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‘The idea that strong teacher unions impede education quality is ludicrous’

Education International general secretary Fred van Leeuwen debated in favour of teacher unions at the Global Education and Skills Forum in Dubai earlier this year. Here is and edited version of his speech

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Education International general secretary Fred van Leeuwen debated in favour of teacher unions at the Global Education and Skills Forum in Dubai earlier this year. Here is and edited version of his speech

First, we need to deal with a fundamental misunderstanding – the idea that on the one hand you have teachers and on the other hand you have teachers unions and their leaders. Some governments enjoy making that distinction as if to say that teacher unions are not representative of the profession. The other day an education minister told me that he did not need to talk to the local teacher union. He was in contact with his teachers on a daily basis – on Twitter.

In many countries most teachers belong to independent and democratic professional unions with a dual mission. One, to defend the interests of their members and the profession at large, and two, to promote education quality and equality. These two missions are not in conflict. They are complementary.

It is quite simple: quality education requires quality teaching which requires a well-trained and highly motivated teaching force, which require fair terms and employment conditions. The idea that teacher organisations impede education quality is ludicrous. The opposite is true.

Throughout history teacher organisations have been the main driver of improving education quality and educational opportunities. Is it a coincidence that the 23 best performing nations on the Programme for International Student Assessment scale have strong education unions? Of course not. Many successful education reforms in the industrial economies were initiated by teacher unions, while the most effective professional development programmes are organised by teacher unions.

In Detroit, Michigan, dilapidated schools are all too familiar. But some posed a real threat: black mold in hallways, broken toilets, exposed electrical wires. Individual teachers and parents spoke to school leaders to no avail. One teacher union went out on strike demanding repairs and the mayor finally visited the sites and declared the buildings hazardous areas. Are teacher unions an impediment to quality? Of course not, they are often the leading voice of accountability for public officials.

In the Netherlands, the teacher unions declared a one-day strike in primary education against severe budget cuts in special education… not for salaries or pensions but for better education quality. The public authorities withdrew the cuts. Teacher unions standing in the way of quality? On the contrary, they engage, if need be, in political battles to get politicians to make the right choices.

'Helping to open access to education'

In Lebanon, despite the failure of the public authorities to honour a 10-year-old collective agreement, our affiliates decided to work double shifts to accommodate the hundreds of thousands of refugee pupils in their public schools. Teacher unions an obstacle to better schools? No. Instead, teacher unions are helping to open up access to education.

One more example: California. When governor Arnold Schwarzenegger cut funding to schools in deprived areas, a teaching union took him to court and won millions. Did they put those millions towards their salaries or union coffers?  No they reinvested the amounts in the poorest schools.

Nobody goes into teaching for the money. Teachers care about kids, they want their students to have a fair chance to succeed. Teacher unions have the same ambition.

And what about these weak teachers we protect? We protect all teachers – the innovative teacher is protected from her conservative school board, the traditional teacher from her progressive principals, and, yes, we also protect the “weak, underperforming teacher” who deserves leadership with accountability under any political regime. It’s called due process, and strong schools, leaders and unions work under it every day in the best school systems in the world.

For those among my opponents who fear education unions, you must feel comfortable here in our host country where teachers are still denied the right to organise in independent unions, or not far from here, across the peninsula in Bahrain, where members of our affiliate are severely suppressed and their leader is serving a jail sentence for speaking up in defence of students and teachers.

I mention this because apart from the important role that education unions have in improving professional standards and education quality, they are also an essential element of democratic society, both as the representatives of a profession expected to impart democratic values to future generations, and as a pressure group enforcing social justice and democratic rights.

To conclude, if teachers’ unions are an impediment to education quality then I wonder whether my opponents can explain why in the highly unionised Northern and Western parts of the US, teacher salaries, per-pupil spending and student achievement are so much higher than in the southern “right-to-work” states. The numbers are not a coincidence.

Fred van Leeuwen is general secretary of Education International

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