Mary Compton- ‘To struggle is also to teach’. How can teachers and teaching unions further the global fight for another world?

I have no ‘me’ anymore and, for the children I love to teach, this is devastating. I will not do this for life, I simply cannot.


This cri de coeur from a UK teacher in response to a survey on workload from her union could have been made by a teacher in almost any country in the world (NUT, 2014). Teaching and teachers are in the eye of a global storm which is not only assaulting their pay, conditions and tenure but also their very identity as teachers and as human beings. Yet I will argue in this chapter that, partly because of this, they are in a key position to take a leading role in the global fight for economic and social justice.


We are living through a period characterised and dominated by neoliberalism as an organising paradigm, which shapes the nature, form and scope of the government of our political and economic organisation in almost every country in the world (Harvey, 2005; Peck, 2010). Neoliberalism is an ideology which holds that  human wellbeing is best advanced by liberating entrepreneurial individuals within a framework of strong property rights, free markets and free trade (Harvey, 2005). In this chapter I argue that there is a global project to ‘reform’ education in line with this paradigm. Such ‘reform’ takes the shape of the weakening and, ultimately, the destruction of public education and its replacement with a form of privatised training for the majority of children, generating both corporate profits and a quiescent work force. I argue that this project not only sets out to destroy public education but that in the process it is also destroying teachers’ sense of identity. This is one of the main issues which teaching unions have to address.


Institutions at the heart of the ‘reform’ project are consciously targeting and setting out to neuter, or, at worst, dismantle, teaching unions, since they see them as one of the biggest obstacles in their path. I will argue that they are right to see teaching unions as central to resistance to their project but only insofar as teachers are able to transform their unions and develop new forms of collective action. In particular teachers need to go beyond traditional trade union action and form coalitions with local communities and others in struggle. If they are to do this, they must also democratise their unions, as well as developing an alternative vision of education, which will be part of the struggle for a more just world. Teaching unions must also recognise the global nature both of the ‘reform’ project and of the resistance to it, and, in recognising this, develop strategies for global solidarity.


In the course of the chapter I will look at developments in teachers’ movements globally and shall focus particularly on the situations in Mexico and in England.


The global project

Over the course of the last decade corporations have woken up to the potential for a multi-trillion dollar ‘industry’ in public education. One of the main actors in this field is Pearson, whose revenue from education in 2012 was $7.3 billion. (Pearson, 2013). But public education is not only a source of profits for capital. Its main ‘products’ are the workers who will continue to generate the surplus value to keep the profits flowing. So through their increasing control of education, corporations can also attempt to steer the kind of education which is being given to children, in order to produce the kind of flexible and quiescent workforce which they need.


The race to capture the global education ‘market’ can be described as a project, the architecture of which is becoming increasingly familiar to teachers in most parts of the world. Its first  pillar is the privatisation of public schooling, either directly or through Public Private Partnerships (Robertson and Verger, 2012). Corporations are able to mop up profits from the creation of so called low-fee private schools in the global South and the increasing introduction of publicly subsidised for-profit schools in the North. A particularly egregious example of the former is the so-called ‘School in a Box’ for-profit franchise in Kenya, supported by Pearson, which charges parents for a child to be schooled in a corrugated iron shed by untrained school leavers using pre-scripted lessons (Compton, 2014).


Its second pillar is an attack on public spending, involving deep cuts to education budgets. The results of this attack are seen in the so-called austerity policies across Europe as well as in the global South where International Monetary Fund (IMF) conditionalities demand that indebted governments reduce public spending. As a result of this, not only is public education run down, thus increasing the space for private schools, but corporations can increase their profits still further since they are liable for less taxation (Harvey, 2005).


The other main pillars of the project are constructed from managerial methods such as performance related pay, scripted curricula and league tables. In order to institute these methods, there have to be standardised materials, both books and, more importantly, IT products for high stakes testing, marking and data collection. They are not only one of the main sources of profit for corporations but also enable them to control the curriculum and how it is taught (Ball, 2012).


This project is generally described as education ‘reform’. Indeed it has got its own acronym: the Global Education Reform Movement (GERM) (Sahlberg, 2012). While it directly profits corporations, it is framed in social justice rhetoric and is generally mediated both by putatively benign international organisations like the World Bank and UNESCO as well as corporate not for profit foundations like the Gates foundation and corporate sponsored NGOs such as Pratham in India. The pretext for the project is that, as the World Bank puts it, ‘educating children – particularly girls – has the greatest impact on eliminating poverty,’ (World Bank, 2012).


While education is framed by reformers in social justice terms, included in this framing is the notion that the prime function of education is the creation of ‘human capital.’ (Vally and Spreen, 2014).The formula is straightforward: high quality education produces high quality human capital which in turn allows ‘developing’ nations to compete in the global marketplace. By competing and succeeding in this competition, economic growth is enhanced and nations and their populations are lifted out of poverty. The problem with this logic is that increased growth does not necessarily lead to decreased poverty. Indeed some of the fastest growing economies on earth, such as India and Nigeria, also have some of the highest proportions of their populations living in poverty and, in the case of Nigeria, the largest number of out of school children. Yet this skewed logic is frequently repeated in World Bank education policy documents (Bruns, 2014).



Teaching Unions



For the advocates of the GERM project, teaching unions represent the greatest ‘institutional block ‘to reform’ (Corral, 1999). In a recent book published by the World Bank on the state of education in Latin America and the Caribbean, the author, having identified teachers themselves as the ‘binding constraint on the region’s progress towards world class education systems’ (Bruns, 2014:50) says that the ‘deepest challenge in raising teacher quality is not fiscal or technical, but political, because teachers’ unions in every country in Latin America are large and politically active stakeholders’ (Bruns, 2014:3). Having identified teachers and their unions as the problem, the author then goes on to lay out different strategies for defeating them. Three key tactics are identified throughout the book: joining together with civil society and businesses against teaching unions and encouraging a media narrative about the inadequacy of public education; conciliation and an attempt to co-opt unions into the project; and outright confrontation.


The main development to be avoided, is the ‘political juggernaut of teachers’ unions and parent and civil society stakeholders united in opposition.’ (Bruns, 2014: 296) The most common tactic of the advocates of reform to achieve this is to mount a sustained media attack on public education and in particular teachers and their unions (Ball, 1990). This is partly made possible by starving public education of funds, thus enhancing the perception that public education and the people who work in it are of low quality. Moreover instruments like national league tables of schools, the naming and shaming of ‘low achieving’ schools, and the OECD’s PISA league table of countries’ education systems, all add to the perception that public schooling is failing, and enable reformers to make common cause with dissatisfied parents and businesses. When you add to this the framing discussed above, which casts education as the route out of poverty, dissatisfaction is understandable, particularly among low-income parents at a time of mass unemployment.


If, despite these tactics, advocates of the project are unable to get parents and other stakeholders onside, then the second tactic is to co-opt unions themselves into the project. In this they have had some success. Rather than asking why corporate elites are deciding education policy, union leaderships more often appear to be scrambling to get themselves a seat at the table. The global teaching union federation, Education International (EI), takes one small seat at any number of elite tables, such as the Universal Global Metrics Taskforce, which is co-chaired by Michael Barber, chief education adviser to Pearson (and himself originally a prominent officer of the UK NUT). Betraying a general failure to deconstruct the social justice rhetoric of the project, to understand its underlying ideology and to question the structural issues behind education inequality,  union leaders are able to feel comfortable collaborating with it, rather than resisting it and advocating for alternatives.


It is frequently the case, however, that teaching unions are forced into resistance. The cuts in education funding result in cuts to teachers’ pay, which is invariably the biggest item in education budgets, as well as attacks on pensions. Another major feature of these cuts, particularly in the global South, is the employment of teachers on temporary contracts, which allows governments to get better value for money in the World Bank’s terms since contract teachers are paid a fraction of what a regularly employed teacher would earn (Bruns et al., 2011) The lack of tenure is also useful as a disciplinary tool. All of these attacks on teachers’ living standards as well as often grossly inadequate conditions of service (in the global South classes of over 100 are commonplace, as are schools with no sanitary facilities) naturally result in a great deal of traditional and not so traditional trade union action, from strikes, to mass protests and even to hunger strikes and self-immolation. A week does not go by without a strike by teachers somewhere in the world (Teachersolidarity, 2015).


In this sense then, the advocates of the reform project are right to see teaching unions as a ‘block to reform’. By the very fact that their core business is supposed to be the defence of members’ interests,  they are forced into confrontation with states, local governments, and other employers. On their own, however, these economic struggles rarely meet with much success. This is in part because teachers are now facing a globalised project. In Southern Europe and the so-called indebted countries of the global South, cuts determined by international financial institutions mean that teachers frequently remain unpaid for months, or allowances are not paid, and governments, under pressure from the IMF, assert that they do not have the money to pay up. In the UK and US on the other hand, the problem is not so much direct external power from financial institutions as the assimilation of the GERM project into national policy. This takes the form of the break-up of the public education service into ever smaller units such as free schools or academies in the UK, or charters in the US, so that it becomes more and more difficult for teaching unions to fight for pay and conditions on a national scale (Carter, et al., 2010).


So ultimately the only way to defend public education and the teaching profession is to overturn the global reform project itself.  In order to do this, teaching unions must form precisely the kinds of alliances with communities most feared by the advocates of the project.  By the nature of their work, teachers  often live in and are respected members of their communities and their economic, social and personal interests are more or less bound up with these communities. This is nicely summarised in a slogan adopted by struggling teachers across the world: ‘Teachers working conditions are children’s learning conditions’ (Olson-Jones, 2014).The very things which threaten teachers – low pay, oversized classes, lack of tenure, lack of teaching materials, deprofessionalisation, bad infrastructure, are also an assault on children, their parents and communities. The atomisation of communities and the teaching profession into competing individuals through the imposition of school ‘choice’ and managerial accountability frameworks are as much an attack on them as they are on teachers.


If such alliances are to be formed however, teachers also need to democratise their unions and develop a new vision for education. They also need to develop a global perspective and global solidarity. Such changes to teaching unions, which in many cases would require radical transformation, could be framed as a turn towards social movement unionism . Indeed there is already a literature from critical educators along these lines (Weiner, 2012, Peterson, 2015). To explore these issues in more detail I shall now look at teaching unions in Mexico and England.


Teaching Unions in Mexico


The struggle against neoliberal education reform is at the heart of the political turmoil in Mexico.  Unsurprisingly, all four elements necessary for the involvement of teaching unions in the struggle for social justice are far advanced in the Mexican teachers’ movement.


The fight for union democracy has been particularly sharp in the rank and file of the Mexican teachers’ union, SNTE. SNTE, with 1.6 million members is the largest teaching union in Latin America. However its recent history has been marked by corruption. Its most extreme manifestation is its now jailed leader, Elba Esther Gordillo, who was the darling of successive neo-liberal governments, so much so that she was declared SNTE president for life by the government in 2008. As a result of her role she enriched herself, spending millions on houses in California and Mexico, and gave large gifts to compliant local leaders bought from members’ subscriptions. When the ruling elite changed tactics from co-opting the teachers union to all-out confrontation, it was this corruption which provided the pretext for Pena Nieto to arrest her.


But the SNTE did much more damage than corruption. While it was still in favour with successive governments, it took responsibility for forcing the so-called Alliance for Quality Education (ACE)  ‘reform’ on teachers. This measure was actively promoted both by the World Bank and by corporate education lobbying groups, in particular the powerful Mexicanos Primeros. The chairperson of Mexicanos Primeros is Claudio Gonzales Guajardo, co-founder of the Televisa television network in Mexico. He has since been appointed by Nieto as the head of his Education Transition Team (Bocking, 2015). The ACE reform promotes standardised teaching based on globalised curricula, insists on Spanish and English as the medium of instruction (even though the government recognises 68 indigenous languages), it also brings in standardised testing, performance related pay, and an end to teacher tenure, as well as vouchers and increasing privatisation of schools. There has also been an increasing role for business in schools, with secondary schools teaching a curriculum dictated by local factories, where part of the week involves young people working for free, for example, in one school in the state of Puebla, they make police uniforms (Rincones et al., 2008).  Crucially it aims to phase out the so-called Escuelas Normales –  teacher education colleges which train predominantly low income and rural young people to become teachers, which have become centres of resistance to the reform project – and replaces these schools with private colleges. The degree to which the Escuelas Normales are seen to be a threat to ruling elites, was arguably highlighted in September 2014, when 43 student teachers at the Ayotzinapa Escuela Normal were abducted by police. Since the event, the bones of one student have been identified, but the rest have disappeared without trace. While as yet no-one has been brought to justice for this outrage, it is widely believed that the state is at very least complicit and that it was precisely the revolutionary nature of the education at the colleges which made the young people a target (Goldman, 2015).


While Gordillo and the official leadership of SNTE were the main cheerleaders and enforcers of the ACE, it has been vigorously contested by teachers in many parts of Mexico. A crucial part of this contestation has therefore been the fight for democracy within the union, so that it can represent the interests of its members and develop policy with them rather than serving a corrupt national and local leadership. Here a teacher from Morelos describes one action during a protracted struggle in 2008:


The very moment teachers started the movement, they decided to take possession of the building of the Sección XIX of the S.N.T.E. , the state run teacher union, ejecting the puppet union leaders who conversed only with the government and cared little for the teachers’ opinions. New leaders were democratically elected and the government is now trying to fire them from their teaching positions in retribution (Teachersolidarity, 2008).


This fight for democracy was crucial to the survival of the anti-reform movement. The SNTE leadership in league with state forces attempted to stamp out dissent violently, organising the disappearances and arrests of some of the teachers and, on at least one occasion, ordering the assassination of an opposition leader. Moreover, the blatant corruption within the union enabled the press both locally and globally to frame the teachers’ struggle as motivated by a self-interested desire to maintain corrupt privileges. This was a gift to the strategists of reform, reinforcing their tactic of trying to get the general population on side by attacking public education, teachers and teaching unions.


If such a framing was to be contested, it was vital to join with local communities not only in fighting for democratic education but for all the other structural issues which keep people in poverty and threaten their fragile way of life. Far from confining themselves to traditional forms of struggle – for example, school strikes for justified but sectoral economic demands, which temporarily inconvenience communities and risk alienating them – teachers occupied public squares for months on end, all the while discussing their struggle with local communities. In these occupations, they interact with and are supported by local populations. Here a participating teacher describes such an occupation in the province of Morelos in 2008:


During the strike, teachers started a sit in (plantón) in Cuernavaca’s main square, the Plaza de Armas in front of the Government Palace. Teachers erected tents, for their headquarters, where they stood on guard, ate everyday, slept on the cold floors, sang and expressed their creativity on posters, leaflets and became closer with their companeros in struggle, their second family (Teachersolidarity, 2008).


Moreover, in ways reminiscent of the actions described in this volume by Manzano in Argentina, the teachers framed their struggle as being against the neoliberal and pro-rich policies of successive governments: the struggle for control of education was seen as part of a much wider fight over public spaces and goods. It is no exaggeration to say that the teachers’ movement has been the spark for many mass movements against the privatisation of resources, environmental degradation and poverty. In Guerrero in 2013, for example, tens of thousands came on to the streets, campaigning both against the ACE education reforms and against proposed new mining projects, the privatisation of the state oil company PEMEX and an increase in sales tax (Paterson, 2013).


The fight for democratic and critical education has also been central to the struggle against education ‘reform’ in Mexico. Latin America has a distinguished history in this respect, not least through the legacy of Brazil’s Paulo Freire. Freire saw education as a dialogue between the teacher and student in which both learned to understand their oppression in order to be able to transform themselves and the world, and, in the process, become more fully human (Freire, 1970). This ‘practice of freedom’ informed the struggle for democratic education in Mexico. This contrasts with what Freire characterised as the ‘banking’ method of education, which sees students as empty vessels to be filled with knowledge by their teachers. This kind of education is promoted by  education reformers today who, as Freire put it about elite education ‘reformers’ in the past


‘ . . . use their humanitarianism to preserve a profitable situation. Thus they react almost instinctively to any experiment which stimulates the critical faculties.’ (Freire, 1970: 55)


Many parents in Mexico were prepared to support the teachers’ struggle, not least because they were campaigning for an end to school fees and to improve the conditions in schools. However it was important for teachers not only to acknowledge the shortcomings of education as it existed but to propose a different kind of education to the one being promoted by ACE, which indigenous groups in particular saw as culturally elitist, devaluing or ignoring their language and traditions and promoting a US dominated view of the world, teaching and knowledge.


Teachers’ leaders in Oaxaca  have created their own strategy for improvement: the Plan for the Transformation of Education in Oaxaca (PTEO). While accepting that some knowledge is universal, the PTEO holds that the cultural context is important and therefore education projects should be decided by the school collective, teachers, students, parents and the local community, rather than elites. As one of the leaders of the PTEO project put it, a teacher has to ‘see the cultural richness in these communities, in the people who live there’ (Bacon, 2013).


The plan also holds that evaluation of teachers should be done through interaction with colleagues and parents. Teachers and students keep portfolios which would then be looked at and analysed by teachers and families. Instead of focusing on competition, school communities would concentrate on collaboration. Above all, both teacher-training and school education would focus on the development of critical thinking. And so a teacher, according to the same PTEO leader, should not only have roots in the community but be ‘a source of social change’. The combination of fighting for free and properly funded public education whilst also creating a project for a different kind of education was able to garner huge support from local communities.


International solidarity has also been central to the teachers’ struggle in Mexico. There are two reasons for this. The first is the need for the world to know the degree of oppression with which social protest, including the protests of teachers, is met. There have been frequent calls for the international union movement to lobby governments, publicise and support teachers who have been disappeared, arrested or murdered. This has been very important in raising awareness of the Ayotzinapa 43 mentioned above for example.


Apart from asking for global solidarity to support teachers who are being oppressed in their country however, dissident Mexican teachers have always taken the lead in understanding that the neoliberal education reform project is global and therefore needs a global response. Shortly after the violent eviction of the occupation of Zocalo Square in Mexico City in 2013, the teachers organised a global solidarity conference. In its call for participants it said:


At the Meeting the discussion will be about the “educational” reforms to shed labor rights, override the intervention of unions, undermine free public education, close schools, lay off teachers, and exclude students, not only in Mexico but throughout the world. At the same time we will all look out to reach agreements about the actions to develop  internationally a Campaign of Defense of Public Education and the labor rights of workers in education (Teachersolidarity, 2013).


Truly, the democratic teachers of Mexico bear out  the popular slogan of teachers’ struggles in Latin America: ‘la maestra luchando tambien esta ensenando’ which I have used as the title of this chapter.


Teaching unions in England [1]


I shall now look at teacher unions in England through the lens of the four components of struggle described above: union democracy, alliances with communities, development of an alternative vision and global solidarity. I shall be concentrating on my own union, the National Union of Teachers (NUT) since I know it from the inside. It is the largest teaching union in Great Britain, if by a fairly small margin.


Under successive governments, England has been subject to the full assault of neoliberal education ‘reform’. Like Reagan in the US, Thatcher was an early adopter of the neoliberal project. The so-called Great Education Reform Act of 1987 introduced a raft of ‘reform’ measures, such as privatisation, local management of schools, opting out of schools from local authorities, school choice, standardised testing and a national curriculum (Simon, 1988). This was continued by successive governments (including a putatively Labour government), with the introduction of performance related pay and the  further break-up of the state education service through the semi-privatised academies programme. All these developments have been contested both in national campaigns like test boycotts and in local campaigns against specific forms of privatisation like academies and opting out.


With the election of a new left leadership in the NUT in 2006, a more determined and consistent national campaign was instigated. In order to make this happen, a decision was taken that, unlike the old leadership which excluded members of other caucuses from positions of power, this one would be more representative of different political currents and therefore arguably more democratic, at least at leadership level. However if the union is going to be genuinely democratic, it will need to build its base and find ways to involve teachers at the school level in national decision-making. While there are already structures in place that are meant to allow that to happen – for example, local branches send delegates to the annual conference where they vote on matters of national policy – the vast majority of members are not involved in those processes because branch meetings are poorly attended. This is partly because of the extreme workload of teachers – according to a government survey, primary teachers work on average 60 hours a week and their secondary colleagues only a little less, resulting in endemic levels of tiredness, demoralisation and stress (DfE, 2014). It is also due to the power of neoliberal ideology,  which devalues collective action and encourages individuals, including teachers, to see themselves as solely responsible for their own fate.


For the first time since 1986, the NUT has engaged in a series of national one day strikes against government plans to worsen pension arrangements, freeze pay, increase workload and devolve more pay decisions to schools. While the strikes have achieved the symbolic success of contributing to the sacking of a particularly unpopular and longstanding education minister in 2014, their effect on the substantive issues of pay and pensions have been small. A government proposal to completely deregulate teachers’ terms of employment was overturned during the strike campaign, in itself a significant achievement, but a more piecemeal trend towards this remains something that constantly confronts the union. And the threats facing public education have only increased since the crisis hit in 2008, followed by the election of the coalition government in 2010, and even more so with the election of a conservative government in 2015. The education reform programme has been ramped up, with forced conversion to academies as well as the introduction of government-funded free schools. And though the government is not under the direct control of the IMF, it is following the same economic policies of deficit reduction through cuts in public spending. As a result, the NUT has also joined forces with people working in other public sector jobs, meaning that the aims of strikes and demonstrations have been broadened beyond the immediate interests of teachers. However, there is little chance of success until the union is part of an even broader fight for economic and social justice, which means becoming increasingly involved with the general struggles of local communities.


On a small scale, particularly in fights against privatisation, the union has worked closely with local communities. A good example is the struggle against the planned demolition of Sullivan Primary School in London. The local council wanted to replace it with a Church of England free school for boys. A local activist described the campaign:


The local NUT union group worked closely with the school community to challenge the proposals. Massive lobbies of the Town Hall were backed up with lobbies of the Mayor of London and the Prime Minister, with social media campaigns, fun runs, a day of prayer in the local mosque, leafleting and press and media campaigns. From one tiny corner of the London Borough of Hammersmith & Fulham this became a borough wide campaign. Part of this was down to the union’s mobilisation of support from other local schools who opened their playgrounds after school to allow campaigners to meet more and more parents (Teachersolidarity, 2014).


Partly as a result of the campaign, the local administration was thrown out at the next elections in 2014, and the plans were shelved. While not always so successful, such campaigns have been common in many parts of the country and have served to unite teaching unions with their local communities.


The NUT nationally has also tried to involve the local community in its campaigns. Its Stand Up for Education Campaign has seen members in shopping centres and high streets across the country, gathering support from local people. However there are many spaces where the NUT has yet to forge alliances. In particular, there has been no significant engagement with the fluctuating rise in activism both amongst university and school students since 2010, which has also been reflected in rebellions of other young people, in particular in the riots of 2011. The possibility for solidarity and joint working over issues like the abolition of the Education Maintenance Allowance (a grant for low-income young people accessing sixth form and further education) were never really explored. Yet this was an area, the access to education for all, which is central to the campaigning aims of the NUT.  Moreover there is a growing army of precarious young workers in schools. Thousands of graduates are working for agencies as teaching assistants, often on zero-hours contracts. At present, such workers are not eligible to join the NUT, since it is only open to qualified teachers. Yet, if they were eligible and could be persuaded to join, the possibilities for new forms of organisation, for democratic challenge, as well as new energy for the struggle, of the kinds described by Anagnostopolous and Evangelinidis in Greece in this volume, seem to me to be enormous.


In England there is not yet anything like the broad movement for economic and social justice that we have seen in Mexico. This is despite the fact that many millions of people in the country are seeing their services cut, their jobs disappear, are on zero hours contracts, live in poverty with their children and are, in short, victims of a situation where the rich are getting richer while they are suffering. If the NUT is to contribute to the building of such a movement, it will have to address the structural issues which are the cause of this increasing injustice and inequality. This brings me to the third strand of transformation which the NUT needs to address – the development of a new vision of education, based on an understanding of the underlying ideology of education ‘reform’ and of the economic relations which lead to inequality and poverty. The union has set up a Year of the Curriculum project with the laudable aim of bringing discussion and determination of the curriculum down to school level. However, its literature for the campaign does not question the underlying ideology of education reform. Indeed it accepts the concept of the highly prescriptive national curriculum, suggests that the role of the teacher is to create a ‘product’ who is ‘equipped for life’, implies that one of the main aims of education is to ‘achieve high wages in the global economy’, and places no emphasis on the need to develop democratic  and critical education (NUT, 2014) . Nor does it suggest involving local communities in the development of a curriculum which reflects the world in which they live.


Many teachers are feeling that their identity as teachers is being threatened by the ways in which they are made to work. Overwhelmingly these ways reflect a neoliberal view of society in which each person is in competition with everyone else in a ‘race to the top’ and is her own small enterprise (Mirowski, 2013). In particular the managerial methods of accountability, tend to strip away teachers’ sense of themselves as teachers. The introduction of performance related pay for example, and the tying of pay to students’ results in standardised tests, disrupts both the relationship between teacher and teacher and that between teacher and student. If there is a limited pot of money and only some members of the school staff will be rewarded, then why should a teacher collaborate with her colleagues? If a student’s test results determine his teacher’s pay, then she is no longer solely interested in his achievements for their own sake, she could be said to have a financial stake in his doing well. In this framework, the rate of pay becomes a measure of a teacher’s worth and if the performance related pay does not come her way, not only is she financially disadvantaged, she likely also feels she is a failure as a teacher. Large volumes of union casework involving teacher stress and feelings of worthlessness attest to this.


Not only does this reconstruction of teaching as a competitive, rather than a collaborative endeavour strike at teachers’ identity, but the imposition by a small global elite of a group of knowledges which are officially sanctioned and a teaching methodology which is acceptable, strips away the individual creativity and interests of teachers as well as their cultural and linguistic references, substituting them with corporate instructions and globalised norms.


While teachers on their own cannot undo the ideological work of neoliberalism, they are in a position to challenge it, just as they are doing in Mexico, and their unions should be at the heart of this work, not least because younger teachers have been trained in a pedagogy which is permeated by the ideology of GERM. The union’s accumulated knowledge and research capabilities should enable it to begin to set out the vision for a new kind of education which contributes to the building of a more just world. This in turn could lead to new forms of struggle.  For example, early years teachers might feel that administering standardised tests to four year olds would be something which was completely at odds with their professional training and beliefs. One response to this would be to boycott such tests, an action which the union has engaged in in the past. Another strategy might be that teachers go on strike, but instead of sending the children home, occupy the schools for the strike and teach using methodologies, which they are helping to develop with the union, in which they believe, thus giving them back their agency as teachers. For example, early years teachers could spend the day engaging in play activities, older children could be encouraged to talk about their communities and to question the injustices they face, linking their experiences to those of other communities all over the world. And parents could be invited in to take part as well.


Occupying schools would throw up all sorts of legal problems, as indeed would occupying squares, or local government offices as activists have done not only in Mexico but in many other parts of Latin America and in the Middle East, as illustrated throughout this volume. At present, UK teaching unions are constrained by some of the most illiberal anti-union laws in the world, and these laws are set to become even more punitive. But with increasing attacks on public services the union movement as a whole will need to revisit the ways in which those services and those rights were won in the first place. As was shown so graphically in the London student protests in 2010, or in the poll tax riots in 1990, it is only when people go beyond the law that protests catch the attention of the media, and, in the case of the poll tax riots manage to reverse policy. It is possible that the severity of the attacks on union organisation coming from the conservative administration will force a rupture in union bureacracies, which could be both an extreme danger and an opportunity. In several chapters in this volume, new forms of struggle are described in which traditional labour unions are either sidelined, in the case of Greece or display outright hostility as in the migrant struggles in Italy, described by Irene Peano. As I have described above, teachers’ work is uniquely embedded in and valued by communities. Most of those in struggle, the youth, migrants, the disabled, the unemployed have an investment in schools and education of one sort or another. In Mexico as I have described and as Manzano described in Argentina, teachers unions have to a certain extent been able to transform themselves and become part of a wider struggle. We in the NUT have a lot to learn from teaching unions and education activists in the rest of the world.


This brings me on to the fourth strand of a successful transformation of unions: global solidarity. The NUT is beginning to work its way towards that. It has used tactics practised by unions in other parts of the world. For instance, The Stand Up for Education Campaign was partly inspired by the Chicago Teachers Union strike in 2010, when teachers mobilised massive protests all over the city against the anti public school policies of the Rahm administration. The NUT also organised a conference of education activists from across the global North and South, to compare struggles and learn from each other. It is featuring Global Education Reform or ‘GERM’  in all its campaigning in an effort to make members aware of the global dimensions of the assault which they are undergoing. However, real global solidarity amongst teachers is still in its infancy. International work must move beyond a deadening charitable attitude, must cease to be taken in by the social justice framing used by education ‘reformers’, and instead promote real solidarity – by sharing experiences, by learning from unions in other countries, by publicising and supporting teachers’ struggles globally and where possible co-ordinating campaigns and action.




Teachers are at the sharp end of an onslaught from corporate interests in the shape of a global education ‘reform’ project. This project has as its main components, privatisation, cuts and managerial accountability measures. I have argued that this is not only destroying public education globally but is an assault on teachers’ identity as teachers.


For the advocates of the project, teaching unions are one of the main obstacles in their path. For this reason they advocate neutralising or destroying unions by either uniting civil society and business against them, co-opting them into the project or through outright confrontation. Teaching unions globally have been subject to all of these tactics and sometimes succumb to them.


However, teachers are also in the forefront of resistance in many parts of the world. But because traditional trade union struggle in education is facing a powerful global project, it is necessary for teachers to transform their unions. I have argued that four elements are necessary to do this – democratisation, building alliances with communities, developing a new vision of education which contributes to the struggle for a more just world, and global solidarity.


In Mexico, teachers have galvanised a movement to transform the whole of that society. In England, things are not so far advanced because there is as yet no broad movement campaigning for social justice. If the NUT is to be part of building such a movement it will have to question the underlying structural issues which lead to the educational injustice which it is attempting to address, as well as transforming itself in the ways set out above.


Speaking on the Mexican situation, a recent commentator said:

While each struggle has its own particularities, all are bound together by a common thread  . . . Inevitably, as in Mexico today, the education issue quickly exposes a host of inequalities and injustices . . . And in one important sense, like the factories of the 20th century, the classroom is ground zero for class struggle in the 21st century (Paterson, 2013).


While we have still got a long way to go in England, if we move in the directions I have suggested and learn from and work with our colleagues in the rest of the world, our classrooms too can become central to the struggle for economic and social justice.



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[1]The UK education system is devolved to its four constituend countries, England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales. The NUT organises and recruits in England and Wales only. For these reasons, although many of the points made refer to the whole of the UK, and others to England and Wales, others are exclusive to England. For that reason I refer to England throughout rather than the UK.

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