Australia must learn lessons from UK education system

Parallels between the challenges facing teacher unions in the UK and Australia emphasise the benefits of teacher solidarity across borders, UK National Education Union Joint General Secretary Kevin Courtney said at Federation’s Annual Conference.

Mr Courtney used his opportunity as guest speaker to warn Australian teachers of the perilous state of the UK education system and reaffirm the need to remain proactive in maintaining the integrity of the teaching system in this country.

“The National Education Union and the Australian Education Union share common goals and we have taken a lot of inspiration from your unity here,” said Mr Courtney. “The job of unity in England is not finished, but we have taken significant steps forward. The National Education Union is now the biggest education union in Europe and the fourth biggest union of any kind in the UK.

“We face many of the same challenges as you, which is why we should be in favour of teacher unity within countries as well as solidarity between teachers across borders. There is so much we learn from one another. From solidarity on prosaic levels, as well as understanding what our governments are up to and learning from one another because the attacks that start in one country often spread to other countries.”

Mr Courtney previously visited Australia to speak at Annual Conference.

“I am here to repeat the warnings that I spoke of in 2010,” he said.

“I had some bad things to say about what was happening in England and since then it has gotten dramatically worse. The government, with Michael Gove as education minister, has introduced academisation into our system.

“In 1988, Margaret Thatcher’s government introduced a system of marketisation of our education system — a narrative that says if children are not doing well, you blame teachers for those failures,” he continued. “This education reform introduced local management of schools (Local Schools, Local Decisions) and SATs (the NAPLAN test), league tables, intrusive inspection systems called Ofsted, performance-related pay and now academisation. All this adds up to a system that ensures teachers work longer on tasks that have nothing to do with education.”

The rise of academisation is essentially the privatisation of the education system and Australia can learn a great deal from the failures encountered in the UK. “The consequences are that we have huge levels of mental illness with teachers working longer hours, problems with teacher recruitment and retention, and children leaving schools before final exams so they don’t appear on the league table system,” explained Mr Courtney.

“Academisation is driving public voices out of how education is provided in the UK and instead increasing private voices … privately appointed businesspeople are running chains of schools, paying themselves more than the prime minister in some cases, employing their IT company to provide services to schools, and generally being driven by private motives, which lead to bad behaviours. Many of these people have lost their moral compass in the way they are running our education system.”

Mr Courtney revealed the main strategies used by private firms to improve a school’s performance. “They get rid of a head teacher, so principals beware,” he said. “They also remove poor quality students by rolling them off before exams in order for the school to look good. These private organisations are ruining education; it is a public good we have to fight for. Local Schools, Local Decisions here [in NSW] is moving in that direction and you have the right to resist any moves towards academisation.”

“We need to change the narrative and that breakthrough could actually come as the Liberal Democrats, the third party in British politics, has committed to abolition of SATs, league tables and Ofsted,” he added. “They want to break the 30-year neo-liberal consensus of a lack of trust in teachers that is breaking our education system. During last year’s election, we had a huge funding campaign and 750,000 people changed their vote because of school funding. We are at the heart of bringing about change in our country. We demand the right to our pedagogy, to [continued professional development] and our right not to be policed by people who don’t trust us.”