Status of Teachers – Back to the Future

2016 is the 50th anniversary of the ILO/UNESCO Recommendation concerning the Status of Teachers. To mark the occasion, Education International has organised anniversary events on 20 September in New York and has produced a pamphlet to accompany those meetings.

The Recommendation covers a wide range of issues including rights and working conditions, qualifications and other professional issues, all of which are based on the meaning and purpose of education. Its principles are intimately linked to the status of teachers as well as to the work and lives of teachers.

Everybody agrees that teachers are at the centre of education and that its quality and future depends on them. Unfortunately, in the current debate, even simple words and accepted practices often have distorted or hidden meanings.

Let’s take one example; curriculum development. The 1966 Recommendation says:

“Since teachers are particularly qualified to judge the teaching aids and methods most suitable for their pupils, they should be given the essential role in the choice and the adaptation of teaching material, the selection of textbooks and the application of teaching methods”.

In a recent publication discussing “reform”, it was suggested that experts be brought in to develop curriculum to relieve teachers of that burden. That hardly seems as if it is enhancing the profession or its practice. It would be like “helping” a professional chef by having a stove designer develop the menu.

There is a myriad of examples out there of professional space and autonomy being reduced in the supposed interest of professionals and education as part of wave of reforms in recent years. That includes excessive use of standardised testing, detailed reporting on unimportant issues, and misguided “accountability” measures. Many teachers feel more and more like technicians delivering content and less like professionals. They complain that they have little time for preparation, professional development or reflection. This is a disservice to them, to education, and to the community.

In too many countries, young people are discouraged from entering the teaching profession and many teachers leave it after only a few years. It is not only the disrespect of them as professionals that discourages them, but also the narrow definition of education that goes with the insistence that everything must be measurable and measured. That standard, in effect, shrinks the possibilities for what the Recommendation describes as the “all-round development of the human personality”.

The Recommendation also speaks of the inculcation of human rights, fundamental freedoms and tolerance. In today’s world, do we really want to totally abandon that part of education and only leave room for test scores in math and other measurable, quantifiable subjects?

Some think that the 1966 Recommendation must be out of date. After all, it has, for example, nothing about information and communications technology (ICT), something that is having a great effect on education and our lives. Does that really mean that the Recommendation is no longer relevant?

The principles of the Recommendation, in fact, provide good guidance for the introduction and use of new technology. The relevant considerations include:

  • Teachers should have access to useful tools that they can employ to improve the quality of their teaching and opportunities for their students.
  • Such tools should be employed to enhance the profession. The Recommendation includes such needs as having adequate time for preparation of classes, for learning, and for collaboration with colleagues. To the extent that ICT is deployed in such a way that it relieves and reduces administrative burdens and frees teachers to exercise their profession, it would certainly be positive and in line with the Recommendation.
  • On the other hand, to the extent that ICT would be used to substitute for the interaction and relationships between learners and teachers, it would be counter-productive. ICT can supply information, but it will never be a substitute for professional educators.
  • To ensure that opportunities are developed and problems reduced, the Recommendation calls for tools and other major changes to be developed and examined in full cooperation with teachers and their organisations.

Reading the Recommendation today in the midst of the cacophony of voices and “newspeak”, it is refreshing and impressive to see how its authors appreciate the contributions of teacher organisations. Consulting and involving teachers through their representatives is simply common sense and fundamental to “getting it right”.

If we believe that quality education depends on professionalisation and not de-professionalisation, the 1966 Recommendation, 50 years later, is more valuable than ever. If we seek to breathe life into what has become a seriously flawed and misleading reform debate, we should dust off the Recommendation. It is time to go back to the future.


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Jim Baker

Jim Baker is Senior Consultant to Education International.

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