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Education International (EI) is in a unique position to push for a “more humane, less brutal” vision of the future that resonates at a time of growing fragmentation, the head of the global organisation representing teachers across the world has said.

General Secretary David Edwards said as institutions were facing a crisis as a result of growing commercialisation, the rise of populism, the erosion of human and trade union rights and threats to teacher professionalism, EI could put forward a “different narrative, a different vision that resonates with citizens and communities where we work.”

Teachers were trusted in society and were best placed to equip students with critical thinking skills and reinforce democratic values in an age where the spread of fake news and populism and the erosion of civil and human rights was on the rise, he added.

Mr Edwards spoke to the NASUWT's International Solidarity magazine in a wide-ranging interview as he approached his first anniversary at the helm of EI, which represents more than 400 trade union and member organisations, in 173 countries across the globe. These organisations between them have more than 32 million teachers and education workers. The NASUWT is a founding member of EI.

Reflecting on EI’s past achievements and future challenges Mr Edwards said: “I see my role right now as a moment of renewal and revisioning, thinking about our core values and core objectives.” He said EI was seeing a “growing level of attacks and challenges facing our members”.

A major threat was what he called the rise of authoritarian populists: “You saw that in Brexit, we have seen that with Trump, Bolsonaro, Duterte, in Poland, Hungary and Austria. We see this worldwide, the politics of grievance and the attacks on the institutions of democracy. So we are renewing our promise, renewing our commitments as defenders and promoters of democracy.”

Confronting Privatisation of Education

The erosion of professional autonomy was a “huge issue” for teachers in many countries: “We see scripted curriculums and these new managerialist approaches – Ofsted on steroids. The Department for Education is exporting this to other countries through the World Bank and others.”

In addition to these threats, the marketisation of education in different forms around the world is clearly something that Mr Edwards sees as a major threat to quality education and the rights of teachers to be treated as highly skilled professionals, with decent pay and conditions.

“Corporate and global capital and multinational corporations have grown to such power that they have usurped a lot of the power originally left to the nation state,” he said pointing out EI’s successful Global Response Campaign was created to counter this threat.

Mr Edwards said multinationals were starting as publishing houses but spreading into education software, lobbying, teacher evaluation, constructing schools and moving into artificial intelligence to create robotic and computer based systems in classrooms to replace human teachers. This was particularly impacting on teachers in poorer countries, he claimed.

“Those companies want to make their profits off teacher salaries. They pushed arguments that teachers were overpaid they were absent, they were unaccountable and test scores were not going up.

“So they wanted to bring in unqualified people, equip them with technology and build and scale chains of schools for profit for the poorest. This is basically chicken coups with laptops and iPads.”

Defending Democracy and Human Rights

He said despite the onslaught on democracy, commercialisation in education and the rise of populism and “fake news” educators and unions are at the forefront of providing impartial information and nurturing critical thinking and a belief in democratic values and the importance of human rights.

He added: “We are still trusted in our societies and if we can work a way through the complexity, explain what is happening and the choices, I see a real opportunity for politically, economically, educationally to really make a big difference and to push for a different kind of change, a more humane, less brutal vision of the future at a time of growing fragmentation and isolation.”

Mr Edwards also highlighted the issues faced by teachers in areas such as professional autonomy and academic freedom. He pointed to EI’s latest report on Elsevier the Dutch publishing giant which EI says is “among the biggest barriers towards public access to research” by concealing the majority of the academic research it publishes behind paywalls, leading to the commercialisation of knowledge, research information and education.

And referring to a recent World Bank report on the future of work he said EI and its members had to make sure the debate “doesn’t just become an excuse for exploitation”.

He stressed: “Living wages, decent working hours benefits, pensions, all the core things we know are essential for human progress and human wellbeing must not just be pushed away just because you can call for a taxi on your cell phone.”

Mr Edwards said he was “floored” by the strength of activists around the world putting their lives at risk to campaign for better working conditions and for their human and trade union rights.

Teachers were being intimidated and imprisoned but were also fighting back, risking their lives through protest and taking illegal strike action.

He said: “You have seen them in Iran, in Turkey, we have seen it in Argentina, in Brazil, in Tunisia and Egypt, and we are seeing it everywhere. Teachers are saying ‘What is the worst that is going to happen to us, it can’t get any worse’,

“The pendulum has swung all the way back. Teachers have weathered so much, education unions have weathered so much but there is a pushback coming.”

The 8th World Congress of Education International takes place in Bangkok, Thailand between 21-26 July 2019.

Follow the NASUWT at the 8th World Congress by visiting www.nasuwt.org.uk/EICongress

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