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Fred van Leeuwen: Defending education as a public good | Pt. 1

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Fred van Leeuwen Fred van Leeuwen Photo: Contributed
The following is Part I of an edited version of a presentation by General Secretary of Education International Mr Fred van Leeuwen, who was the keynote speaker at the Jamaica Teachers’ Association Education Conference held in Montego Bay, April 18-20, 2017.

It is an honour to address your conference today and to present to you the greetings on behalf of Education International. It gives me also the opportunity to thank the Jamaica Teachers’ Association (JTA) for actively participating in our world organization and playing a leadership role in the Caribbean Union of Teachers. I believe I can say that your organization is a proud member of our International.

We bring together some 32 million educators in 171 countries; they are members of 400 education unions, each with their own history, aspirations and characteristics, but all united in the believe that quality education, quality public education is the key to a better future for our children, for our communities, for our countries. We are also united in our determination to improve the status of teachers, to raise professional standards, and to protect our rights and freedoms. Education International is your voice in the international community; the voice of teachers, principals, and education support professionals around the world.

Today we live in a global community; and global and regional agencies of international cooperation have ever more importance for our work. So the task for a worldwide global union like Education International is to facilitate effective advocacy at each of these levels – global, regional, national and local. There is no need to explain that the globalization of our economies, the ability of our nations to successfully compete in the global markets, and the crucial role our school systems play in enhancing that ability, has propelled education to the very top of the international agenda. Sure, there are reasons to be pleased about all the interest shown in our sector, but if investments in our school systems are solely or predominantly driven by the desire to boost our economies and to satisfy markets, we need to be cautious.

Defending education as a public good

Education is a public good. The values of public education, are essentially the values that underpin democracy as well as our prosperity. It is not just an instrument to promote economic growth. It is not a commodity. Is it not interesting to note that in the past decades the international education agenda has not been set by the organization that was established for that very purpose, UNESCO, but by the World Bank, the largest source of education loans, and by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, one of the most influential advisors of the industrial countries?

Colleagues, seldom have the circumstances in which we operate be more unfavourable than today, economically and politically. Many of our member organizations are engaged in a battle, two battles actually, a political and a professional battle. These battles are not just about bread and butter issues. They are about the future of public education, about the future of our profession, about achieving the right of our young people to quality education, about giving them a fair chance on the labour market and in life.

There is a global debate about the future of education, one that involves two competing educational visions, and all of you here are in the very middle of that debate.

The first vision is grounded in the understanding that without publicly funded schooling and highly qualified, and highly motivated teachers with a high degree of professional autonomy, there is little chance of all children getting the education they deserve.

Neither is there much chance of countries having stable societies or sustainable economies.

The second vision is sustained by the illusion that education can be delivered more cheaply and efficiently by the free market, preferably with fewer, less qualified staff and a liberal dose of one-size-fits-all online programmes and standardised testing. I think that we can all agree that this is not our vision. Yet, in too many places, portions of our public school systems are being carved out and outsourced to private businesses. In too many places market principles determine what happens in our classes and schools.

The simplistic transfer of ideas from the corporate world will not advance the quality of our school systems. The idea that you can somehow improve quality by introducing standardized testing, league tables and performance pay, by ranking schools, by measurement, is wishful thinking. It does not work. What it definitely will do is generating angry teachers, frustrated principals and lots of paper work.

And let me ask you: Do we believe that standardized testing produces relevant, dependable information about a child’s development or do we feel it as a vote of no confidence in the profession? Mind you, we are not against testing. We do it all the time. We invented it. But testing is a teachers’ diagnostic tool for improvement, not a political device.

When an education system is weak, its schools underfunded, and its teachers robbed of their professional standing, the market and privatization vultures begin to circle, waiting for the right moment to strike. We cannot let them. It never ceases to amaze me, the tendency that some in the private sector view education financial resources as trapped in the Treasuries, waiting to be freed to take their rightful place in the market.

It reminds me of the story of the American bank robber Willie Sutton, who when asked why he robbed banks, deftly responded, “because that’s where the money is.”

Mind you, we do not oppose businesses to build schools and produce learning materials. They have done this throughout the ages. Where we draw the line is where corporations start running our schools on a for profit basis causing social inequity or where they would invade teachers’ professional space and tell us what and how to teach.

We are mobilizing education unions and professional associations around the world to stop governments from allowing market forces seizing control over our sector. We have under taken several studies on for profit schooling in Kenya, Uganda, the Phillipines and India, showing that these companies, mostly employing unqualified teachers, fall short of meeting educational standards. Although the Caribbean has a proud history when it comes to promoting quality public education for all, your governments too may be tempted to open their national school systems to the market, pushed by conservative, free-choice ideologues, and blinded by the empty promise of private education enterpreneurs.

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 international trade agreements downgrading education 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 - exposed by the so-called “Panama Papers” - prove what we have long known: that too many are skirting their tax responsibilities. The 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 and to achieve equity. Quality education is no longer a domestic issue. It is a global challenge. The future of education is not only determined by how we organize and finance our school systems, it is also about the educational objectives and targets we set, about what we teach and what not.

To be continued...

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