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Forging Conducive Relations Between Teacher Unions and Local Governments in the Context of Educational Reforms

published 9 October 2013 updated 9 October 2013
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Most of the dialogue that occurs between teacher unions and local governments tends to occur in a reform context focused on improving educational outcomes during times of increased competition among nation-states and economic austerity. Teachers today are at the centre of most current educational reform efforts, either because the reforms themselves focus on teachers, or because the reform proposals directly impact on teachers’ work.

The Teacher Union – Governmental Relation in the context of Educational Reform report was produced by the Education International Research Institute for the purposeof examining positive working relationships between teacher unions, governments and local educational employers. Specifically this report focuses on collaborative interactions in Sweden, England, South Africa, and Alberta, Canada, drawing information from interviews and survey responses, as well as relevant literature. This report documents several international trends in relationships between teacher unions and governments, and how culture, politics and structural factors often tend to shape these trends.

What does the report show? How are unions able to influence policy and education reform in different parts of the world?

We found that where these collaborative relationships exist, teachers, and thus teacher unions, are understood to be of critical importance to educational development and the quality of delivery; and therefore, they have strong roles in influencing policy and educational innovation.

  • In many of the Scandinavian countries, shared decision making, or at least a strong influence on decision making by teacher unions, is a matter of structural arrangements, and any education-related legislation is negotiated.  While teacher unions may not always agree with government positions or decisions, they are used to ‘sitting at the same table,’ wherein there is a shared understanding about the importance of education.
  • In England, through much of the 2000’s, a “social partnership” between many of the teacher unions and the government not only addressed teachers’ concerns about teachers’ workload, pay and performance management, but also increased per-pupil funding and training for teaching assistants to improve their capacity to manage classroom change.
  • Teacher unions in developing countries can sometimes play a significant role in both the establishment and sustenance of a basic educational infrastructure by working directly with the central government to bring local teaching and learning conditions to a greater degree of attention.  In South Africa, teacher unions not only defend members’ interests, but they are also encouraged to work in partnerships with the government to develop policies and strengthen the teaching profession.
  • In Alberta, the Alberta Teachers’ Association’s (ATA) perpetual commitment to both improving, and increasing support for public education served to persuade a stubborn government to collaborate with the union in matters concerning both educational innovation and teacher certification.

These particular cases of working relationships illustrate some methods by which teacher unions are able to create a balance between representing teachers’ occupational concerns and maintaining a working relationship with government. In short, these cases demonstrate how cooperation between both sides serves to elevate issues that are of interest to teachers, teacher unions, and governments. Teacher unions may also augment or extent reform initiated by government, or engage in “parallel play” with government, developing and implementing reforms of their own.

The success of these collaborative relations is of significant importance to the goal of advancing educational quality around the world.  Teacher unions are sources of innovation and ideas, and their efforts to improve the teaching profession are directly relevant to the conditions of teaching and learning.  Teacher unions themselves, policy makers and Education International all must play their parts in establishing, maintaining and promoting union-government relationships.

This is the first study of its kind in terms of its internationally comparative data that will serve as part of a larger process of identifying patterns and representative issues in among teacher union-government relationships.

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect any official policies or positions of Education International.