Education International
Education International

Speech by the President of Education International, Thulas Nxesi

published 22 July 2007 updated 22 July 2007

Below is the speech by the President of Education International, Thulas Nxesi, at the opening of EI's 5th World Congress in Berlin.

Here are the videos of the speech with English voice-over. Please click twice on the image for the larger version.

Top-Left: Part 1; Top-Right Part 2; Bottom-Left: Part 3; Bottom-Right: Part 4For more EI videos, please visit our Youtube channel: www.youtube.com/EduInternational

Welcome to this 5th World Congress!

Thulas NxesiPresident of Education International

On behalf of the leadership of Education International and our 30 million members – yes, you heard correctly, we do have 30 million members – it's a great pleasure to greet you today.

This is a joyous occasion as we celebrate the growth and successes of our organization. But it is also a time to reflect on the many challenges that face us as educators and trade unionists.

A heavy responsibility therefore rests on our shoulders as we develop strategy and policy to take the organization forward and advance the cause of public education. What is decided here will be decided by you. The quality of those decisions will depend on the quality of our interactions. Be prepared to share experiences and to debate as we chart the way forward.

We meet in Berlin, a truly historic city, a symbol of Cold War division and later unification. Of course, Berlin's history is much older than the Cold War. In fact, in 1885 there was a previous Congress of Berlin when the European powers met to carve up Africa.

As Africans, we now have political independence, but the legacy of colonialism remains. I dare say that the meeting in Berlin in 1885 has modern day equivalents in meetings of the G8 and the IMF, when the rich and powerful meet to decide the fate of the rest of us.

On a lighter note, I am struck by the fact that the 4th and 5th World Congresses of EI have been held in Brazil and Germany respectively. A trend seems to be developing here. Apparently only countries with the very best national soccer teams are eligible to host the EI World Congress. With this in mind, perhaps we should say that the country that wins the African Nations Cup in January 2008 will have to host the next EI World Congress!

Getting back to business...

The General Secretary will present a detailed report on EI's work since the last World Congress. However, I think it would be useful to remind ourselves of what we decided in Brazil.

The main themes that emerged from Porto Alegre in 2004 were:

1. The threat of HIV/Aids - As educators we are in the front line in fighting the pandemic. In many parts of the world – especially the African continent -- social progress and Education For All are undermined by HIV/AIDS. We need to redouble our efforts against the pandemic.

2. The struggle for quality public Education For All - EI believes in public education as a public good. We have highlighted the danger of privatisation which benefits only the rich and leaves our societies more divided. Education is an investment for the future, not a drain on the public purse. We must continue to campaign for the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals agreed upon in Dakar in 2000. If we are to achieve Education for All by 2015, we must convince governments to make the necessary investments.

3. The search for a new global order based on social justice, peace and security, and a commitment to defending human rights - As EI, we are all part of a global awakening of progressive forces for social justice. We can take hope from the resilience of the international labour movement and from the emergence of new social movements representing the oppressed. The 4th World Congress tackled a number of related themes which point to a new and more just world order:

• We expressed a common concern and understanding that unilateral military action is unacceptable. We expressed the need for alternatives rooted in strong multi-lateral institutions, in respect for international law and in a commitment to negotiated settlements to conflict. We also affirmed our shared revulsion of terrorism in all its guises.

• We spoke out on human rights abuses – including political and labour rights, women's rights and the rights of children. It is completely unacceptable that 200 million children are trapped in child labour and are denied their fundamental right to education.

4. Building teacher unity and trade union organization to improve the conditions of education workers - The 4th World Congress voted overwhelmingly to support an agreement to join forces with our colleagues in the World Confederation of Teachers. Those WCT colleagues are here today and we warmly welcome them as full members of EI.

In the time remaining I will try to reflect on the congress theme: "Educators joining together for quality education and social justice." I believe this captures the main challenges we face going forward.

Joining Together

"Joining together" – is what, as a trade union organization – we are all about. When we come together in a trade union it is because we know that our numbers protect us and give us strength in the face of our adversaries.

And yet unity has – historically – proved very illusive. As workers we have been divided along ideological, political, religious, and ethnic lines. Until very recently the political reasons that divided Berlin also divided the international labour movement. The wall that once divided this city, also divided workers from each other. In my own country, racism divided workers into different organizations and kept the majority of the population in servitude whilst their leaders languished for decades in prison.

But in 1989 the Wall came down. A year later Nelson Mandela walked from prison a free man. And as the world changed so did the labour movement. Teachers started to come together.

In 1990 talks began to create a new international organization of teachers. Coincidentally, the first national, non-racial teachers' union – the South African Democratic Teachers Union – was launched in my country – with the assistance of EI members from the consortium for development cooperation.

In January 1993, in Stockholm, Education International was inaugurated as a global union with the slogan: "Teachers united, ready for change." Since 1993 we have held World Congresses in every continent – Africa, North America, Asia, Latin America – and now we return to Europe to complete the cycle.

But unity is never easy. Unity – as we know – is hard work.

In 1989 there were four international teacher organizations. Today we have completed a process of unification to produce the largest global union with a membership of 30 million – all of this in little over a decade.

Developments in the education sector have been reflected in the international labour movement. We have a new architecture for international trade unionism with the founding of the International Trade Union Confederation in Vienna, with an incredible 168 million members!

EI's unity process was a significant factor in unifying the global labour movement. As from January, we have the Council of Global Unions – with EI's General Secretary as its first Chair – as an instrument for coordination and mobilization. So today trade unionists are united as never before, and ready for change.

It should not come as a surprise therefore that EI's former Vice-President Sharan Burrow was elected the first president of ITUC. They elected a teacher to lead this massive organization. I don't think that was an accident.

Many will remember a time when teachers were viewed as marginal to the broader labour movement. That is no longer the case. In my own country, South Africa, the president of the teachers' union has been president of the national labour federation – COSATU – for several years. Teachers hold positions of leadership in many other countries.

This trend reflects the unique aspects of education and teacher unionism:

1. The centrality of education in modern societies and economies.

2. The sheer size and scope of the sector – with some 60 million teachers world wide.

3. The fact that we are everywhere. You will find a teacher in every village, town and district.

4. The leading role we often play as teachers in our local communities – and this is particularly the case in developing countries – where teachers are called upon to use their skills in the broader life of the community.

5. Education – and teachers – have occupied a central place in the political and ideological struggles in response to corporate globalisation and in resistance to neo-liberal economic policies.

6. The quest for free and equal quality public education is central to the broader political, social and economic struggles we wage country by country for social justice, human rights and equality.

Who would have believed 20 years ago that the four teacher international organisations would unite as one?

Who would have dared to believe that the Cold War would end and that Apartheid would crumble?

It happened and we have overcome!

But as we congratulate ourselves on what has been achieved thus far, we must never lose sight of the many challenges we still face. In relation to the issue of unity, we face two main challenges:

• Becoming truly global – As EI we need to help build strong, independent education unions wherever they do not exist. We are clearly underrepresented in the Arab world and in Asia, particularly China. The challenge is to engage with educators in those countries to better understand their situations, to share our experiences and to move towards greater cooperation and mutual support.

This is important for another reason. At our last World Congress we flagged the growing division in the world as a danger to peace. And when peace gives way to war, it is the most vulnerable who suffer most. This is the situation in Iraq where we hear reports of children with special needs abandoned in horrific conditions as the infrastructure of the country crumbles.

What then can we do as educators and as trade unionists? As educators we need to build into our curricula and our practice an understanding and appreciation of differences.

As EI, as trade unionists, we still have a way to go in building a truly international movement. We need to engage with educators and their unions in every country, to build trust and understanding, to share experiences and to debate differences, and to develop mutual cooperation and solidarity.

We are all educators, we are all workers – regardless of any difference in colour or creed – and we face common challenges. Where teacher unions do not exist, EI must offer assistance in establishing them. Where unions are weak we must work cooperatively to strengthen them. Where unions are under attack from governments or vested interests we must be willing to provide concrete solidarity and support. I must mention the plight of teachers in countries where human and labour rights are not respected: Colombia, Peru, East Timor, Zimbabwe, Ethiopia and more.

In supporting and developing trade unionism, it is crucial that the rank and file membership is well informed so they can make the right policy decisions. In Africa and Asia only a handful of unions have a regular union publication that reaches all members. I call upon the cooperating partners to assist unions in the developing countries in setting up union publications and in providing training in communications.

• Uniting the affiliates - It needs to be said that, with all the strides that have been made in forging unity at the international level, divisions continue at national level and even multiply in some instances. There may be clear historical reasons for this: ideology, politics, religion, ethnicity and divisions between sectors – although often it is the result of egos and personalities. But this does nothing to help our members.

There are very practical reasons for uniting. No government or employer can negotiate with a multitude of unions around the table. And vice versa: a plethora of unions will have no impact whatsoever since governments can easily play us off, one against the other.

Secondly, we need to unite for reasons of economy of scale. It is impossible to run so many national and regional offices and have paid officers and finance the union infrastructure. We should spend our scarce resources in a better way.

In the coming period we have to work to overcome these internal divisions by actively working towards one single education sector union in each country. This requires a pro-active stand by Education International. We have shown that it can work in Liberia. We have seen it in the past in Tanzania and Uganda. These examples are still too rare. We must actively promote and drive towards unity in the education sector and set aside resources to make that possible.

Quality education for all

Education is a human right. We need to defend it in the face of threats to privatize and to subsume education under international trade agreements. Education is a public investment in the well-being of all our societies, and must be adequately funded.

In April 2000 at the World Education Forum in Dakar, Senegal, 185 governments committed themselves to provide Education for All by the year 2015.

We are now at the half way point, yet all the monitoring reports indicate that governments are falling short of their commitments, particularly with regard to the provision of primary education for all and the education of girls. And just for a moment, consider who it is that remains outside of school: the poor, the girls, children with special needs, refugees, minorities, indigenous children even in some of the wealthiest nations. We can do better.

We must recommit ourselves to the goals of Education For All. As affiliates we have to monitor our own governments' delivery and to continue to lobby for the necessary resources and political commitment to make this a reality.

The Dakar 2000 document explicitly stated that governments must consult civil society on education plans and policies. I would suggest that affiliates use this commitment in the coming years to demand an "Education Pact" – in effect a contract with government on how to achieve the EFA goals and the key role of the teachers and their unions in this process.

What kind of education?

As we struggle for basic education for all the world's children, we need to also take time out to reflect and debate exactly what kind of education we want for future generations.

Education is so integrated with society and culture that we cannot respond to the question "what kind of education do we need?" without reference to our vision of the kind of society we want. Of course it is not just teachers, but in a democratic society the public as well who must engage in the process of defining and redefining the kind of society and education that we want.

However, teachers and their unions have a special responsibility to frame the question and persistently insist that the whole society should take part in debating the kind of education we need. We can postulate two broad visions that shape what education might look like: education for "human capital" or for "social democracy."

Education for "Human Capital"

Education for "human capital" assumes that public education exists mainly to produce a work force for an increasingly competitive global economy. This approach is all too familiar because we hear it daily from a number of global institutions such as the World Bank and the OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development). It is also implicit in the inclusion of education in the World Trade Organization's General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS).

This approach to the role of education has a number of characteristics that shape the structure of schooling and the role of teachers and students. These include:

- An ideology where decision–making is based on market and consumer choices. This neo-liberal approach also lends itself to privatization and commodification of education; to a focus on individual choices, rather than social choices. In education, this perspective leads to calls for complete choice by students about what school they will attend, and towards decentralized and competitive forms of educational delivery.

- It leads to a technocratic approach to the governance of education. Management and accounting approaches from the business world are imported into the classroom. The result is that evaluation is based on aspects of education that can be easily measured primarily through standardized tests; a one-size-fits-all approach.

- It leads to extensive accountability structures that give the illusion of fairness, equity and public control. In reality, what the teacher and students are to do is dictated externally by the setting of "performance standards" and measurements.

- This approach makes "outcomes" paramount while ignoring the context and conditions in which we work. This approach greatly reduces the role that teachers play - both as individuals and as a collective through their unions. It is no accident therefore that the World Bank thinks teacher unions are a major impediment to making this system work.

These ideas shape the education system and have a great impact right at the classroom level. The focus on external standardized testing to a significant degree defines what is important in the curriculum of the school. The content of the test defines what is to be taught and how.

This narrow approach excludes the necessity of looking at the complex relationships in a classroom.

So what is the role of the teachers' union in redefining the role of education in society?

Certainly the "human capital" view of education is dominant among governments and the corporate world. Despite this, teacher unions have a key role to play in defining the kind of education we want for the kind of society we want. We are not 'human capital'; we are human beings with rights and commensurate responsibilities!

Certainly we have an obligation to help our students find their way to earning a living. But education should be much more than that. Education is a social process. It is not just an individual soaking up facts and being able to repeat them in a test.

Articulating an alternative to the narrow, neo-liberal approach, means choosing a path that values a range of purposes of education and creates schools and programmes that reflect this breadth. That path engages the broader society in defining the values and ideas of public education. It engages students as well as teachers in methods that produce rich opportunities to learn.

The struggle for social justice

Corporate globalization has produced mounting poverty and growing inequality between nations and within nations. As part of the international labour movement, EI has been in the forefront of lobbying for fairer trade relations whilst seeking to safeguard core labour standards.

We have also seen the growing commodification of education – particularly higher education. As EI we have sought to defend the rights of nations to determine the content of their curricula, and to protect indigenous cultures and languages.

We also witness the growth of an international market for educators, as shortages, especially in the more wealthy nations, result in widespread migration from the developing nations. We are told that in the Caribbean region as much as 75% of graduates are poached before they even hit the job market.

The current situation requires a comprehensive response. We need to recruit, train and retain educators on an unprecedented scale. We need to retain the scarce skilled human resources of the developing nations, alternatively compensating them for the loss of such skills. As a union movement, we need to provide protection for migrant educators in the countries where they take up employment.

The increasingly complex – and globally interdependent – economies in which we operate mean that these challenges will be with us for the foreseeable future. EI needs to be at the forefront of policy debates around education policy and issues of migration. We need to lobby and mobilize to ensure that our views are heard, guided by clear values and principles:

• The need to maintain the unity of labour, and to defend and improve the conditions of all employees in the education sector, wherever they seek to practice the profession;

• As educationists we can never lose sight of the overarching goal of quality public education for all;

• And in the pursuit of these objectives we will inevitably be drawn into wider struggles over human and labour rights and for social justice.

We need to highlight some of the other serious challenges which we confront:

HIV and Aids

We resolved in the last Congress as EI to redouble our efforts to combat HIV and Aids. I am proud of and grateful to all those unions who have responded so well to this pledge. You have made tremendous efforts to prevent the spread of the disease through the EFAIDS programme. Education is the best social vaccine.

As unions we must include all those teachers living with HIV and Aids within our activities. We must make sure that the union is their home. We must increase all efforts to fight the stigma and discrimination that surrounds the disease. And we must make sure that the school is a safe and healthy environment for educators and for the learners.

Unfortunately we now have to add the resurgence of malaria and TB – especially highly resistant strains of TB – to our list of concerns.

Climate change

We only have one planet. Issues of global warming, climate change, pollution, the utilization of resources and sustainable development have forced their way onto the international agenda. These are issues which we need to debate as EI.

As educators we have a particular responsibility to raise awareness and promote debate amongst the next generation. As a powerful body within civil society we have a responsibility to educate ourselves and to develop clear policy and strategy on climate change. I hope that this congress will make a major contribution in this respect.

Concluding remarks: The way forward

A number of avenues suggest themselves in the years that lie ahead:

1. Partnerships: from intention to implementation

Government needs to work with social partners and civil society. In the education sphere that means first and foremost the education unions. We believe that the Millennium Development Goals can be achieved when governments engage with us as partners. We have shown what can be achieved through our work on education against HIV and Aids.

But we also need to say that we will not be silent partners. If governments and international agencies renege on commitments we must be the first to challenge them. It is not enough to adopt high-sounding resolutions: to resolve … to resolve to think about doing something in the distant future.

Governments and agencies – and indeed ourselves – will be judged not on their good intensions but on their concrete achievements. This Congress needs to send a clear message: that we are moving from the realm of good intentions into the arena of concrete implementation.

2. Implementing the Congress theme

To tackle the challenges we face in a global community requires that we implement our congress theme on the ground, country by country:

• Unity – the "joining together" of our theme – one of the crucial tasks now is to ensure that the unity created internationally is reproduced at a country level in the affiliates. This has to be lead by EI.

• Quality education for all – resolutions and good intentions will no longer suffice. We need to see concrete results; and

• Social justice for all - as educators and trade unionists we have to take a lead.

With an expanded EI and a restructured global union movement we wield the instruments to take forward the struggle for quality education and social justice for all. We now have to replicate that same unity on the ground – country by country – to ensure that we can deliver to our members, our learners and the communities we account to.

This is your Congress. You must debate the issues, develop policy and carry out strategies for successful implementation. You must send a clear message to our members and to governments and international agencies. Education International is mobilizing educators in pursuit of quality education and social justice! I want to end on this note. My call to you is – expand, innovate and consolidate! I thank you.