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Education In place of fear

The new phenomenon of educators worldwide fighting back against the systematic destruction of public education is as invigorating as it is promising, writes HOWARD STEVENSON

LOOK anywhere in the education system — schools, colleges and universities — and you will see signs of education workers fighting back.

As the academic year draws to a close it ends 12 months of extraordinary campaigns waged, and often won, and presages even more action in the year ahead.

School teachers in England, across all unions, have shown a willingness to challenge unacceptable workload and aggressive management.

These strikes are often school-based, and the action does not always attract more than local press coverage — but this action is important and it is growing.

Some notable campaigns are challenging the forced academisation of local authority schools and show how educators are building meaningful and powerful alliances with parents and the wider community.

In Scotland, members of the Educational Institute of Scotland have been mobilising members around its “Value Education, Value Teachers” campaign and its claim for a 10 per cent pay rise.

Meanwhile University and College Union (UCU) members have gone on the front foot in the further education sector with their “FE fights back” campaign. This targets low pay and chronic workload but links these issues to the need to reinvigorate the sector as a potentially transformative force in so many people’s lives.

Finally, no-one can ignore the extraordinary campaign by UCU members in pre-1992 universities that has not only forced the employers back to the negotiating table but also posed a fundamental challenge to the wider marketisation of the whole university sector.

As with teachers in the school sector, college and university lecturers have learned lessons about the power of alliances as students and others played such a crucial role in these campaigns.

These campaigns are just a snapshot of what is happening across the UK education system and it is important not to lose sight of the difficult issues that still confront education workers and the hard work that lies ahead.

However, the last 12 months may well be the beginning of something much bigger as confidence spreads and educators relearn the importance of solidarity and the exhilaration that comes from standing with colleagues and saying: “Enough is enough.”

What is perhaps most significant about all of these acts of resistance that are lighting fires across the UK is that they are not unique to this country — the same fires are taking hold in many parts of the world as educators in numerous other countries also say: “Enough is enough.”

This has happened most visibly in the US, where teachers with little history of militant unionism have risen up to take the most extraordinary collective action, but it is also reflected in action this year in Argentina, Portugal, Slovenia and many other places.

It may happen next in New Zealand, where members of the New Zealand Educational Institute have just voted to take strike action to demand fair pay. Something significant is happening in education and it is happening far beyond the UK.

So how can we explain this remarkable turnaround in fortunes that not only runs across virtually every part of the UK’s education system, but is reflected in parallel struggles in education systems in many parts of the world?

The answer lies in the coming together of two linked factors which have combined to fundamentally shift the political context and which open up new opportunities for collective action that were unimaginable 12 months ago.

First is the slow burn of economic crisis and austerity. In the immediate years after the 2008 global crash, fear was the initial response and many education workers traded their pay and conditions in the hope they might cling on to the job they were afraid they could lose.

Years of austerity-driven cuts, however, and the wage stagnation that accompanies it, mean that fear has eventually turned into frustration and frustration has turned into anger and action.

The latest round of swingeing school cuts in England remind those working in schools that it is they, and their students, who are still paying for the bankers’ crash — 10 years later and with no end in sight.

Whether it is in Warrington or West Virginia, educators are refusing to accept they are the long-term casualties of the crisis.

The second explanation is also global in form and equally important — it is the growing realisation on the part of education workers and service users alike that the neoliberal restructuring of public education systems along marketised lines is a busted flush.

Breaking up our public schools, colleges and universities and subjecting them to “market forces,” was never about delivering “world class” education or “consumer choice.” Rather it was always about softening up the system to make privatisation much easier (from schools through to universities).

It was also intended to introduce fear into the system through the “discipline” of market forces and the expectation that fear would keep education workers compliant and in their place. It is visible in different forms in many parts of the world.

It is now becoming increasingly apparent that the “emperor has no clothes.”

Marketisation has delivered nothing but chaos and corruption. The CEOs of multi-academy trusts and university vice-chancellors pay themselves huge salaries, while front-line workers are sacrificed due to budget cuts.

System “gaming” becomes endemic as institutions cherry-pick some students and seek to avoid others, as league table manipulation triumphs over public service values.

Meanwhile, for workers and students alike, what Gert Biesta called “the beautiful risk” of education is reduced to the endless and turgid pursuit of unachievable targets. Measuring everything is the way to keep everyone in their place.

The campaigns we have seen, and are seeing, across UK education systems and across the world, are because the toxic mix of austerity and marketisation in education globally has run its course.

Communities want more than a poorly funded service which not only reproduces inequalities but increases them.

Education workers want their work to be the professionally rewarding experience they know it can be. The campaigns we have seen are because education workers, from Birmingham to Buenos Aires, are shaking off the fear intended to contain them and taking action to reclaim education as a “beautiful risk” — exciting, creative and dangerous.

The global nature of these developments create new opportunities for building international solidarity and collective confidence.

If the possibilities that are opening up are to be realised it is important that we do more than support each other internationally, but that we also find better ways to connect and to learn from each other.

The global threat that faces education looks increasingly fragile — it will still need a global response to defeat it.

Howard Stevenson is professor of education at the University of Nottingham and a workshop organiser at the NEU (NUT section) conference Teacher, Union and Human Rights: A Seminar on Global Solidarity, held today.

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