Over the coming weeks, we’ll see lots of people calling out for change. It will become increasingly difficult, amongst a growing cacophony of calls to action, to distinguish what effective tactics should look like. We’ll soon become so caught up in thinking about what the world we seek should look like that we’ll find it difficult to establish what it takes to bring about the changes we’re all craving for. We’ll find it so deafening that we’ll miss the opportunity to build long-term power, for long-term changes.
Here, I hope to offer some space to step back, and reflect, before we step into a new world.
As we are beginning to read beautifully optimistic blogs and articles about a world that is to come – a world that will have recovered from Covid-19; a world that will have learnt from the many struggles too many across our society have faced throughout this unprecedented crisis; a world where things won’t be the same and where key workers – including teachers – will be shown more respect – I, too, feel optimistic about what the future holds. And it is with great trepidation that I join many others starting to think about what changes will take place in terms of our educational system. Rising from what may feel like a bottomless pit of despair, a new era awaits. An era where new priorities will have been set.
Saul Alinsky, who developed the modern-day practice of Community Organising, in 1940s Chicago, once said that, as an Organiser, ‘I start from where the world is, as it is, not as I would like it to be.’
As we prepare for what many of us hope will come soon, it is important to take into account a few principles which could help shape what the future could look like. These principles need to be rooted in the here and now – the world as it is – and not in a moralistic vision of what ought to be. Whilst it is key to keep an eye on the goal – the world as it should be – as Alinsky puts it, ‘[t]hose who are most moral are farthest from the problem.’
And here, I’m not talking about the actual changes many are calling for – assessment, Ofsted, pay, etc. Rather, I’m talking about what Alinsky and Community Organisers focus on as they bring about the change which many dream of: that is, the ingredients needed in order to win and, very importantly, remain victorious over time.
POWER: as Alinsky put it, ‘[p]olitical realists see the world as it is: an arena of power politics.’ If we want to bring about the change so many of us seek, we have to be much savvier – much, much savvier – about power. And power, for us, means ‘people’. Whilst those in Whitehall – for whom the status quo works well – have the policy influence which shapes most of our lives in the classroom, what we have is an army of half a million teachers. People power – people in huge numbers – is what we need to focus on.
ORGANISED POWER: the teaching profession is one of the largest ones in the UK and it needs to step up its organising efforts. Even though the teaching profession is one that is unionised, it is not unionised in a way that focuses on making it an organised workforce.
This is not to say that Unions aren’t effective. Far from it.
Rather, I would argue that Unions have the opportunity, more than ever before, to focus on developing the agency of their members. It is when you get people involved that you develop your power base. And it is when you get people involved focusing on a common agenda that you truly develop your organisational muscle.
Here, I urge ASCL, NEU, NAHT, and NASWUT, amongst the main teachers’ and educational leaders’ unions in the UK, to properly reach out to their members and genuinely engage with them on issues which are so important to what happens across our classrooms.
START WITH PEOPLE NOT ISSUES: There are huge national changes needed. But, rather than rush into system-wide debates which, frankly, will become ping-pong arguments between policy departments at Union and Government levels, we should focus on long-term power building. It is only a truly-organised workforce that will bring about long-term, systemic, changes; changes that would resist the test of time. That’s why we’ve got to start with where the workforce is at, and what workers think. As Alinsky wrote, ‘[n]ever go outside the experience of your people.’
Of course, (most) teachers and leaders care about the world of assessment, Ofsted, pay, etc. But we should not start with a pre-determined agenda. Rather, we should ‘organise’ and ‘develop the capacity of people to get involved collectively in shaping solutions based on their hopes for change.’ Here is the main difference between ‘mobilising’ the workforce and ‘organising’ it.
Focus on people first, not issues. An organised workforce is what can drive change, not a team of policy experts who write ‘on behalf’ of the profession.
SOME TOOLS: A few tools used by Community Organisers could prove useful over the next few months. Regional Union representatives should be supported to bring their local representatives and members together. The power of online video-calls – and our ability to work remotely – is such that this should not be difficult.
- Listening (story of self): hearing individual stories is key. They give meaning to what many of us often talk about moralistically. What are the pressures on teachers locally? The lack of affordable transport solutions? The lack of access to subsidised housing? The pressures of accountability, forces their way from the world of Ofsted down to the classroom?
- Discerning (story of us): grouping individual stories into themes. Working out what is happening, collectively, at local, regional, and national levels. Whilst some issues are shared by all, there will also be issues which will remain local (e.g. access to subsidised transport schemes can be negotiated locally, in many cases). Building teams to focus on various levels of issues.
- Shaping solutions which involve people (story of now): resisting the urge to do thing on behalf of others, when they should do them for themselves is crucial. Comparisons to what happens in class already come to mind: you don’t do a child’s work for them. No, you teach them to do it for themselves). Working out strategies which involve people is what politics is about. It’s about getting involved, believing and trusting that we can achieve things that will have an impact on our lives. Teams meeting with local officials (particularly in marginal/contested areas) – rather than writing them letters – to talk about the issues which matter to teachers, exerting pressure when required, making things public to all local teachers’ groups involved. As Alinsky puts it, ‘[a]ction comes from keeping the heat on. No politician can sit on a hot issue if you make it hot enough.’ And, as he also says elsewhere, ‘[c]onflict is the essential core of a free and open society. If one were to project the democratic way of life in the form of a musical score, its major theme would be the harmony of dissonance.’
When it comes to system-wide issues, starting locally – through a national approach which sees many local actions taking place simultaneously – gives this work authenticity in terms of democratic participation whilst also not deviating from the ultimate, national/system-wide, picture.
URGENCY: Finally, and quite bluntly, ‘[i]f one wants to act, the dilemma is how and where; there is no “when?” with time running out, the time is obviously now.’
So, over the coming weeks, as we see lots of people calling out for change, and as it becomes increasingly difficult, amongst a growing cacophony of calls to action, to distinguish what effective tactics should look like, let’s take a few steps back and reflect on the fact that those in power are well-organised: people in Whitehall are here to stay and parliamentary arithmetic is such that they’re solidly in place. Understanding this should get us to focus on the kind of power we need to build – and sustain – if we stand a chance to build a system – and a world – as it should be.
Note: all Alinsky quotes are from his Rules for Radicals: A Pragmatic Primer for Realistic Radicals, first published in 1971.