The Conference, organised between the NUT and 'Teacher Solidarity' (www.teachersolidarity.com) brought together speakers from an impressive range of countries to give a truly global perspective on the neo-liberal attacks on education across the world. Workshops heard from representatives from Venezuela, Greece, India, USA (Chicago), Ecuador, Mexico, Sweden and Canada (British Columbia). Additional speakers from Ethiopia and Turkey had, regrettably, been prevented from attending.
In this brief report, I cannot cover every aspect of what was discussed, but will highlight a few key points which I think of particular significance
Infected by the GERM: the Global Education Reform Movement
The opening overview from Professor Susan Robertson of Bristol University explained how the 'GERM' had been infecting education globally, driven by the idea that education was a commodity required for a successful economy. However, for teachers, pupils and their families, education had to be far more than that.
Drawing on Sahlberg's analysis (see also my own powerpoint 'A Warning from England on the GERM' - on http://goo.gl/J8NMYj ), Susan summarised these 'reforms' as being based on:
1) More Competition - supposedly to improve equality
2) Increased "School Choice" - turning parents and students into 'consumers'
3) Stronger 'Accountability' - with standardised testing being used to measure the worth of both students and their teachers.
As international research has confirmed, increased 'competition' does not improve education overall. However, like any competition, it creates 'winners' and 'losers' leading to greater disparity between schools.
The success of the generally 'GERM-resistant' schooling in Finland gives the lie to those who claim that the GERM is needed to improve education. Finland performs consistently well in the international 'PISA' tests - even though they have been constructed largely to justify the need for GERM-style counter-reforms.
Contrasting examples of other systems that also do well in the international 'PISA' comparisons, like Shanghai, build 'success' under what Susan described as 'exploitative' conditions, where children are forced to study six days a week under harsh conditions of learning. That's surely not the vision for education that we wish to develop?
Of course, this marketisation of education also creates attractive business opportunities for edu-businesses like Pearson to profit from the market for schools, textbooks, IT systems, exams, inspection systems, curriculum materials and so on. Susan pointed to Pearson's work in Ghana where low-cost education packages were being sold to families desperate for their children to escape poverty for just 65 cents a day - but that's still typically a third of family income. The 'schools in a box' were being 'delivered' by high-school students paid just a fifth of the wages of a Ghanaian teacher.
To make profits and to undermine the trade union solidarity that has the power to resist these attacks, the GERM also aims to isolate and divide teachers through performance pay using comparative test scores that completely ignore the numerous factors that affect a child's development. As a paper from Larry Kuehn from British Columbia pointed out, the biggest factor underlying the difference in PISA results is poverty, not teaching. However, "it is easier - and cheaper - for governments to blame teachers" rather than to try and eliminate poverty.
However, Susan pointed out that in countries like Chile, the neo-liberals had risked over-reaching themselves by their blatant attacks on education, provoking a reaction from school-students that had won widespread support from society. I returned home from the Conference to also read of successes for the Left in the Irish elections - in response to Government austerity policies - including the election of secondary teacher Ruth Coppinger as the second socialist TD (MP) for Dublin West.
In Britain too, we must expose the real agenda behind Government policy and win the support of parents and fellow trade unionists to back our struggle to defend teachers and education.
Political trade unionism
A further contribution from Lois Weiner from New Jersey City University made similar points but directly pointed to the role of "powerful elites who manage capitalism". Their representatives, like Arne Duncan in the USA, try to portray education as "the one true path out of poverty". Yet Lois argued that this approach, putting the responsibility - and blame - for success and failure on schools and teachers - neatly excuses the wealthy from their responsibility to address low wages and unemployment - the real blockages on the path out of poverty.
These elites want to sell the idea to parents that, in a harsh competitive world, education is the route to a better life for their children and to portray teachers and their unions as wanting to disadvantage their children. Of course, for teachers, we do see education as a way to improve lives and develop human potential but, as Lois put it "unless we educate parents to the real facts of economic life, our opponents will fully exploit the utterly hypocritical and inaccurate claim that it is they who protect the poor".
Lois was particularly critical of the official international teacher trade union body, Education International, for being unwilling to take up such a political approach to trade unionism. Instead, Lois saw EI as wanting to somehow persuade the super-wealthy to go back to the post-war consensus in favour of greater redistribution of wealth and spending on education and other public services.
I agree with Lois that this is a forlorn hope. The world's elite have no intention of turning back the clock to that exceptional period of human history - they want to break trade union strength so that they can sweep away all the gains won by working people. We have to use that strength to stop them.
I will finally report from the three workshops that I attended:
The workshop on Greece gave a stark indication of how the EU and IMF have been willing to destroy public services to defend the interests of the banks. Their harsh neo-liberal policies have created a humanitarian crisis in Greece, yet leaving the sovereign debt even greater than when the cuts had first been imposed.
Children were fainting in schools through lack of food, as impoverishment grew. Education cuts had seen class sizes increase, a 30% cut in the number of secondary teachers and 1,200 schools closed since 2011. Of course, at the same time, private investors were being allowed to step in to open up new selective schools. Vocational schools were under particular attack with courses in, for example, health services and applied arts being abolished.
Teachers salaries had been slashed, and performance-pay measures introduced, with the fear of dismissal being used to try and cower teachers. Nevertheless strikes had taken place alongside other actions like occupations of Government Offices.
Larry Kuehn from the BC Teachers' Federation outlined the international work of their Union and the links that had been made with teachers in Latin America in particular. He wanted to make clear that this was a "solidarity relationship, not charity". (See: http://bctf.ca/InternationalSolidarity.aspx).
Larry also appealed for international support for their ongoing dispute to win a collective agreement that includes improved class sizes, salaries and non-contact time (See: http://www.bctf.ca/uploadedFiles/Public/Parents/ParentLetter2014-05-22.pdf). The BC Government has ignored court rulings in favour of the Union and, to escalate their action, the BCTF are now starting a rolling strike, where all schools will be on strike for one day a week from Monday May 26th.
(As I have posted elsewhere, a similar struggle was also set to open in Norway from Monday as well - and I have sent messages of support to both unions. UPDATE: It appears that union negotiators and employers have reached an agreement in Norway that means strikes will not go ahead. However, the content of that agreement is clearly provoking considerable discussion within the ranks of the teachers' union).
Chicago - officials staying on a teachers' salary
Last, but not least, I report here on the workshop led by the Chicago Teachers' Union. The CTU representative explained how they have been battling against a whole series of attacks - on their bargaining rights, right to strike, performance-pay, school closures and the growth of 'charter schools' - all different examples of the GERM in practice.
Famously, the CTU has mobilised the support of teachers and parents to fight these attacks. But, as was made clear, this only happened after the CTU was transformed by a new leadership determined to build a fighting union.
The newly-elected officials made the same pledge as I am making in the NUT's General Secretary election - to remain on a classroom teachers' salary rather than the inflated salaries of previous officials. Finance has, instead, been directed towards campaigning and, in addition, research.
The CTU has deliberately developed a research department to produce materials setting out their demands for improved educational facilities, arguing against school closures (and exposing the racial discrimination evident in the closure program). (See http://www.ctunet.com/quest-center/research).
They had democratized and organised their Union, emphasising the need for maximum member involvement and reaching out to parents, public and faith communities to explain their case. There are many valuable lessons to learn, set out in a CTU Report, "A Sea of Red - Chicago Teachers Union members reflect on how the social organizing model of unionism helped win the union’s 2012 contract campaign" ( http://www.ctunet.com/quest-center/research/text/A-SEA-OF-RED-February-2014.pdf )
Save to Strike - Organising to Win
Crucially, and perhaps not so widely publicised in the NUT, the CTU had prepared well in advance for their victorious all-out strike of 2012. In response to my question, it was explained that members had been urged months in advance to put money aside to create their own "individual emergency fund" to sustain themselves through an extended strike. They had warned that perhaps a month's strike might be required - although in the end, with the backing of parents, seven days action proved sufficient.
Of course, specific strike tactics and calendars can't be automatically transferred from country to country. However, the lesson that NUT members must surely draw from Chicago is that, as well as having both a leadership and membership committed to organising workplace strength and reaching out to parents, the NUT urgently has to prepare for the serious battle required to win serious gains.
We have to explain to colleagues the kind of calendar of escalating action that will be required over the months ahead to defeat the attacks we face. Then members can 'save to strike' on that basis and, for those in the greatest financial difficulties, we can appeal for hardship funds as well.
This Conference was an excellent step forward in building the international solidarity work of the NUT but, to coin a phrase, 'international solidarity begins at home'. Above all, the NUT has to set an example to our global colleagues of how to organise and win victorious struggles of our own.