Norway: Quality education, international solidarity, and addressing the teacher shortage are imperatives for unionists around the world

published 13 November 2023 updated 22 March 2024

In his final official speech as President of the Union of Education Norway (UEN), Steffen Handal, also a member of Education International (EI) Executive Board, reflected on educational realities in his country and around the world: “Never has the shortage of teachers been more pressing than now! Never have more teachers said that they consider changing to another profession, even when they love their profession!”

“In the development of the welfare state and democracy, quality education for all has been important, perhaps even decisive. But, today, despite increased welfare and prosperity, there are more pre-schoolers and pupils who grow up in poverty. We have, in other words, both growing prosperity and increasing poverty – at the same time. This exacerbates tensions between separate groups and can fuel social polarisation. Good education must bridge divisions and mitigate social exclusion. Quality education gives pupils the opportunity to build knowledge, search for truth and the ability to think critically,” Handal noted as he described the education landscape in Norway.

The education union leader also admitted that he was moved by the Norwegian Truth and Reconciliation Commissions’ report, which documents “the absolute moral low point in our society’s history and of our profession,” i.e. the betrayal of the Sami, Kven and Forest Finn populations. It shows that Norwegian teachers, together with Church’s men, were spearheading a policy of “systematic Norwegisation through education that deprived whole families of their language, culture and traditions.”

Handal reminded that, “with its roots going back more than 130 years, our union organised many of teachers having Sami, Kven and Forest Finn children in their classrooms. We must admit the responsibility we have for abuses committed against these children’s identity, culture, language and self-awareness. It hurts to fully take it in. Our whole organisation must now contribute to revitalise the language and culture of Samis, Kvens and Forest Finns – and it must take place in pre-schools and schools.”

He went on to the global context noting that in many parts of the world, war and conflict, lead groups of people to be set up against each other, and children learn to recognise others as their enemies. “In the middle of this turmoil, we, as teachers, are tasked with educating children, so that they learn to think critically and act ethically,” he said.

The UEN leader acknowledged that the teaching profession must contribute to building a shared community – across boundaries.

“Teachers’ organisations are the tool we need to strengthen the role of the profession,” he continued. "When information is transformed into unreliable propaganda that is spread both through social media and by governments in countries at war, it is the responsibility of teachers to foster critical thinking and the ability to explore different perspectives. And learn from each other across national borders.”

Never has the teacher shortage been more pressing

Adding that “we face major challenges in recruiting teachers in pre-schools and schools, while more and more young people experience stress and pressures, unhappiness and social exclusion,” Handal underlined that “there is a connection here, a connection that is about teachers’ own priorities been given too little space. There are too many politicians, interest organisations, economists and psychologists – who have too poor knowledge about school and early education – and who keep piling on new tasks and responsibilities.”

The Norwegian magazine Education News reported extensively on teachers who explain that their role has become completely disfigured and lost all boundaries, he also said, saying that in early education institutions and schools, teachers have become janitors, social workers, cleaners and psychologists. Also, many places have developed a policy of allowing teachers to be contacted at all times, including nights and weekends.

He also insisted that “never have more teachers said that they consider changing to another profession, even when they love their profession!”

Reminding the audience that without teachers, there is no education, the UEN President said that the critical lack of teachers can be explained “by the gap between what teachers themselves value – and what is valued by the Government. As professional we know that good intentions are not enough, you also have to have good knowledge and, not least, produce beneficial results. Today many systems are introduced that have good intentions – but they do not produce beneficial results.”

He was adamant that UEN must, “to a greater extent than at present, create conditions that allow teachers to oppose ways of working and assessment that are detrimental to children and pupils. Our profession must take responsibility and show the way.”

Handal added: “I have never met anyone saying that they became early education teachers because of the pay. But after all these years, I do know a whole lot of teachers who have left the profession because of the pay. All organisations who want to see themselves as serious societal forces, must understand that investing in quality early education institutions and schools is the same as investing in our common future. The future is sitting in today’s sandboxes and classroom – now!”

He further reiterated that the right to industrial action is indispensable for employees. In 2022, he remembered, the Norwegian Government led by the Labour Party intervened in a legal industrial action, on a basis never before invoked in the country’s world of work: “Not as a consequence of an acute danger to life or health, but motivated by concerns for children and youth’s mental health. This is how our right to industrial action was forced down on its knees.”

The UEN therefore lodged a complaint before the International Labour Organization (ILO) against this governmental decision. “This had not happened in a great many decades. We are in a historic situation, in which the Government’s abuse of power is to be tested from an international human rights perspective. It should worry more people, and not only me, that this ILO complaint is lodged precisely against a government rooted in the historic labour movement headquarters,” Handal added.

He also reflected on his years as a unionist. “Some of my proudest moments as head to the UEN came during the pandemic. While our daily lives were marked by uncertainty and fear – teachers and headmasters of early education institutions and schools stood firm like rocks in a storm. They adapted, they improvised, and they did their utmost, and more than their utmost, to bring children and adolescents safely through the pandemic. We learned a lot about effective communication and organisational dialogue in this period. That knowledge feeds into our work today. We apply it.”

Handal concluded with a call to future union leaders and educators: “We live in turbulent times. It makes a great impression on us all when we see on the news that yet another horrific day has passed in Gaza or in Ukraine. Never has quality education been more important. The pandemic and the teachers’ strike last autumn proved the importance of our members’ efforts and hard work – both here and now, but also for the future. We are the largest teachers’ union in Norway. We have the power to change the future. We keep up the fight and stand united. Always. No matter what.”

Newly elected UEN leadership

Delegates at the UEN Congress also elected the union’s new leadership trio:

  • President: Geir Røsvoll, coming from primary and lower secondary education.
  • First Vice-President: Ann Mari Milo Lorentzen, coming from early childhood education.
  • Second Vice-President: Thom Bjørnar Jambak, coming from upper secondary education.

They also elected the ten members of the UEN Executive Board, which will lead the education union as of January 1st, 2024.

An indelible mark on the international stage

Present at the UEN Congress, EI General Secretary David Edwards noted that Handal’s time on the EI Executive Board “has left an indelible mark.”

“Thanks to Steffen, we now have Research Principles that guide our work and a robust research portfolio that reflects those principles. And I was proud of him and UEN when he apologized to the indigenous peoples of this country on behalf of teachers and schools who historically did not respect their language and culture,” Edwards noted.

The EI leader went on to insist that “most of all, he has stayed true as a principled teacher union activist, leading in our agreements and in our disagreements with the same sort of consistency and honesty.”

“From the perspective of our global federation,” he added, “I can tell you that we are all to varying degrees dealing with the issues you are debating here like inadequate investment in education, growing privatization, stress and burnout in the profession and issues of teacher shortages and pay, pension and benefits. And in too many parts of the world, infringement of rights of teachers including outright violence.”

Reminding that hundreds of millions of the most vulnerable children, young people, and adults remain excluded from education, with millions more having no learning opportunities because of inadequate environments, untrained personnel, and a lack of educational resources, he also stressed that the world knows “a teacher emergency, a shortfall of more than 44 million teachers worldwide. I know that is also true in Norway.”

On public education financing, Edwards explained that “the path forward globally starts by following the money. Governments and global financial institutions are very quick to use the word ‘cost’, but we don’t often hear the word ‘value’. Investment in the common good is fundamental to democracy and there is no better investment than quality public education with well-trained and well-compensated teachers.”

The EI global campaign – Go Public! Fund Education – is connecting the crisis in funding to the sustainable world we want to create, he reminded. “This campaign is our opportunity to take the lead, to place our profession at the vanguard of real change in our nations and our communities.”

With the UN High-Level Panel on the Teaching Profession finalising a set of landmark recommendations, “the UN’s commitment to government investment in education systems and professional educators has never been stronger,” he explained.

Edwards concluded his intervention by saying that “when we transform learning, we transform lives, so students know they can take action; to address climate change, to address attacks on democracy, to interact in a diverse and interdependent world. We transform those lives. We can transform tomorrow. We can transform the world.”