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“Education unions: vital to meeting the professional needs of educators”, by Howard Stevenson

Many countries face huge problems recruiting educators to work in schools, colleges and universities and creating the working conditions that retain them in that work. Research studies also show that educators rarely get access to the type of high quality professional development they need to be as effective in their work as they want to be.

We completed our study as part of the ETUCE project entitled “Education Trade Unions for the Teaching Profession: Strengthening the capacity of education trade unions to represent teachers’ professional needs in social dialogue” co-funded by the European Commission.  In it we argue that the neglect of educators’ professional needs is a union issue – and that education unions already play a key role in helping to meet the professional needs of educators.

Despite widespread recognition of the importance and benefits of professional development for educators, the reality of educators’ experience is far too often a negative one. Our study identified two explanations:

  • Poor access – educators often have limited access to professional development (PD). They rarely have the contractual safeguards that guarantee them access to PD and teachers are frequently compelled to undertake PD in their own time and/or at their own expense.
  • Poor quality – educators also report that where PD is available it is often poor quality or inappropriate. PD is frequently ‘delivered’ to educators to help meet centrally imposed targets. Education professionals feel they have little control over identifying and meeting their own professional needs. Rather than supporting important skills development, PD is often experienced by educators as de-skilling.

Our study, undertaken with education unions across Europe (within and beyond the European Union), showed that education unions have a key role to play in tackling the problems of poor access and poor quality identified above. The research revealed five broad strategies adopted by education unions. These are not mutually exclusive and many unions utilise several, sometimes all, of the strategies. They are offered as possible approaches that education unions can adopt, dependent on context and circumstance.

Meeting the professional needs of educators: five union strategies

  1. Developing an extended bargaining agenda: the importance of social dialogue. Building professional issues into social dialogue processes, including collective bargaining, ensures that educators have a genuine independent voice to represent them and that contractual safeguards embed and protect educators’ rights to professional development. Professional issues are bargaining issues.
  2. Meeting educators’ professional needs: educating the educators. Education unions play a key role in ensuring educators’ access to professional development by directly providing professional learning opportunities independently or in partnership with others. In the full report, we provide numerous examples of how education unions are engaged in directly providing valuable, high quality professional development to their members.
  3. Facilitating self-organising. Engagement in teachers’ professional needs opens up opportunities for self-organising in which union members work together to identify and address their own professional needs. This is work based on traditional trade union principles of worker self-organisation and includes, for example, union members arranging their own professional development, ‘TeachMeets’ and reading groups. Such approaches provide an alternative to ‘top-down’ PD models and give teachers ownership and control of their own professional development.
  4. Shaping the discourse about quality education and support for education professionals. Education unions act as advocates for quality education and investment in education as a public good. This work performs a vital role in framing the narrative about public education and can help shift popular thinking about investment in the resources required to address the problems identified in our report.
  5. Building alliances and developing partnerships.Education unions work with a wide range of governmental and non-governmental bodies to ensure teachers’ professional needs are addressed. In the report we provide numerous examples of how education unions work with union federations, universities, specialist research and pedagogical institutes, Ministries and civil society organisations in order to more effectively address the professional needs of educators. Several unions make effective use of EU funding where this is available.

Education unions – speaking for teachers on all aspects of their work

It is sometimes stated that so-called ‘professional issues’ should not be the concern of education unions – their interest should focus on the ‘bread and butter’ issues of pay and working conditions. Such a distinction between the ‘professional’ and ‘industrial’ aspects of educators’ work is not only unhelpful, but damaging. An educator is not a professional or a worker, and nor are they a professional at one moment and a worker at another moment. They are always both, simultaneously. Questions of pay, performance, workload and professional development are indivisible. If an educator is undermined in one aspect of their work it makes it more difficult to make progress in any other area.

Educators, as workers and professionals, want meaningful influence and control over the totality of their work. Educators want the space, autonomy and confidence to be able to exercise their independent professional judgement within a suitable and proportionate accountability framework. That necessarily requires appropriate working conditions with adequate time and resources to do the work. It also requires teachers to have the professional expertise and sense of collective agency to be able to stand up for what they believe is in the best interests of their students.

Education unions are the only organisations, collective, independent and democratic, that can represent the voice of educators across all the aspects of educators’ work. Our report shows the diverse ways education unions across Europe are already working to support educators in all aspects of their work, often in very difficult circumstances. Such action is vital if public education systems are to be able to respond effectively to the huge challenges currently facing Europe, but also elsewhere. The report also concludes that if teachers want to bring about improvement in any aspect of their work, then organising collectively with their colleagues through their union is the most effective way to bring real change and advance. In difficult times there is no substitute for working together and getting organised – education unions provide the space for such action.


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Howard Stevenson

Howard Stevenson is Professor of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies, and Director of Research, in the School of Education at the University of Nottingham. Prior to working in universities Howard was a secondary school teacher for 15 years.
His research interests relate to teachers’ work, teacher professionalism, teacher unions, education sector labour relations and education policy with a particular interest in issues of global reform and privatisation.

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