believes that it has found the holy grail with “an education business model” that is not only profitable but will also deliver what governments have failed to do, namely, providing quality education for all children.

Supported by philanthropists Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, along with the help of the World Bank and the global education publishing house Pearson, Bridge Academies are now invading the primary and secondary school systems of African countries establishing so called ‘start up schools’.

They are pledging that in return for a small fee they will fulfill the dreams of millions of poor parents: quality schooling for their children. Leaving aside the question of whether it is morally acceptable to abandon the principle of free primary and secondary education, what should cause grave concern is the gradual disappearance of the qualified teacher from the education scene on the African continent.

Why would you need highly educated and expensive professionals when technology can help do the work more cheaply and efficiently, seems to be the philosophy. Pedagogy has taken a second row, professional freedom and autonomy have evaporated. In fact, teaching is no longer considered a profession by these ‘start-up’ schools.

Unqualified staff, who are paid less than half of qualified education personnel in regular schools, are given tablets that provide detailed lesson plans and daily instructions about what to say and what to do in the classroom. With support of Education International teachers’ organisations in Uganda, Kenya and Liberia have protested against the operations of these mostly western based education corporations, which in their view impede the strengthening of their national school systems while weakening if not undermining the profession.

Whether in a school in rural Nigeria, or in central Sydney, creating and maintaining a robust profession is not only the answer to making our vision of highly motivated autonomous teachers a reality, but it is at the foundation of creating a better world.

De-professionalisation is our principal challenge

The developments in these African countries are not without significance for the challenges facing the profession elsewhere. Around the world, with some notable exceptions, the influx of unqualified teachers is on the rise, teachers’ professional space is shrinking, their autonomy challenged, their access to professional development limited, while their workload is increasing. Moreover, a growing number of teachers are working on limited contracts and earning salaries often below the average wage. Clearly, de-professionalisation has become the principal challenge facing most education unions.

Fighting de-professionalisation and reclaiming the teaching profession has been one of Education International’s priority targets in the past 10 years. Influential organisations such as UNESCO, the International Labor Organisation and OECD, as well as a growing number of internationally renowned academics, have closed ranks with EI and subscribe to its view that governments must live up to their responsibility and protect and improve their school systems by funding them properly, respecting the rights of teachers and helping strengthen their profession.

There is a social, human dynamic at the core of quality teaching and learning. Teachers are part of the glue that holds society together. They create bonds within groups and create the bridges across groups and communities. Nation building, but also peace, are essential mandates and functions for education, and this makes teachers vulnerable. Sometimes they are squeezed between political groupings, caught between ethnic, linguistic and religious rivalries, or targeted by public authorities, as we have seen in Turkey recently. And not only there.

In some democratic nations in eastern Europe, professional freedoms and space are being limited by imposing one version of history or, even worse, by allowing ideology to creep into the curriculum. While in Japan ‘patriotism’ has recently re-entered the mandatory school programs, in a number of states in the USA teaching of creationism is no longer optional. Here in Australia, the forestry industry has been seeking support for their curriculum materials and there is an ongoing push for a conservative view of Australia’s history to be taught in our schools, one which denies the invasion of the country and the treatment of the traditional owners.

Towards an autonomous profession

In spite of these challenges, the teaching profession sees its task in line with renowned philosopher John Dewey’s seminal text, Democracy and Education, where he stated that the role of the profession is to ensure students grow up to be critical thinking and informed citizens who make informed decisions on fact and not on political ideology.

Before education ministers in Edinburgh earlier this year, Education International claimed “the right to use our professional discretion to interrogate and reject outright curricular directives that defy facts, falsify history, or lead to ethnocentrism, intolerance and hate”. Whether that means rejecting curricula written by the non-renewable fuel industry about clean coal, by big tobacco about health, or history written by misguided nationalists, there is a professional and ethical responsibility that may outweigh the authority of education employers, or even of governments which have abdicated democracy and human rights.

Two years ago, the international community agreed on a path toward a better, just world. The Sustainable Development Goals, ranging from gender equality to clean water and the eradication of poverty, have one goal that is central to them all: the education goal. From the earliest age to advanced university and tertiary studies, education is an equaliser, it lifts people out of poverty, and it fuels innovation. There can be no doubt that the pathway to a sustainable future travels through the classroom, but our children cannot navigate it alone. Teachers are their guides through the labyrinth of lessons, questions and choices, all of which cannot be accomplished by a digital script or unqualified instructors. Whether in a school in rural Nigeria, or in central Sydney, creating and maintaining a robust profession is not only the answer to making our vision of highly motivated autonomous teachers a reality, but it is at the foundation of creating a better world.

Further reading

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