Education International
Education International

OECD Conference: Teachers key to public good

published 1 February 2013 updated 7 February 2013

“An excellent curriculum, appropriate assessments and well-educated and supported teachers” in schools – these themes are central to the work of EI. That was highlighted by EI President Susan Hopgood at EI’s 2013 Conference for affiliates from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in London, UK, from 29-30 January. The theme was “Framing Education for the Public Good”.

Hopgood told the 140 participants from 24 countries that EI’s 2011 World Congress decided to establish an EI Advisory Committee on working with the OECD. “One of the key recommendations from the Committee was that we have a conference which reflects the equal importance of EI and the OECD in the world of education. It advised that we should take the opportunity this Conference gives us to deepen productive and pro-active relationships with the OECD on key areas of their education work.”

Acknowledging work already achieved at EI/OECD Conferences, she added: “This year, the grave financial crisis which many countries in the world face has given the conference a sharper edge. It gives us the opportunity to do what the conference’s title says: ‘Frame Education for the Public Good’. With public education under attack from so many quarters, where better to positively frame education for the public good than here at the Trades Union Congress in London; a trade union centre with the vast majority of public service unions in its membership?”

Threats to education

Frances O’Grady, General Secretary of the UK Trade Union Congress, stated that increasing privatisation and continuing austerity pose a huge treat to education.

“At a time when education is increasingly being privatised and subjected to the profit motive, we must speak up for high-quality, publicly funded, publicly accountable education, that is accessible to all,” she said. “With the forces of global economic competition and the interests of multinational corporations increasingly shaping the education our young people receive, we must also resist the creeping commercialisation of what is being taught in our schools, colleges and universities.”

Education is not just about economic competitiveness, important though that is. “Most fundamentally, it is about human enrichment, about the power of knowledge to transform lives and about the beauty of learning itself, so that every child, young person and adult has the chance to fulfil their true potential in life.”

O’Grady also said that classrooms should be a place for learning, not a source of shareholder profit, and teacher unionists must resist government attempts to usher in a whole new era of schools run by firms simply wanting to make a quick buck for their shareholders.

She added that, “of course, we want well-funded schools, colleges and universities, and good education accessible to all, regardless of background, status or wealth. But we also want our educators to be well-treated, fairly rewarded and respected for the work they do.”

Values of education

EI General Secretary Fred Van Leeuwen said the record attendance for an EI/OECD Conference “not only shows a high degree of commitment but also the relevance and importance of our Conference theme, ‘Framing Education for the Public Good’”.

The “values of public education, are essentially the values that underpin democracy as well as our prosperity”, he said. “They encompass the principles of equity and equal opportunities, of non-discrimination and social justice. In this regard, it is interesting to note that, in the past two decades, the education agenda has not been set by the organisation that was established for that very purpose, UNESCO, but by the World Bank, the largest lender of education loans, and by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development.”

Privatisation is not the answer

Van Leeuwen called on participants to get back to basics, get off the defensive, and articulate again why public education has such an important role in each of our societies and why it cannot be outsourced to the private sector. “We must make it clear to our political leaders that privatisation and commercialisation of education are not the answer,” van Leeuwen said.

He further noted that resources to finance education do exist, but it takes political will and political courage from world leaders, and that the simplistic transfer of ideas from the corporate world will not advance the quality of school systems.

“Boosting education quality nationwide simply requires a massive investment in the entire teaching profession, in the initial training of teachers, in their professional development, and, yes, also in their pay and employment conditions,” he explained. “There is no way around this reality and there are no shortcuts, such as performance pay based on student outcomes.  Mind you, there is no evidence whatsoever that individual performance-related pay raises professional standards. What it does raise is anxiety and turmoil in teachers’ staff rooms.”

Seven threats

Highlighting de-professionalisation as one of the main challenges facing the education sector today, van Leeuwen mentioned seven signs posing a serious threat to the future of the teaching profession and its capacity to ensure high quality teaching:

  • The influx of unqualified teachers
  • The casualisation of teaching
  • The growing gap between teachers’ pay and remuneration in other sectors
  • The restriction of teachers’ autonomy
  • The rapid spread of standardised testing
  • (Mechanistic forms of) high-stake teachers’ evaluation
  • Private sector management practices sneaking into educational institutions

Having a two-way dialogue with the OECD is vitally important, he also stressed. The OECD’s Education Directorate studies and surveys are anxiously followed by governments. “Whatever our views on the OECD’s policies and research, we cannot deny the influence the OECD has on our education systems.”

Areas of agreement with OECD

He declared that there are two crucial areas where EI agrees with the OECD. “First, we both believe that for a country to be socially and economically successful, all its children and young people must receive high quality education. And all of its adult population should be entitled to adult education and training.

“The second area of agreement is perhaps less obvious. There are some who think that the only way for countries to get out of the economic crisis is by massively deregulating economies - to remove protections and social support and thereby increase inequalities. With its emphasis on the need for transparent economic governance, on high quality education for all, and on the importance of consultation with employees, I don’t believe that the OECD is in their camp.”

This is a pivotal time for the future of education, said van Leeuwen. “We must not let education slip away as a top priority for governments. It is our job to keep pressing the core message that without properly resourced high-quality education for all, society itself will be fundamentally damaged.”

Importance of skills

Skills have become the 21st century currency, said the OECD’s Deputy Director, DG Education, Andreas Schleicher during his plenary presentation about “Challenges and Opportunities Facing Education in OECD Countries”.

“They change lives and drive economies. PISA [Programme for International Student Assessment] for adults shows their clear impact. The trust in society is strongly related to skill levels, and political involvement is key.”

Most developed education systems do not necessarily eliminate unemployment and lack of employees, he said. What matters is learning the right mix of skills, using the right skills and knowing how to finance education.

Schleicher noted that there is pressure on education: “The nature of skills has changed. There’s a steep decline in routine cognitive skills, mostly taught traditionally. Reproduction of subject content and tests are still the mainstream of curriculums. Non-routine, analytic and interactive skills should replace them.”

Most countries preserved education investment in crisis, with great effort by governments, he underlined.

“From a prescriptive type of provision to learner-centred, interactive, diverse and user generated. What we expect? A genuine engagement in learning by students. One of the major obstacles is the fact that sciences are liked at the beginning of school, but hated by the age of 15.”

Schleicher also said that lifelong learning is crucial, because what we learn in schools now will not be relevant in 10 years.

Central role of teachers

Outlining that the next PISA will test collaborative skills, he made it clear that the OECD considers that teachers are critical. “In Finland, teaching is the second-highest sought-after profession, not necessarily because of pay. The profession is very popular, and has been always. It is intellectually attractive and the autonomy it gives is appreciated.”

Also in Singapore, he said, the teacher is an expert in a subject area but also in pedagogy and dealing with students. As in Finland, teacher preparation is critical in Singapore.

The OECD further wants teachers to be drivers of profession: In Japan, a cut of one-third of the curriculum gave much more freedom to teachers. In Sweden, teachers are reflecting on their practice every day and work in highly collaborative environments. In Singapore, authorities have made smart funding choices and developed large classes combined with engaged teachers and technology. Teachers need the space to design, lead, manage, and plan learning environments, as in Shanghai, China.

Reality of reform and conflict

Given the uncertainties in society, stakeholders value the status quo, Schleicher stressed. “To make reforms work, policy makers must built consensus, have realistic expectations, backed by funding, research and evidence. Conflicts with unions can be solved when unions are strong and involved.”

He also noted that “there is a dichotomy between past and present: few versus all, routine skills versus lifetime learning, work organisation fordist versus innovation, and accountability to peers and stakeholders, not to governments”.

In the afternoon, participants split into breakout sessions under diverse themes: The Future of the Teaching Profession; University and Higher Education Rankings; Supporting Disadvantaged Students - Equity and Quality in Education; and Evaluation and Assessment - students, teachers, educational institutions and systems.