Worlds of Education

Education unions leading in a pandemic: the reality behind the headlines

published 5 October 2021 updated 5 October 2021
written by:

World Teachers’ Day 2021 is an opportunity to mark the extraordinary achievements of education workers who have worked through the pandemic, and also to acknowledge the difficult work done by teachers that is ongoing as they support young people to face a future that has been reshaped by a global pandemic.

“World Teachers’ Day is also a day to acknowledge all those education workers who give up their time to support their colleagues by acting as union representatives.”

In the middle of February 2020 news channels in England reported the possibility that some schools in the City of Brighton may have to be closed due to an infection of the Covid-19 virus. Less than a month later schools across Europe and beyond were being placed in lockdown and learning was rapidly being shifted to a remote format. There had been no time to prepare and no plans existed that could tell anyone what needed to be done.

It is testament to the creativity, resilience and commitment of teachers that the pivot to remote learning was managed as successfully as it was (an EI research report discusses many of the key issues). Not ignoring for one moment the huge inequalities in access to online infrastructure, the vast majority of teachers everywhere were confronted by the same challenge: how to develop radically different methods of teaching, using technologies for which they had often received only limited training. In the months that followed all those skills were required in abundance as teachers sought to support their students through all the uncertainties that have characterised the last year and a half.

“During the pandemic teacher unions played a key role representing the views of frontline education workers during a period of unprecedented difficulty. This was complex and difficult work, that those with powerful voices (politicians, the media) frequently ignore and often misrepresent.”

In due course, research studies may reveal the real cost that teachers have paid in terms of their physical and mental well-being, but for now I depend on the countless conversations I have had with teachers who report the last 18 months as the most difficult experience in their professional lives. World Teachers’ Day is a day when those of us who are not teachers working with children in classrooms can acknowledge that extraordinary effort.

During the pandemic teacher unions played a key role representing the views of frontline education workers during a period of unprecedented difficulty. At the time I was conducting a research project with European education trade unions and in many senses the research developed into a study of how education unions worked to support their members, and public education systems through the crisis.

As one would expect, much of this work was focused on making sure schools were safe places for people to work and study. This was complex and difficult work, requiring interventions at many levels. In many cases these interactions were constructive and unions and employers could work together to make sure work was undertaken safely and students were supported. There might not always be agreement, but views could be expressed and problems could be addressed (the experience of Finland offers an example). In other cases, such dialogue was absent and governments were reluctant to engage with those who had the best understanding of the reality in schools (unions and others). In those cases unions needed to press their case more robustly.

The role of education trade unions in securing safe workplaces was critical through the pandemic and in very many instances the management of the covid crisis in schools was the better for it. However, this was only part of the picture.

In many cases education unions lobbied employers to ensure that both students and teachers had access to the technology to make online learning possible, and in a number of instances education unions provided direct professional development to members who were desperately trying to adapt their pedagogical practice to very changed circumstances. Some education unions organised to get learning materials to vulnerable children studying at home, or advocated to ensure children entitled to free schools meals could still receive their entitlement if their school was locked down or during holiday periods. A summary of education union responses in the early stage of the pandemic is available here.

These are just some of the examples of the work undertaken by teachers, through their unions, to make sure students were supported, and learning continued, through the covid crisis. It is work that should be acknowledged because it is work that those with powerful voices (politicians, the media) frequently ignore and often misrepresent.

For example, in my own country the media were quick to claim that teacher unions simply wanted to close schools, with one commentator arguing that unions ‘ refused to work at the height of the pandemi c’ and continuing that ‘teachers spent the vast bulk of 2020 doing everything possible not to teach’. Of course this is a fiction: teachers in England never refused to teach, never went on strike and schools never closed completely but remained open for vulnerable children and the children of key workers.

I am yet to meet a single teacher who wanted to spend one day longer delivering online learning than was absolutely necessary - but why let the truth get in the way of a good story?

Another version of the argument that teacher unions were somehow only interested in ‘closing’ schools was recently presented in an article by Susanne Wiborg from University College London, in which she argued that union influence was the key factor in determining whether schools were open or closed. In her article Susanne refers to experiences in five European countries and then extends her argument to the US via another study. In the work I referred to previously I undertook work in all the European countries Susanne refers to during the pandemic and I am unable to concur with her conclusions, not least because the pattern of union organisation and school closures she describes is not reflected in the data. School closures trends across Europe cannot be explained by the interventions of teacher unions or some proxy measure of union power.

However, in my response I want to focus on the country I know about most, and the country Susanne opens her article with, and devotes most space to, England. In the article Susanne suggests education unions have a ‘teachers first’ agenda and that they put the ‘ vested interests’ of their members above all other considerations. The resulting conflict is then framed as government (acting in the interests of children) against education unions (acting in the self-interest of teachers). I am not sure the vast majority of headteachers, teachers, education support staff or indeed parents would see the experience in England during the pandemic in such simple terms – it reduces a complex situation to a binary conflict which Susanne presents as ‘the science’ (government) vs ‘politics’ (unions). This approach strips the analysis of any meaningful context and ignores completely the problems caused by a lack of public confidence and trust in the Boris Johnson government. It assumes that government acts rationally, and competently, in the interests of children on the basis of a science that provides unequivocal policy solutions. This was not the experience in England.

From the outset the Conservative government had equivocated in relation to the pandemic, and there is clear evidence that its initial response, guided by the country’s chief scientific adviser, was to develop a herd immunity approach to Covid. These early miscalculations were to prove devastating as the country experienced record levels of infection. For many, the government’s handling of the pandemic was not characterised by a rational response to ‘the science’ but by chaos and inconsistency which was then reflected in policies relating to schools. There was also a concern that the government was motivated by its own political considerations, and that ‘the science’ was often mediated by the government’s views about what was politically expedient (including having to respond to a well-funded caucus within the Conservative Party that consistently lobbied for anti-lockdown policies).

This is some of the context that framed government education policy, which those working in schools experienced as at best incoherent, and at worst incompetent. This is a view that I believe is confirmed by the report of an independent think tank, the Institute for Government, which concluded that ‘across 2020 and 2021, pupils, parents and teachers were too often left bewildered by last-minute, poorly communicated U-turns on school closures and exams’. The report suggests the government was preoccupied with asserting central control (when local authorities had the best local knowledge) and failing to develop contingency plans for problems that could be easily anticipated. This is the context teachers in England worked in, and it was no surprise when the government minister responsible was summarily dismissed at the start of the new school year.

“The experience of the pandemic has highlighted the important role played by education trade unions in a democratic society where it is right and proper for governments to be held accountable for their actions.”

I do not agree with Susanne that the response of teacher unions in England was a case of ‘the science’ vs ‘politics’, but rather I see a profession organising collectively, as it must do, to provide leadership in an education system that faced a public health crisis without competent leadership from government. In many other countries this leadership was secured by governments and teachers, through their unions, working together constructively to face the problems posed by the pandemic (in the research report mentioned above we cite Norway and the Republic of Ireland as two examples from many), but where this was not possible, then teacher trade unions needed to respond accordingly.

The experience of the pandemic has highlighted the important role played by education trade unions in a democratic society where it is right and proper for governments to be held accountable for their actions. Suggesting teacher unions are only motivated by the interests of their own members, which by implication are counterposed to the interests of students and parents, presents the world as a zero-sum game in which it is only possible to be on one side or the other. This is not the world as teachers understand it. Teachers do not see the establishment of safe workplaces as working against the interests of students (quite the reverse) and teachers do not see their relationships with students and parents as antagonistic. Presenting relationships in this way is not only inaccurate, but it is unhelpful, because it militates against creating the high trust collaborative system leadership that will be essential to building the post-pandemic recovery.

World Teachers’ Day 2021 is an important opportunity to acknowledge the work of the teachers (and indeed all those who work in schools) who worked so hard to ensure the continuity of student learning through the pandemic. It is especially important to remember those who became ill, sometimes seriously, sometimes fatally, simply because they went to work.

But World Teachers’ Day is also a day to acknowledge all those education workers who give up their time to support their colleagues by acting as union representatives, from the senior leaders who are frequently vilified in the media, to the countless workplace representatives, including health and safety representatives, whose work is only seen by their immediate colleagues, but which is hugely valuable. On World Teachers’ Day, we should thank them too.

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