Having taught abroad in the Solomon Islands and currently working on school exchange programmes with my own school in Cambridgeshire and others in Sierra Leone and Pakistan, I was eager to see how this conference would address not just recent developments in education around the world but also the interaction between schools and teachers on a global scale.
Mary Compton, chair, introduced the day’s proceedings with the idea that the current attacks on state education in this country were not just about Gove but about global capitalism. She also told us, as if to illustrate her point, that there were some changes to the programme: the Ethiopian speaker had been refused a visa in a humiliating fashion by UKBA and Denis from Turkey had been refused permission to travel from his university. In contrast however she did also have some good news: Abters had to send a replacement speaker as he had been made rector of the autonomous university and was being inaugurated this weekend.
Christine Blower, General Secretary, next outlined the NUTs position with regard to education: in contrast to the government and corporations who see it as an economic good, the NUT maintains that education is a public good and a human right.
Next to speak was Susan Robertson of Bristol University to give an overview of GERM: the Global Education Reform Movement. She identified and debunked 3 myths and justification made by capitalists for GERM – accountability, autonomy and competition. These are very familiar for those of us with any experience of the academisation of schools in recent years: “accountability” as an excuse for excessive and damaging testing, “autonomy” for deregulation and “competition” for stratification.
Susan pinpointed not only the principal parties interested in GERM : Pearson (owners of EdExcel, Economist, FT etc who have moved out of housing and into education), Elseviere as well as what she labeled “venture philanthropists” including James Tooley, Michael Baiber, Bill Gates. She also identified some key moments in its development eg the 2011 International Summit on Teaching Profession which took place in New York attended by OECD and many multilateral agencies but not a single teachers union. Some strategies of corporations and governments e.g. PISA, TELUS and SABER were also mentioned as key moments of the ongoing global privatization of education.
It was good to see the issue brought back to teachers and how we organise and work. We were reminded that teachers are seen through all this as both the cause and the solution to the global competitive economy and how we can resist being both of these – and through this resist the exploitation of not just our labour but also childrens’ labour. As Christine had already noted, we see education as a social or human good and not an economic one. It was also good to end on a positive note, with the example of Chile as a way forward. Radicalised students were now standing for parliament office and bringing the ideas they had developed as students, along with organised teachers and other staff at school, into wider practice.
After this talk, which set the scene for the workshops, we had a choice of 8 workshops to attend with speakers addressing the situations in Venezuala, Greece, India, Chicago, Ecuador, Mexico, British Colombia and other places too. I chose to visit the talks on India with Ravi Kumar, Greece with Pavlos Charamis and Ecuador with Edgar Isch Lopez.
First off was “Teachers/workers in Neo-liberal India”. Ravi introduced himself and the All India Forum for the Right to Education. He started by showing 2 videos – 1 of police response to striking workers in Patna in 2005 in order to put a context to workers organisations actions generally. The police tactics of lathi (batton) charge, tear gas, water cannons – of how women have been beaten by male police officers and so the union has raised a court case – were explained in order to show how repression of teachers is no different to that of other workers. The second was a Tata-Sky TV Advert for a school initiative using mobile phones – featuring Bollywood stars Aamir Khan and another with Abushek Bachan (son of legendary Amitabh Bachan and part of the Aditya Birla group). The implication is that mobile phones and remote learning could replace traditional format of teaching and learning in schools. The use of mobile phones as a teaching tool is something I have been researching myself and so this was of particular relevance to my own research. It was interesting to see a private and corporate approach to what I have thus far only seen Open Source approaches to. I will return to this matter at the end of the report.
One of the main issues that Ravi explored was the separation between private and public education as well as between permanent and contractual teachers. The diversity of different types of school and types of contracts was gone into in some depth and the resulting fragmentation of unionisation and organisation. Contractualisation is something also that is a problem for workers in other industries – something that is sometimes referred to as Precarity in Europe. The problems with teacher training were discussed - and in this regards Pearsons also came up as taking over computer classes in District Institutions of Education Training.
Ravi identified some reasons for the defeat of teachers organisations against the ongoing neo-liberalism in India:
· Firstly the separation of teachers from the working class and workers – compounded by the failure of the left to intervene in the traditional-conservative construct of the image of teacher as a God. Also the weak or non-existent alliance between permanent and contractual teachers.
· Failure of teachers to take the struggle outside the school and link to the larger struggles of the working class.
· Finally the failure of teachers to creatively engage with possibilities of alternatives – and project an alternative curriculum and pedagogy.
However he did also identify some areas where there has been modest success and pointed towards possible action for the future:
· renew efforts to unionise with permanent, contractualised and other workers as well as students.
· Create alternatives as “conscientisation” and politicisation.
· Connection with struggles outside the schools.
Next was “Major consequences of the memoranda and austerity policies on education in Greece.” We started with the general trajectory since the IMF/ ECD/ EU ie Troika intervention in Greece in 2010. How debt had risen from 120 to 170% of GDP and Education spending down 50% in the same period. Since 2011 over 2,000 schools have shut; there are now 30,000 less teachers, 10,000 substitute teachers sacked and 2,000 vocational teachers suspended, relocated into other public sector jobs or fired.
Something that struck a chord was the fact that vocational education has suffered in particular with courses shut and apprenticeships created. The minimum wage has simultaneously been cut and so from 14 years old children are being pushed into apprenticeships where they are earning 9 Euros a day. It was also noted that the students in the vocational sector is 80-85% girls and most teachers suspended are women. Of course at the same time as all this private companies are forming SEK and IEKs to take over from state education and are given the power to offer any subjects they choose.
The resistance of the vocational teachers was also gone into in some depth. In September 2013 there was a 8 day strike which the government responded to by invoking a national emergency to suspend the right to strike. Teachers were then court martialled if they did not return to work. The president of the national teachers union OLME has also been fired and arrested – but he remains head of the union. Pavlos stressed that even sacked workers remained in the union and workers contributed to a fund to support them. The local trade unions were also collecting funds to feed children and offer extra lessons due to the scale of cuts in education and across society.
The resistance of the thousands suspended and 200 sacked vocational teachers has also become a locus for wider organisation and linking up with other workers, in particular the organisation of 700 women cleaners, creating new committees with local unions allied with parents as well as sacked school guards (caretakers). Different methods and actions were outlined, from occupying ministries and roadblocks to forming local assemblies of workers. The situation in Greece with political and social polarisation between SYRIZA (Coalition of the Radical Left) and the Golden Dawn (Popular Association - the far right party) was also briefly discussed.
The last workshop I attended was called “Modernizing education reforms and the governmental policies against the organization of teachers in Ecuador.” Edgar introduced the situation in Ecuador as something quite unique – not strictly neo liberal in the usual sense. He broke down the progression of the reforms as having 3 phases from 1982 onwards: Neoliberal stage, the early government from and the present government. The early government stage is where nationalism re-emerged and there was a phase of more investment and increased school attendance. However President Correa has now realigned to neoliberalism. He is now an advocate of the world bank in the past, while he was explicitly against their policies in the past.
The effect of this return to neo-liberalism has been felt across society especially with the criminalisation of social protest. Trade union leaders, students and indigenous leaders have been arrested as terrorists. We were given some important examples and urged to show international solidarity in these cases.
One of the most serious cases is of Mery Zamora, a primary school teacher, who as national president of the UNE (national union of teachers) attended a meeting at a school on 30th September 2010. At this meeting the police arrested her for “sabotage and terrorism” and she was sentenced to 8 years prison. This was during a teachers union strike and while the government were trying to set up a rival union to draw support away from the UNE (which has a 90,000 membership). We were also told of the Luluncoto 10 - students and workers as well as the Cotopax 7 – students who were arrested under 1970s military laws against terrorism.
After the workshops, Lois Werner gave a talk on the “Implications of Research for Practice” where she presented the researcher as a “critical friend” of the union movements – one that could provide answers and idea but that these ideas may not be easy ones that follow our internal logic or assumptions about how things are done. Some key assumptions she raised were that “education is a way out of poverty” and those associated with collective bargaining. She raised the issue that Education International cannot effectively critique capital and instead tends to push for a post war construct of education provision. She stated that while research can therefore raise difficult and uncomfortable ideas for unions, there are many ideas, methods we can borrow and adapt beyond national lines but also beyond the confines of contract unionism. This she pointed out also leads to work itself being (re)defined as beyond contracts and economic work.
Towards the end of the conference we were split into groups to discuss ways forward and pool ideas. This was a good plenary session and our group mostly discussed how effective resistance should come from unionisation with parents teachers students and other workers across the school and community – as well as globally. Examples from the workshops were shared to show how this is possible.
For me one thing that emerged was the need for what myself and some others in my plenary group half jokingly referred to as a “curriculum for liberation” and lead on from a point from Ravi’s session as well as something that Edgar had mentioned in his workshop. Ravi had pointed out how the left had failed to create a vision of an alternative curriculum. Edgar on the other hand had explained a common ground between the teachers union and the indigenous villages of the Amazon mountain region – which was the writings and teachings of Paolo Freire, most well known perhaps for “Pedagogy of the Oppressed”. I was particularly interested in putting forward our own vision of education and this is an area I feel that the NUT could certainly look into. Recently, when Gove threatened to remove Equiano Olaudah and Mary Seacole from the History curriculum an alternative History curriculum was discussed by the Black And Asian Studies Association mailing list. It struck me that I had not seen this kind of open and collective practice before in this context – outside the small scale self-organisations / self-institutions of the early 2000s. Given that Pearsons and other private interests are increasingly dictating our curriculum – that schools are increasingly becoming nothing more than factories for national ideology in a global marketplace, the formulation of a curriculum for liberation is more vital than ever.
My own research recently has been into Open Educational Resources capable of being used in diverse contexts such as remote village schools in Sierra Leone, private schools in Pakistan and state schools in England; Resources that are versatile and concise enough to be used through new and portable technologies such as mobile phone. In contrast to the Tata-Sky commodification of these resources I hope to explore ways in which we can increase the human potential of these technologies and it is something I hope to take to the Wikimania Future of Education conference at the Barbican on 21st June. That is if I am not on the streets for the Say No to Austerity demonstrations on the same day.
I should close with the last word from the stage at the GERM conference which was a call for support from the British Columbia Teachers Federation as they have been locked out by the government and need international solidarity at this time. One of the most important things for me in events such as this is to create international links I am writing letters of support to them and to the teachers in Ecuador. I have also applied to become the International Solidarity Officer for Cambridgeshire NUT in which post I would hope to continue and build on such links.
Teachers Solidarity http://www.teachersolidarity.com
British Columbia Teachers Federation http://www.bctf.ca/