Teachers' unions protect professional autonomy

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A reform of Portugal's Statute on Teaching Careers is currently under negotiation in a context that has favoured strengthening the power of the teaching trade unions, given that education is one of the Government's priorities. This feature highlights the strategy employed by the teaching unions to assume greater control over their profession in terms of autonomy, social mobility and control of their labour market.

The Portuguese Ministry of Education has been restructuring the Statute on Teaching Careers (Estatuto da Carreira Docente- ECD) by means of a high level of negotiation with organisations representing teachers and other employees. During the first half of 1997, plenary teachers' meetings, public demonstrations, road blocks, the occupation of public buildings at Viseu and strike threats have all taken place.

Teachers are represented by several trade unions whose structure and aims are to protect status, some being concerned to defend the professionalism and the stratification of interests. Other forms of organisation are emerging, and there is a move towards the formation of a professional association (ordem profissional) for teachers, which is how the liberal professions are usually organised in Portugal.

Teachers, education and careers

Some unions, in particular the National Teachers' Federation (Federação Nacional dos Professores, Fenprof) - which is affiliated to the CGTP confederation - are calling for overall changes in education, maintaining that the process should include all those involved in the area. Fenprof feels that the stability of the educational system should be ensured via educational reform. This reform should involve: an organisational model of autonomous and democratic schools, with the creation of a joint network of schools and teaching groups, adding to the status of teaching as a profession and increasing its autonomy; improved initial and ongoing training; and appropriate qualifications, in the form of special degrees for the various educational levels. Fenprof also wants a review of the system of competitive entrance applications whereby teachers on short-term contracts have to apply competitively to the Ministry of Education, which then allocates placements. It also states that local authorities' responsibilities as regards teaching should be clearly defined. If not, a vacuum is created between those responsibilities and the Ministry of Education.

Subjects of negotiation

The subjects of negotiation between the Ministry and the unions have been: teaching qualifications; new career structures for the various levels, such as pre-school, primary and secondary education; the retraining of teachers already contracted but without sufficient qualifications; a reduction in the time needed to progress to the top of the career ladder; binding contracts rather than precarious employment; performance appraisal; and a reduction in salary differentials, with improved salaries for new teachers, and calculation based on length of service.

Teaching qualifications

Both Fenprof and the National Teaching Federation (Federação Nacional dos Sindicatos da Educação, FNE) -affiliated to the UGT confederation - have fought to include infant teachers and special needs teachers under article 55 of the Statute on Teaching Careers governing teaching staff. The unions have called for the immediate recognition of their specialised higher education qualifications and degrees. These teachers were previously included under article 56 with other professional groups not directly linked to teaching, which led to their being lower down the career scale. The unions also feel that there is still a wide gap between ordinary and honours graduates.

The National Union of Graduate Teachers (Sindicato Nacional dos Professores Licenciados) rejects:

  1. the opportunity given to higher education colleges by the National Education Council to train teachers to teach in secondary school and the third educational cycle (pupils in their seventh to ninth years of schooling), which would place them on an equal footing with those trained at university. It claims that the basic law for the education system governing teacher training endangers good scientific training;
  2. the directive placing all teachers on the same footing, if it treats all teachers as being equivalent to honours graduate teachers for all purposes. It believes that Decree-Law 244-ME/96, which governs the general system for recognising vocational qualifications, should reserve access to teaching at certain levels of education to holders of diplomas and graduates of higher education establishments.

The union is debating the urgent need to set up a professional association, the statutes of which are being prepared, and the responsibilities of which will include monitoring and registering teaching activity. That position is supported by the national confederation of parents' associations, which sits on the National Education Council.

Meanwhile, those in favour of an association have submitted the first code intended to govern the teaching profession. They feel that traditional unions do not want to lose their monopoly over teachers and institutional power, although there are many teachers who do not identify with the stance and the type of activities advocated by the pro-association lobby. They have called for a master's degree to be the minimum qualification for secondary-school teaching.

Performance appraisal

Different stances have been adopted regarding the Statute on Teaching Careers on the issue of performance appraisal. In Fenprof's opinion, appraisal should be carried out annually, with individual teachers carrying out their own self-assessment, as well as assessing the working environment, conditions and organisation.

The FNE does not accept that performance appraisal should be carried out by a collective body of teachers, and rejects the idea that the National Education Council should decide on the level of performance, as proposed in the draft submitted by the Ministry of Education. It believes that appraisal should be carried out in each school by an executive or management board or by its chair, and that there should be no high profile for the National Education Council, as this would enable "scores to be settled".

Careers

The unions believe that the ECD results in career advancement taking too long. Discussing the amount of time required to progress to the top of the career ladder, the FNE feels that the 29 years proposed by the Ministry is excessively long, although it feels that the 20 years proposed by Fenprof is unrealistic. Some unions are calling for an increase in teaching staff and the creation of a promotion-on-merit system.

Careers in higher education

Teachers in higher education have carried out parallel negotiations through the Union of Higher Education Teachers. Its objective is to bring its salaries into line with the upper grades of the civil service - for example, judges - meaning a salary increase of 20%. The teachers at this level are demanding that their voice be heard regarding the higher education financing act and the basic law for the education system, and propose their inclusion on the commission overseeing the higher education assessment process. Both the FNE and Fenprof have taken a stance on this matter.

Teachers and precarious job tenure

What has been, and continues to be, the hottest point of contention is the precarious job tenure of teachers. The FNE proposes that the principle of a guaranteed two-year contract be included in the ECD, stating that otherwise teachers can make no progress in their careers.

Commentary

Teachers have retained strong defensive trade unions. The unions have acted both to protect their labour market, develop strategies to influence the grading of their members, and add status to the profession by improving skills and autonomy, increasing its prestige and strengthening its position as regards civil service salaries. With respect to the Government, which is almost the sole employer, they have succeeded in gaining a stronger position in negotiations and disputes than any other civil service trade union. However, the strategies used by representatives to improve their effectiveness are sometimes based on the principle of maintaining differentials rather than on egalitarianism. (Maria Luisa Cristóvam, UAL)

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