Teachers are in a unique position as social justice advocates, not just educational advocates, writes CHRIS SMITH
EDUCATORS from across the globe spent three days last week in Brussels debating the UN’s recent Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
The conference organised by Education International, the global confederation of teachers’ unions, was the first of its kind in gathering together young teachers (currently defined as below 35) to discuss how the 17 goals that make up the SDGs can be acted upon by educators and also how teachers, unions and wider civil society can use the SDGs to challenge and change their governments.
Before examining the SDGs themselves, the 50 delegates from countries on each continent had the opportunity to share stories and experiences from their lives as teachers inside the classroom and as trade union activists outside in order to gain a greater global perspective on the health of education systems and education unions themselves.
There were tales of horror from the Philippines where the unions still battle for recognition and activists have found themselves the targets of assassins, but tales of joy from Lebanon where the teachers’ union is celebrating earning the profession its first pay rise from government in over 20 years.
The British contribution to these tales was to discuss the challenges of privatisation of schools and the de-professionalising of teachers, features of the global education reform movement (Germ) which the NUT has done much to raise awareness of with the support of this paper.
Although sadly the Germ is familiar to our colleagues from North America and developing nations, many of our closest European neighbours, particularly from Scandinavia, are yet to be infected — offering hope for more socialised models of education provision.
The SDGs themselves are the UN’s follow-up to the Millennium Development Goals, which largely went unmet, although there were a few honourable exceptions such as Cuba being the sole nation to have eliminated illiteracy.
The SDGs stretch from the expansive, such as Goal 1 of pledging to end poverty everywhere, to the more targeted Goal 7 of committing to ensuring access to clean and renewable energy for all to combat climate change.
Among these, Goal 4 holds particular concern for teachers as it commits to ensuring quality education for all, free at primary and secondary level, and commits to take action to end inequality of access and achievement currently seen between boys and girls.
Education International is proud — and rightly so — of the wording of this goal, including the word “free,” as opposed to “affordable,” as initially desired by many governments and “edubusinesses” such as Pearson and Bridge Academies which generate obscene profit from “affordable” schools in the developing world which are anything but for the local population.
What this seemingly small example illustrates is that the voice of teachers does matter and that it is heard at the highest level of global governance.
It needs to be heard more often and more clearly with national governments — particularly the British — respecting the profession and the professionals within it as the subject experts that they are. This provides the rationale for why all teachers should engage with and take heart from the work of Education International.
Although a specific goal for global development places a tremendous amount of importance upon the work of the teachers, through discussion of the other 17 goals it became apparent very quickly that teachers are in a unique position as social justice advocates, not just educational advocates.
Any education system is going to reflect the social and political conditions in which it exists and quality education will provide the skills, knowledge and social consciousness to change the world. As the US educator John Dewey remarked: “Education is not preparation for life, education is life itself.”
What became apparent almost immediately after this realisation was that if these 17 interconnected goals are going to be met, governments are going to need to be held to account on their progress towards them.
The UN has requested that all governments devise “indicators” of progress to track how their country is progressing towards each goal within a time-frame of meeting them by 2030.
However the UN has no ability to intervene if governments are not meeting their responsibilities in regards to addressing these goals.
That prerogative remains with the citizens of sovereign states through their own democratic institutions and civil societies — which is where all teachers and other trade unionists need to step up.
It is up to us to watch how the government acts in addressing these SDGs which it has committed itself to.
If government is not meeting its responsibilities we need to be let it be known loud and clear that it should be ashamed of itself.
The trade union movement has some form in such campaigning, for example over the Calais Jungle.
The sight of nurses, teachers and others giving up their own time and money to help provide care and training to refugees highlighted the indefensible inaction of one of the world’s richest governments and shamed it into (albeit minimal) action.
If the government will not provide a lead on these issues then we should. In the case of ensuring quality education we do that by owning the issues as the expert professionals. We could start by offering our own suggestions for what exactly those “indicators” of progress could be.
This goal of teachers holding government to account requires strong, effective unions and a route to ensuring this was identified by Professor Howard Stevenson of the University of Nottingham, who is a longstanding member and friend of the NUT.
In a conference address Prof Stevenson outlined a concept of “unionateness” — a mindset where we no longer regard ourselves as teachers who are also trade unionists but we recognise and advocate that being an active trade unionist is part of the professional make-up of being an effective teacher and that it is professional status that demands our voice be heard on educational matters.
Such an understanding of the profession makes complete sense when we consider the 17 SDGs and how they affect education and therefore become the concern of teachers to address.
Take Goal 2, which pledges to end hunger. No child can learn effectively and no teacher can teach them effectively if they are starving.
The concern of the teacher with delivering quality education does not just involve what is delivered in the classroom; it necessitates teachers to take action to ensure the economic, social, emotional and physical health of those who are to be educated.
It is this humanist mission that makes the work of Education International essential and its focus over these three days on involving young teachers in how to respond to the SDGs so far-sighted.
The young, of course, are the future, but they are also the present and all unions must follow this lead in developing their young members to ensure they are ready and able to continue fighting for a more equitable world to which our governments have committed through the SDGs.
Government will make as minimal effort as they feel they can get away with. Power yields nothing without a fight. But power is what is in a union. It has also been said that unions are in crisis with falling memberships and disengaged members. If that is the case let us remember another saying of the right, but one which we must own to reconnect with members and refocus our energies: “Never let a good crisis go to waste.”
Chris Smith teaches history and politics in Norwich and is a member of the NUT’s national organising forum for young teachers. You can follow him on Twitter @chriswriteshere.