Currently, in Ontario, these relations are in a parlous state: high-school teachers in Durham region are in their fifth strike week, while high schools in Sudbury and Peel regions have been closed since May 4. There are possibilities of further strikes across the province, from secondary and elementary teachers in public schools (for that, read “state” schools), as well as Catholic-school teachers (who are represented by a separate union).
While officials from the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation (OSSTF) are due to resume negotiations with the provincial government, the striking regions’ school boards have appealed to the Ontario Labour Relations Board (OLRB), claiming that the strikes are illegal. (The grounds of this claim are that the OSSTF have called a strike on what is properly a regional issue; the OSSTF’s mandate covers matters at the provincial level.) An OLRB ruling – expected today – in favour of the regional boards would force teachers off the picket-line and back into the classroom.
At the same time as the regional boards are seeking to compel their teachers to return to class, the Ontario provincial government is seeking a decision from a somewhat arcane independent body, as to whether the strikes are putting high-school graduands in jeopardy. If the Education Relations Commission finds in favour of the provincial government, teachers could be legislated back to work.
More on all this in just a moment. For now, back to England.
In the face of poor PISA rankings (but see here for a measured discussion of the difficulties with PISA), England must, it is repeatedly said, be more like such countries as Finland, Switzerland, and Canada when it comes to educational “standards.”
There are many ways in which England probably should be more like Canada, although just what the DfE and other interested parties mean when they say this is far from clear, as education in Canada is largely devolved to the provincial level (should England aspire to be more like Ontario, British Columbia, New Brunswick…?), with certain aspects being regional concerns; and even then, there are no centralized tests at high-school level, no equivalent to GCSEs and A Levels. This is one reason why the prolonged strikes are such a worry – and also such a potentially powerful move – and why the Ontario government is seeking its jeopardy ruling: the grades with which students leave high school, and which they will need in order to progress to the next stage of their lives, are teacher-administered and teacher-assessed. Knowing this, we in the UK can also understand that administrative strike-action in Canadian schools is a very different beast than over here, where it really means (if it’s followed at all) little more for teachers than a self-created backlog of marking.
In England, teacher strikes generally last a day at a time: just long enough to be a nuisance, just long enough for us to be cast by as money-grubbing malcontents; but, when it comes down to it, not long enough to have a major impact on students’ quality of or access to education. Most students in England will miss more school days due to ill-health, term-time holidays, laziness, extra-curricular activities, or what have you than they will miss due to strike action. And teacher strikes in the UK, though they might (in principle, though I doubt in actuality) affect students’ exam performances will not affect the administration of examinations.
On this count, then, the dynamics and implications of the strikes in Ontario are more like those of the English universities’ recent actions. Or imagine – though a moment of such harmony is difficult to conceive – that England’s secondary teachers and exam boards went on strike together.
The reasons for the Ontario strikes are, on the surface, about pay and conditions. But, as at least one Canadian newspaper has said, the argument is not, in essence, about these; at least, not in the sense that it is simply about teachers wanting more for less.
The argument, for many, is about protecting the standing and standards of a profession and a system; about protecting the quality of education to which students have access. Indeed, for many it is the government that wants more for less: increased teaching hours and decreased preparation and planning time for teachers, against a backdrop of pay-spine freezes or minimal increases.
Progression up the pay scale, but a scale that does not adjust according to the costs of living, will be a familiar enough state of affairs to many teachers in England. As will the feeling of being held virtually in contempt by government (over here, this is more Gove’s legacy than it is Nicky Morgan’s current approach).
The arguments put forward by Ontario’s brass will also be familiar to us in England: it boils down, to invoke a communiqué of some recent notoriety, to there is no money. The Ontario forecasts are grim, with a projected $8.5 billion deficit, and a freeze on the education budget until at least 2018.
Compare that with similar real-terms education cuts in England (see here and here); with the prospect of redundancies; with the necessary moratorium in some schools on the “rarely cover” principal. This last issue is particularly troubling: as one colleague put it to me, taking on more cover is fine if the aim is to save jobs by saving money; it’s less fine if the aim is to save money by cutting jobs (if 100 teachers out of a staff 105 agree to take on an additional hour of teaching each, what need has the school for the remaining 5?).
So, should England aim to be more like Canada when it comes to its schools and education system? To actually become more like Canada, we would need to move to a far more decentralized system, one in which teachers were responsible for, but trusted with, the setting and marking of terminal assessments and exams; a system, too, which was subject to checks and balances, as well as floor standards for students, but which was not hamstrung by league tables and targets. We would need to create a culture in which students would be less likely to crumble under the considerable downwards pressure to “achieve,” and in which teachers would be respected and trusted as professionals and specialists.
These are not new arguments.
But they stand reiteration because, as ever, politicians and government agencies are happy to make unfavourable comparisons of England with other countries, while refusing to learn from the substantial cultural and systemic differences between Us and Them (whoever “Them” might be).
The damning comparisons of English educational “standards” with those of other countries are, of course, typically made with student “performance” in mind, and the best-known yardstick of international performance is PISA. The PISA rankings should not be dismissed out of hand, but nor should we forget that they are problematic. We should also bear in mind just how difficult it is to compare the “standards” of radically different educational systems: how does one compare the “standards” of a decentralized system built around internal assessment, with a centralized system built around externally assessed, national exams?
I’ve spoken to teachers who have worked in England and Ontario, and they are ambivalent as to which has fundamentally higher standards. One teacher tells me that there is less “teaching to the test” in Ontario – still some, but less – while another tells me that the standards here might be higher, inasmuch as our exams, so hidebound by assessment objectives, are harder to pass without necessarily being intellectually richer.
One measure on which England’s educational standards are certainly lower, however, is in its treatment of teachers, and in the mechanisms for teacher development. Here’s something that may surprise some readers: Ontario’s pay grid works along two axes. Pay increases “vertically” with seniority (years of service), but also “horizontally” according to CPD and expertise. To give an example: several years ago, a Canadian friend of mine – who’s currently on the picket in Durham – moved from the classroom to the school library; but it took some considerable training and education, and the passing of a qualification. This is a specialist, full-time post.
Compare that with the standing of the school librarian in England. Or with the all-too-often poor quality of teacher CPD, which tends to marginalize genuine subject-expertise and -competence, in this country.
Before closing, two more points on which teachers in England might wish to take a lead from Ontario. Our government, I am sure, will not feel the same.
The scale of the action in Ontario is almost unimaginable for teachers in the UK, and there are two major reasons for this:
1) There is not the choice of unions in Ontario that there is over here. Elementary teachers have their union; high-school teachers theirs; Catholic-school teachers theirs. But there is not the fragmented and competitive model that we are used to in England. The teaching unions in Ontario therefore have much bigger and sharper teeth than do England’s. This also means that when the OSSTF calls a strike, its members go out on strike. The equivalent cannot be said over here. There has, of course, been recent talk about combining the teaching unions, and it is something that deserves serious thought: teachers will need to decide whether individual autonomy on professional matters is more or less important than collective, professional heft.
2) As my Ontarian friends approach the end of strike-week 5, it is important to note that they do so on three-quarters of their salaries. Previously, they would have been compensated to the tune of around $65 a day; not a huge amount, but not nothing either. They will survive this action reasonably well. The same would not be true for teachers in England. It is worth noting that, as in England, in Canada reforms of strike laws are being mooted.
Over the course of the next twenty-four hours, we will have a better idea of how the strikes in Ontario are likely to play out. The school year there ends in June, so there is a very real possibility that students will not return until September, if at all – a point that is driving the jeopardy hearing. But however this dispute is resolved, there are important lessons for teachers and educators in England to learn from Ontario, lessons that the UK government might prefer us to bunk. Not least of them is the need to build a profession that is proud, self-respecting, and respected; one that works with far greater unity; one that gives its workforce more reasons to stay than to leave. It is hard to see how educational “standards” can be raised if professional morale bottoms out. Think of it this way: how can we expect our educational health to rise, when the basic conditions of our educational living are set to fall?
To all my teacher friends in Ontario: good luck.
Thanks to Matt and Mel.
The following articles may be of interest:
· Ontario labour board to decide if high school teachers' strikes are illegal
· High school teachers’ union to return to bargaining talks
· As teachers’ strikes loom over Ontario, the fight isn’t about salaries, though it is about the bottom line