About a year ago I was here, in the square (well, an area, divided by a canal) that sits outside Denmark’s parliament, the Christiansborg. The sun was shining, the sky was blue, and none of these people were anywhere to be seen.
Yesterday was the culmination and resolution of a 4 week long crisis in Danish schooling whose origins are complicated. Some basic facts are as follows:
- The Danish Local Government association (KL), in its biennial review of the collective bargaining agreement between the teaching union (DLF) and itself proposed that the nationally agreed limit on teacher working hours be lifted and that local agreements between headteachers, local authorities and the staff working in their schools be allowed.
- The union was not keen on this and because it could not agree terms with the KL, was subjected, from April 2, to a lockout imposed by Danish municipalities that forced upward of 50000 teachers and 870000 Danish school children to an extended holiday. Unions argued that nowhere in Europe were there schools in which teachers had no fixed limit to the work that they could do. Danish teachers were arguing that 25 hours a week teaching children (substantially more than UK teachers do) gave them adequate time to prepare lessons and classrooms to the standard for which Danish education has become well known.
- The leaders of both the KL and the teachers union became a sort of folk hero to their respective constituencies (the Bondo in the orange banner is Anders Bondo Christensen, the teachers’ leader, whilst Michael Ziegler was the KL representative during negotiations) and parents, now ferrying kids between grandparents or taking them to work at LEGOLAND (if they are lucky enough to work there) were at first pretty much solid with the teachers. The latter, after all, had not gone on strike – they were not being allowed to work!
- The Danish government, now, as always, as well portrayed in Borgen, is a complicated coalition and makes complicated decisions, but in this case stood well back, honouring the longstanding tradition of letting employers and unions slug it out. Well, yes and no. This report suggests that they had a subplot, concerned with their desire to modernise relationships between public sector workers and employers, and that the negotiations were doomed before they started. And the Finance Minister was involved in the negotiations early on.
- Teachers were not paid during the lockout, and whilst there were some funds in the union, these were not unlimited and pressure was felt on all sides to get the thing sorted.
- This became particularly important because it threatened the “Danish model” of high quality relationships between managers and workers that have become world famous and which nearly always work – they have kept Denmark as a peaceful, open, stable democracy where everyone has realistic expectations of what is possible, and where the government is mostly seen as a neutral arbiter.
- This threat, and the publicity it caused, along with the government’s own modernising agenda, eventually led to a settlement. The working hours issue went to the KL, and teachers will have to submit to this – local control on working hours, along with the phasing out of special privileges for teachers over 60 years old. However, special safeguards have been placed in the bill that parliament is expected to approve (out of national embarrassment, if nothing else), so that teachers have realistic expectations made of them. It is all very reminiscent of the way things used to be done in Britain, but with some Danish politeness and reasonableness thrown in.
Why mention this now? Well, to me, it was a very sad thing to see. I am not overly romantic about Scandinavian education, but the strengths that it has are often to do with the high quality relationships between local government (in the form of municipalities) and the schools that they control. Localism and care is behind the Finnish success; Norwegian schools I have visited pride themselves on being part of a municipality; Swedish teachers often speak of their government trusting them. The “local agenda” is a strong feature of any democracy – in fact if democracy is not local, then it begins to be much less democratic. To see the government in Copenhagen wading in and in some ways controlling or even manufacturing the conflict made it feel somehow very British, with ideology, rather than the good of the relationships, coming to the fore. Localism should be able to protect schooling and communities by arguing for their needs, and here is another example of Local Government siding with the national one.
And for us in the UK, where control is really less and less local, and where local government is seen only as an implementation branch of central government, then we are slowly becoming less and less democratic. We oscillate between wanting to vote in municipal elections and then think – well, what difference is this going to make?
The other issue it raises, of course, is that of teacher working conditions. In the UK, where heads have substantial powers – many more than most of their European colleagues – we still work with a 1265 hour a year cap on “directed time”. With the introduction of PPA time and the Workload Agreement in 2005, we reduced the contact time to between 22 and 23 hours a week for primary teachers, often less for secondary teachers. This doesn’t really change the argument about the ill advisedness of the employment freedoms given to academies, but the Danish debate does put the working hours issue in context for us in England and Wales.
Anyway, hopefully the whole scene will clear, children can go back to school, and the scene outside the Christiansborg palace can look a bit more like this: