Teachers’ fightback against the destructive ideals of Germ has reached global proportions, writes Gawain Little, Oxfordshire secretary of the National Union of Teachers (NUT) and a member of its national executive.
“THERE is no alternative.”
This phrase, famously used by neoliberal British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and recently wheeled out by her successor David Cameron, sums up the nature of hegemony — the process by which the rich and powerful establish the social, political and economic norms of society. This is no more evident than in the construction of education policy.
For almost 40 years a dominant narrative has gripped both policy-makers and populations across the world. It asserts that only a competitive, market approach to education, with the attendant standardisation and testing regime, can guarantee high-quality education and that private companies are the only way to deliver it.
This is the global education reform movement (Germ). It infects education systems globally and has changed the very nature of education, including restructuring teachers’ work and, crucially, children’s learning. It threatens to strip away the emancipatory process of education and replace it with a narrow economic process which simply seeks (in the words of its advocates) to add value to human capital.
However, in spite of the overwhelming support of powerful vested interests from national governments to international institutions like the World Bank, IMF and EU, Germ faces resistance wherever it seeks to embed itself.Teachers and parents are at the forefront of that resistance.
The Australian Education Union has waged decades of struggle against an unfair funding regime and, more recently, the introduction of high-stakes testing and private sector-inspired managerialism into education. Through working with parent and community organisations and developing high-profile public campaigns, they have managed to wrest back the agenda and, in 2007, pushed the federal Labour government to establish an inquiry into school funding.
The public report of this inquiry, popularly known as the Gonski Review after the chair of the committee David Gonski, was released in 2011 and has provided the basis for the union’s I give a Gonski campaign to secure its full implementation.
In Canada, the British Colombia Teachers’ Federation (BCTF) worked alongside sister unions to create the Tri-national Coalition in Defence of Public Education. Formed in response to the North American Free Trade Agreement and the detrimental impact this and other free trade agreements have on public education, the Tri-national brings together unions in Canada, Mexico and the US.
This threat hasn’t gone away and, in 1999, the BCTF was involved in forming the IDEA Network (Initiative for a Democratic Education in the Americas) to fight proposals for a Free Trade Area of the Americas. As well as working with unions, the IDEA Network involves student and community groups and has a wide remit in campaigning in defence of public education.
Today free trade agreements are again on the agenda, and not just in the Americas. The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) and the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) are two such agreements currently being negotiated by the European Union with the US and Canada respectively. If agreed, these will dramatically increase the powers of corporate capital over education and prohibit any attempts to reverse privatisation.
In Mexico teachers have fought decades of neoliberal attacks, most recently attempts to exclude teachers from the national labour relations framework established by the constitution. This would leave them vulnerable to casualisation and a punitive “teacher evaluation” regime including giving powers for summary dismissal on a variety of grounds to local education authorities.
In response to this, teachers have mobilised on an unprecedented scale and organised marches, demonstrations and regional congresses which have brought together teachers, students, parents and the wider community to develop an alternative vision of education.
This has led to the rejection of standardised testing at school level, the development of education programmes built around pre-Hispanic languages and cultures, and in some states the creation of fully-fledged alternative schools. In the words of academic Hugo Aboites: “Teachers escaped from pure trade unionism and moved into the discussion and practice of new alternatives for education”.
The fight takes different forms in different countries, but there are common threads throughout. Not only are the attacks part of the same neoliberal agenda but, in each case, resistance relies on the ability of education unions to mobilise the mass of their membership, developing their political consciousness through struggle. Teachers and their unions emerge from this process changed — stronger, more democratic and with a wider vision for education.
At the same time, successful resistance in each case is much broader than just teachers. Forming alliances with students, parents and the wider community is essential, not only to strengthen the unions’ cause but because of the transformative impact that genuine collaboration has on the organisations involved. In Power in Coalition: Strategies for Strong Unions and Social Change, Amanda Tattersall said: “Coalitions are a source of power for unions, not simply because they supplement a union’s objectives with the resources of another organisation but because they help renew unions.
This kind of strength requires a sometimes challenging kind of reciprocal coalition building. Yet this slower, stronger coalition practice can help unions rebuild their internal capacity, develop new leaders, and innovate how they campaign.”
But there is one more element that is essential to building the fightback — international solidarity. It is as a contribution to that international solidarity that the National Union of Teachers is today hosting a conference on the privatisation of education globally. This builds on a conference we held a year ago where trade unionists and researchers from all over the world shared their experiences of fighting Germ. This month, we are releasing a book, Global Education ‘Reform’: Building Resistance and Solidarity, which brings together a number of different contributions from that first conference.
By sharing our understanding, our successes and our setbacks, we can strengthen the struggle against a system that would enslave our children to a neoliberal agenda.We are at the forefront of a battle for the future, not just of our education systems but of our societies.
To quote Maurie Mulheron, leader of the New South Wales Teachers’ Federation: “A united teacher union movement, at home and across the globe, is now more important than at any time in our history.”
Global Education ‘Reform’: Building Resistance and Solidarity is released this month and can be ordered from www.manifestopress.org.uk (RRP £7.99, £5 for NUT members).