Picking up the cudgels for teachers across Europe

21st August 2009 at 01:00
Ronnie Smith's role leading the education unions in Europe allows him to put Scotland in perspective

Public sector wages slashed by a fifth, mass privatisation imminent and union members behind bars. Ronnie Smith has a lot to think about.

Readers will be relieved to hear these are not yet headlines in Scotland. They have, however, been among issues facing the Educational Institute of Scotland's general secretary since he took on an influential pan-European role in 2006.

Mr Smith is president of Education International Europe and an associated body exclusively for EU countries, the European Trade Union Committee for Education (ETUCE), which feeds teachers' views into international debates. "We've got to be as good as governments are at sharing knowledge and information," he says.

EI Europe comprises 140 teacher unions from about 45 countries, and has an office in Brussels that Mr Smith visits seven or eight times a year. He chairs a bureau of eight senior figures and a 50-member committee. At any time, EI Europe will be overseeing several diverse projects, each led by about six unions from different countries. After one or two years, the unions will try to influence policy, although it is difficult to gauge the long-term impact.

Recently, issues have included gender equality, stress at work and "cyber- harassment". A particularly topical project is looking at the economic crisis in countries such as Ireland, where vacant posts, other than headships, are not being filled and pension contributions have been "whacked up".

EI voting rights are tied to financial contributions, based on membership numbers. Some countries minimise payments - but also their influence - by underestimating numbers. The most influential countries are wealthy and well organised: Spain, with a population of 47 million, had 120 votes in 2007-08, while Sweden, with 9 million people, had 251 votes. Tajikistan had one vote, and EI wants to make inroads into former Soviet states where unions are almost unknown.

Balancing members' interests is not easy. Some unions have a strong Catholic tradition, and consensus on religion in schools can prove impossible. There are big rivalries between the likes of Solidarity, in Poland, and unions which were formerly branches of communist governments.

In eastern and central Europe, Mr Smith has found that, unlike the UK, countries turn to Europe for help with domestic issues. Mass privatisation is on the cards in Poland, for example, and teacher unions will ask ETUCE to "pick up the cudgels on their behalf".

In Latvia, meetings will be sought with a government which, in response to the financial crisis, suddenly slashed all public sector wages by 20 per cent.

In Turkey, there is "a lot of grief for the unions". Offices have been raided and closed down and teachers risk long-term imprisonment, with Kurds particularly vulnerable. EI members are rallied to send out letters to the government, prompting a "huge response" that can lead to prisoners' release.

Despite the effect on his day job - lots of evening and weekend work - Mr Smith will put himself forward for another three-year stint in the unsalaried post at November's EI congress in Warsaw.

The role has given him yardsticks for Scottish education: we are way behind on EU ambitions for everyone to speak two additional languages, but leading the way with our qualifications framework. Pupil indiscipline is less of a problem in family-oriented Malta, and eastern Europe where authority figures command respect - but special needs children in Romania and Bulgaria have only recently started going to school.

"Having this perspective makes me feel good about Scotland," he says. "If teachers saw the experiences facing their colleagues in Europe, they'd think they were doing well - but that's not to be complacent."

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