At the end of the second instalment of this four-part series, Fred van Leeuwen reminded us, “Bad education is bad for democracy, and bad democracy is also bad for education.”
EDUCATION International is mobilising education unions around the world to stop governments from allowing market forces to seize control over our sector. We have undertaken several studies on for-profit schooling in Africa and Asia, clearly showing that these companies, who often employ unqualified teachers, fall short of meeting educational standards.
Also in the North American region and right here in the Caribbean, governments seem to be tempted to open their national school systems to the market… whether pushed by conservative, free-choice ideologues, blinded by the empty promise of private education entrepreneurs, or simply pushed by the World Bank.
We must stop them. Let us be clear: as long as in the global economy the rights of investors prevail over our rights, prevail over the rights of our students and prevail over human and trade union rights in general, we cannot allow private corporations to conquer the public domain. We must put this misguided vision on trial. We must resist education being downgraded to a commodity. We must make our vision of quality education to be a basic right protected by governments the only viable option.
The argument that we cannot afford flourishing public school systems is false. There is enough money, but it’s stowed away in the wrong places. The ongoing fiscal engineering by global corporations – once again exposed by the so-called “Paradise Papers” – prove what we have long known: that too many are skirting their tax responsibilities. The real question is how to get the trillions of dollars circulating in the private sector working for the public good. Education is both an individual right and a collective right. It is one of the few instruments we have to build social cohesion, to achieve equity, and protect our democracies.
I am sure that our school systems are not as much focused on safeguarding democracy as they are on boosting our nation’s economic performance, on transferring skills rather than imparting (democratic) values. What I am also sure of is that in the past decades, teachers have lost much of their professional autonomy and that their professional space is shrinking. The standardised testing frenzy is only one example of what keeps us from educating young people in the original sense of the word.
Being a teacher is about moral purpose; about a commitment to making a positive difference in people’s lives. And that commitment is on full display every day around the world. But too often teachers are boxed into situations that reduce them to content-delivery agents and test-score attendants rather than educators.
Let’s not forget that there is a social, human dynamic at the core of quality teaching and learning. Teachers are part of the glue that holds society together. They create bonds within groups and create the bridges across groups and communities. Nation building, but also peace and democracy, are essential mandates and functions for education.
This makes teachers vulnerable. Sometimes they are squeezed between political groupings, caught between ethnic, linguistic and religious rivalries, or targeted by public authorities, like in Turkey where, since the attempted military coup more than a year ago, thousands of teachers were dismissed. Last year I met with two high officials of the Turkish education ministry in Ottawa. I asked a Canadian colleague to join me. We were told loud and clear that teachers were government employees and that they could be dismissed at any time if they were believed not to support government policy.
At the beginning of this school year another shock awaited us. The Turkish government decided to toss out of the curriculum the teaching of evolution in science classes, and Turkey is no longer an anomaly.
In Europe, where I thought that we shared the belief that teachers’ professional freedom and space are essential to quality teaching and learning, there are jurisdictions, such as Poland and Hungary, that are decreasing that space, that are limiting that freedom, for example, by imposing one particular history syllabus glorifying disgraceful chapters of the national heritage.
In Japan “patriotism” has this school year re-entered the mandatory school programmes, while, in a number of states in the USA, teaching of creationism is no longer optional. In Brazil, teachers are forbidden to address “political issues” in their classrooms, while the government is trying – unsuccessfully, by the way – to erase Paulo Freire from the country’s educational heritage.
Colleagues, where ideology creeps into the curriculum, where teachers’ professional autonomy is being challenged, democracy is at stake and alarm bells should start ringing.