Public Management

National Education Agreement (Nationaal Onderwijsakkoord) is a masterpiece

September 5, 2013

Contrary to expectations the government and the social partners (except for the AOB) have concluded a national education agreement (NOA). That in itself deserves to be called a masterpiece. In recent years, relations between the social partners themselves and between politicians and the education sector have not improved. Parties that can set aside their own interests deserve recognition.

Image: © Nationale Beeldbank

Details have not yet been announced but at first glance the agreement consists of an appealing mix of measures at a time in which there is frankly not a lot to share out. It offers opportunities for quality improvements in employment conditions for teachers and thus increases the chance of better education. It is crucial that a different way of running the sector emerges and that school leadership is highlighted at the same time.

Abandoning the reference line on a limited scale is great but must be applied selectively. Firstly because a little salary for everyone will barely have an effect and secondly because there will be more understanding for targeted increases for salaries for teachers that bear the greatest burden. The major challenge for governance and management is to dare to reveal who is eligible for a salary increase. The sector has been wrestling with this for years and this offers the ideal opportunity for making progress.

The agreement provides for additional jobs for young teachers. They are desperately needed because the education sector is facing the risk of losing a generation of teachers. In recent years, considerable effort has been made to improve the quality of teacher training. It has become more selective and it is all the more galling if those better trained teachers do not find their way into schools. The additional jobs offer the opportunity for welcoming this group, for training them and preparing them to take over key positions in schools in the near future, when many older and experienced teachers retire. Employers in the education sector must work hard at improving guidance for new teachers, receiving them with open arms instead of crushing them in a substandard professional work culture that still often prevails in schools.

In my opinion the most appealing point relates to the expansion of professional autonomy and more specifically reducing the administrative burden on teachers. In education there has been a long-term trend of a shift from trust to control. When performing their jobs, teachers are observed from all sides and regulated to an ever greater extent. Politicians want visible results and no risks and that is established in measurement and regulation systems. Parents demand results and are prepared to go to court or seek redress via social media to get them. School boards cover themselves with protocols, regulations and risk-averse policy. Teachers cling on to rules so that they do not have to take responsibility for their own professionalism ('that is not possible; the inspection does not allow it'). It is a deadly chemistry that must be broken down. The NOA that is now seemingly on the table offers effective pointers for doing so. To be successful it is now necessary for all parties concerned to turn the need into a virtue:

  • Show teachers what they are worth, work on their professional development and welcome the new additional colleagues with open arms in a professional work culture.
  • School administrators must invest more in professional personnel policy based on trust instead of control. They must display leadership (we are doing the right thing) alongside the necessary management (we are doing it right) and challenge their staff to give their utmost for the benefit of their pupils.
  • Politicians must sit on their hands and resist the urge to exaggerate incidents and resort to regulation much more than they do today. This includes the acceptance that education is the work of men and does not always go as planned or hoped.

In the south we are familiar with the saying 'hunger teaches us to pray': even non-Catholics understand its meaning. If the current crisis can be used to force a breakthrough in the direction of a much more professional work culture in the education sector, then this national education agreement will indeed go down in history as a masterpiece.

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