The politician who answers the call of duty, day and night

20th March 2015 at 00:00
Buenos Aires education minister gives teachers his mobile number

"My mobile rang at 2am but I missed it because I was asleep," says Esteban Bullrich, the minister of education for Buenos Aires. "But I sleep with my phone next to my bed and I picked up the message. It was this teacher blasting at me, saying I hadn't paid his salary, saying some bad words about my mother and my sister."

This might be the stuff of nightmares for politicians around the world, but for Mr Bullrich it is all in a day's work - because he has given his personal mobile number to every single one of the 50,000 teachers in Argentina's capital city.

"I phoned [the teacher] back at 2.15am," Mr Bullrich recalls. "I said, `Hello, this is the minister.' There was this silence, and then this guy said, `I'm so sorry, I didn't know it was you, I thought this was a joke.' We had a chat."

Earlier this month, England's education secretary Nicky Morgan took part in her second "conference call with the teaching profession". The idea was similar: any state-school teacher could phone in and ask the secretary of state whatever they wanted. However, the line was open for an hour only - it's unlikely that Ms Morgan would take calls in the early hours of the morning to talk about Ofsted, marking and performance-related pay.

But Mr Bullrich decided that radical action was necessary in Buenos Aires. After he was elected in 2010 to take charge of the city's troubled education system, the centre-right politician quickly realised that he needed to take drastic steps if the dysfunctional relationship between teachers and their political masters was to be rebuilt.

"I gave out my personal mobile number. First, to every single head to say I was at their service, to try to change the relationship with government," he says. "There was a lot of confrontation in the system.

"And then I gave it to all the teachers. I went on public TV's biggest shows and gave my number there. It became like a 1-800 number."

The demand for the ear of the minister is hardly surprising, given the instability of the city's education system. Last summer, schools in Buenos Aires were hit by strikes over pay and more than 20 of them ended up being occupied by their students.

But Mr Bullrich, who was speaking at the Global Education and Skills Forum in Dubai last weekend, claims that the decision to hand over his personal number was a "turning point".

"We started building trust," he says. "The moment you touch someone, the effect is unbelievable. Even if they're really annoyed about something, the fact that it's the minister who is taking care of the problem really makes a difference."

The politician now sets aside between 60 and 90 minutes a day to respond to the 80-100 phone calls or texts he receives.

"The school system is big, but the news spread very quickly. It is very easy for me to communicate through the system just by answering calls. It's like a hotline," he says.

"To begin with, I got messages asking me about pay. But now it's about new policies and what I mean by this - I have a direct relationship with teachers. It gives me a really good feeling for how the city's schools are performing. If we enact a reform, [we discuss] how it is working.

"The basic motivation was to tell them that I care about what they're doing and I wanted to know how I could improve their work conditions," he adds.

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