Worlds of Education

Growing our unions to transform our profession

published 23 May 2024 updated 27 May 2024
written by:

In the lead-up to Education International’s 10th World Congress, we invited members of the Executive Board to share their thoughts about the theme of the Congress: “Growing our unions, elevating our professions, defending democracy”.

The United Nation’s High-Level Panel on the Teaching Profession is a landmark moment, both for the teaching profession worldwide, and for Education International who fought, and won, the right to be represented on the panel and to bring the voice of education trade unions, worldwide, to the deliberations.

The report of the panel’s deliberations and recommendations makes for compelling reading. It recognises that there is an ongoing and worsening crisis in teaching, marked by a global shortage of teachers and that these shortages are driven by multiple factors, including teacher attrition, reliance on contract and unqualified teachers, the lack of professional development, poor working conditions and low salaries.

The report emphasises that, in order to tackle these challenges, the teaching profession must be transformed. It exhorts societies to invest in education as a core public service, to value teachers and to create the conditions in which teaching and learning is supported by communities, parents and learners.

This vision of a better world for educators is reinforced by 59 wide ranging and very bold recommendations for governments which should act as a template for EI affiliates’ campaigns.

The panel recommends that teacher salaries should be at the same level as compared to other professions with similar educational requirements. Teachers should have quality working conditions, including stable contracts, safe and healthy workplaces, manageable teacher to student ratios, safe affordable and adequate housing and adequate social protection and pensions.

Teachers should have manageable workloads and working time arrangement should allow for adequate rest and work-life balance.

Teachers should be able to access high quality initial teacher training and new teachers should be provided with adequate induction and mentorship. Continuous professional development should be designed and determined in dialogue with the teaching profession.

And so the recommendations go on – all 59 of them which, if implemented, would be truly transformative for teachers, for pupils and for education systems.

So, is this job done? I am afraid not.

Whilst the report and recommendations of the UN High Level Panel are groundbreaking, they are not enough. Governments are well used to receiving reports, stating their acceptance of their recommendations and then ignoring them.

If the UN panel’s recommendations are to be implemented in education systems throughout the globe, then education unions need to be up to the fight to make their implementation a reality.

That means that the unions affiliated to Education International need to be fantastic organisers.

Education International affiliates must work to connect with their membership, to understand the reality of their working lives and show their members that there is hope. They must work to convince members, and potential members, that the union is a force for good with the potential to make their working lives better.

Education International affiliates must grow their membership base. For unions, leverage and legitimacy comes from union density. What percentage of the teachers are in the union? How many members does the union represent and speak for? What are the plans to grow membership and how will they be realised?

Union membership growth also means developing more inclusive organising strategies. Do our unions reflect the diversity of professionals working in our schools, including education support personnel, and more broadly, workers facing the most precarious terms and conditions? Do we organise and platform marginalised groups like minorities and members of the LGBTI+ community?

Education International affiliates must work to translate the immediate concerns of their members into practical and achievable plans for change. This means building the union, in the workplace. It means supporting activist development at workplace and regional level. Reps are the lifeblood of any union. They are much more important than a President or a General Secretary; much more vital than the Union’s Executive committee or its leading lay and professional officers.

Because without active, well informed and well-trained workplace reps, the gap between union campaigns and the actual achievement of tangible goals are too wide.

Education International affiliates must embrace new forms of organising and communication. The National Education Union (UK), has transformed the way it communicates with its membership. In 2021, during the Covid pandemic, the NEU held zoom meeting of over 400 thousand members and supporters. Huge effort is put into communicating with members, reps and activists through social media and through more traditional means (texts and email).

Building our unions from the base, from the reps in schools, is the way forward. It has always been the way forward.

The United Nations High Level Panel recommendations on the teaching profession provide an excellent programme for unions to build on. They provide a framework for unions to organise and grow. And it is essential that all EI affiliates organise and grow their membership if they are to achieve better outcomes for their members, and for the pupils they teach.

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