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Education International: Teacher policies are at heart of quality education

Teachers and learning

A World at School asked Education International – the largest global trade union federation, representing 30million teachers and other education employees worldwide – for their thoughts on the Education For All Global Monitoring Report.  We spoke to Mireille de Koning and Antonia Wulff, who work for Education International in the research and the education and employment units respectively.

Students in a rural school in Recife, Brazil Picture: A. Demichelis for Education International

What do the results of the new report mean to you?

This year’s Global Monitoring Report confirms what Education International and teachers of the world have known for a long time and have been actively campaigning for – that is, comprehensive teacher policy is at the heart of quality education.

Sustainable quality education for all will not be achieved without appropriate investments in teachers’ competences and motivation through training, continuous professional development, decent working conditions and matched by the appropriate tools and environments necessary for teaching and learning.

Moreover, the report is an important reminder of the failure of governments across the world to deliver on their promises and that much remains to be done before 2015.

How can governments, NGOs and others put pressure on governments to improve education quality without the risk of scapegoating teachers?

Teachers are central to education quality but governments that genuinely want to improve education systems in their countries must focus on improving the quality of teachers and the contexts within which they teach.

Many countries are failing to adequately invest in teacher training, and where teacher education programmes are in place, they are often insufficient. Moreover, governments have also resorted to the recruitment of unqualified teachers on precarious contracts, who are paid salaries below the minimum wage, and who lack the skills, support and materials to teach.

In addition, teachers find themselves working in unsafe, unhealthy and grossly under-resourced environments, which in many contexts mean overcrowded, multi-grade classrooms and poor sanitary facilities. 

Teachers cannot be solely held accountable for the outcomes of education systems, nor can their roles be expected to determine student performance, in any context. The GMR 2013/4 makes a strong case that prescribing narrow policies rarely has the intended effect.

For example, there is little evidence to suggest that performance-related pay practices, promoted to ensure outcomes, actually improves learning. Improving learning, or education quality more broadly, requires that governments take a holistic approach to education, focusing simultaneously on what goes into a system – “inputs” such as equitably-distributed resources, qualified teachers, relevant curricula and appropriate facilities, materials and class sizes – the processes of teaching and learning, and the outcomes of these processes.

Beyond this, for any sustainable long-term improvements to the quality of education, policy measures have to be contextually relevant and developed in dialogue with teachers, students and the broader community.

How can we best support the professional development of teachers to improve the quality of learning? What are some lessons learned to help facilitate cooperation between education employees/groups and governments?

Governments who seriously want to improve education quality must adequately develop and implement (read: fund) comprehensive teacher policies. Teachers’ qualifications and training, motivation and support are fundamental to quality education, as are decent work conditions and adequate environments.

The GMR highlights four strategies to attract and retain teachers – provide adequate education and training to high standards, ensure the equal distribution of teachers, invest in adequate salaries and offer attractive career perspectives. Teachers should benefit from supportive environments, which include reasonable class sizes, education support staff, collaboration and exchange with colleagues, and professional autonomy. Only then can education quality really be achieved.

Moreover, teachers’ voices, through their organisations, must be taken into account in the development and implementation of education policies. As is highlighted in the GMR report, “policies can only be effective if those responsible for implementing them are involved in shaping them” and teacher unions are crucial in this regard.

In many contexts, however, teachers’ experiences and expertise have not generally been taken into account. Over the past year, Education International’s membership has evaluated the strategies for achieving Education for All and one of the main outcomes is the failure of governments to adequately involve teachers and their unions. 

What is the role of quality education in preparing people to participate fully in society?

Quality education provides people with the critical knowledge, abilities and skills that are needed to question, conceptualise and solve problems that occur both locally and globally. However, for education to be able to play its transformative role, it has to go far beyond literacy and numeracy.

Education is about the acquisition of knowledge and skills. But, more importantly, it is about empowering people to influence and participate within democratic processes and contribute to social cohesion. It is through education that we equip people with the tools necessary to analyse information, consider the consequences of choices and consumption and actively contribute to the sustainable and democratic development of societies.

For such a quality education to take place, comprehensive education and teacher policy, as well as sustainable, long-term funding have to be guaranteed by governments

How can we campaign to support teachers to improve learning?

There is, in fact, little difference between the policy measures that support teachers and those that support learning. Long-term improvements to our education systems require an understanding of the full range of, and interrelation between, the issues at stake.

Student-teacher interactions cannot be cited as the reason for poor learning outcomes for students any more than you can understand a poor health outcome by the interaction of patient and physician. We need to raise public awareness on what is really preventing children from enjoying their right to quality education.

Across the world, unqualified teachers are employed to meet the demands of an expanding education system. And even where standards exist, teachers earn salaries well below the minimum wage and lack the fundamental qualifications, support, and learning materials to be effective.

Governments around the world are failing to meet their funding commitments to education and, even when they do, the benefits flow mainly to the privileged at the expense of the most marginalised. EI’s campaign is an opportunity for the global community to unite for and demand their right to quality education.

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