This article will interest any union activist who wants to learn from other countries about ways of developing social movement teacher unionism. Anna Wolmuth, a UK teacher currently working in a primary school in Spain, reflects on her experiences in campaigning for public education in Spain and compares the struggle there, to the one ongoing in the UK.

On a long weekend in December more than 150 people from all over Spain gathered in La Prospe, a social centre in Madrid with an inspiring history of struggle for inclusive education of its own, to discuss ‘la educación que queremos’. This visioning of ‘the education that we want’ is part of a process started in Galicia last July by ‘Mareas por la Educación Pública’, Tides for Public Education, with the participation of collectives and individuals from across the state. So, wearing green sweatshirts over the green t-shirts that have become a symbol of the ‘Marea Verde’ (Spanish blackboards are actually a shade of green) to keep out the Madrileño cold, we worked on documents to put together a Charter for Public Education, and a plan of action ‘12 months, 12 struggles for education’.

The context for this movement in defence of public education is one of huge funding cuts, with severe consequences for families, students and staff. Families already suffering the effects of the crisis with high unemployment rates and minimal social security payments are hit by cuts to grants for school books, equipment and transport. Students are overcrowded in classes that can number over 40 in some secondary schools. There are record levels of unemployment and precarity amongst the pool of younger teachers who are ‘interinos’, without a fixed place, and the right to sick pay has been attacked. Workers from Instituto Ciudad de Jaen in Madrid, which has a food bank on-site, shared stories from their ‘¡No Cabemos!’, ‘we don’t fit!’ campaign, and parents from Colegio Arkipreste de Hita, in Fuenlebrada, told us about their occupation of an empty classroom to demand a local public classroom for 19 three year olds who are having to travel long distances to school, although the empty classrooms and unemployed teachers are right there on their doorsteps.

The much reviled new education law, the LOMCE (ironically, the ‘Law for Improving the Quality of Education’), fast-tracks the neo-liberal education reforms similar to those that have been introduced in the UK and elsewhere since the 1980s as part of the ‘Global Education Reform Movement’, recasting education as a profitable service sector of the economy. The LOMCE does away with participation of school staff and families in decision-making about educational provision, imposes more external exams for children, introduces the ranking of educational centres in league tables, and promotes the illusion of ‘school choice’. Privatisation has been creeping into the ‘public’ system through the diversion of public funding to ‘Concertada’ schools, akin to Academies, the promotion of private English language academies and qualifications through the ‘bilingual programme’, and the contracting out of services such as school meals and extra-curricular activities.

There are many striking similarities with the challenges we face in the UK, although the terrain of struggle is different. I set off for a year of learning in Spain having been involved in campaigning for public education as part of my trade union, the National Union of Teachers (NUT) (in particular the ‘Stand Up for Education’, and Anti-Academies campaigns), as well as thinking about ‘la educación que queremos’ with other groups of people, such as the Radical Education Forum. Both ways of organising have their strengths and weaknesses. Like most big unions, the NUT is bureaucratic, hierarchical and more reactive than proactive in challenging the status quo. However, my impression is that it is taken for granted amongst most UK teachers who want to see a different kind of education system that we work together within our union to transform it and achieve this. Other spaces for thinking about these ideas are not bureaucratic or hierarchical but can lack roots within the public education system, can focus on creating alternatives outside of this system and/or can be spaces for discussing beautiful ideas, but without consideration of the collective organising needed to enact them. I have been really inspired by examples of ‘social movement unionism’ like the Coalition of Rank and File Educators (CORE) in Chicago who are bridging the divide between their union and social movements both in terms of democratising the union internally and building strong, mutually supportive links with families and community groups. In fact, CORE has produced a document very similar to the Charter for Public Education that Mareas por la Educación Pública are working on, ‘The Schools Chicago’s Students Deserve’.

The idea of people involved in public education coming together to build a collective vision is very exciting. The gathering in Madrid was a refreshing change from union conferences where motions, arrived at through a complicated process that few union members really understand, are presented to a largely passive audience. We split into working groups to discuss themes including democracy and organisation in educational centres, relationships with the community, pedagogy, working conditions and regional autonomy in education policy. Proposals from the working groups were presented in plenary sessions with the aim of reaching consensus. A summary of the resulting charter is going be published next month and different social, political and trade union organisations, as well as individuals, will be invited to pledge their support and commitment to promoting it ahead of the local elections in May and national elections in November. Of course, the aim is not just to present it to political parties in the hope that they will take the ideas on board. The charter is seen as a living document and a tool of struggle. The different proposals passed in the plenary will be taken to all the regions and will continue to be developed ahead of the 3rd state-wide meeting in Málaga in the summer.

It was a surprise for me to find that many people active within the Marea Verde are not members of a trade union. Having been involved the NUT, and inspired by social movement unionism, my instinct was to look for the potential links between trade unions and social movements organising around public education. I have had to take into account different attitudes towards the big trade unions here (sometimes dismissed alongside mainstream political parties as ‘las siglas’, literally, the ‘abbreviations’), as well as a different legal and industrial relations framework. In Spain, every worker has the right to strike protected by law, regardless of union membership, and work councils, which negotiate with employers on behalf of workers, are elected by all workers, regardless of membership status. Of course, strong trade unions are not an end in themselves, but a tool of struggle for a fairer society. Whether organising collectively in a trade union, such as the NUT, or in a social movement such as the Marea Verde, it is the roots where people live, work and go to school that are important.

Marea Verde Málaga meets regularly to discuss issues arising in particular schools, monitor the effects of the cuts in its ‘Observatorio’ and plan collective resistance to the implementation of the LOMCE. Members of the Marea Verde are encouraging school directorates to adopt a ‘democratic compromise’ to neutralise the effects of the LOMCE in taking decision-making power away from staff, parent and the joint governing bodies. Just as with trade union meetings and activities in the UK, there is a disappointment amongst many of those actively involved that there are not more people taking up the fight, and including new people is the key task at hand. At times, there have been Marea Verde groups meeting regularly in schools, as well as huge numbers of school staff wearing their green t-shirts with the slogan ‘escuela pública, de tod@s, para tod@as’ (public school, of all, for all) into their workplaces one day a week. It is this presence on the school-site, and unity with families and students, that is essential if the movement is going to have the power to achieve ‘la educación que queremos’.

The comprehensive action plan ‘12 months, 12 struggles for education’ is an inspiring model. The idea is to take the fight for public education to the streets alongside the other ‘Mareas’, e.g. for health (white), for social services (orange), for people who have no choice but to move abroad to find work (burgundy, the colour of the Spanish passport). Coming up this term is preparation for a state-wide boycott of the new external exams for children in the 3rd year of primary school. This will be an important test of the strength of the Marea Verde – will it be a few isolated teachers opting out, or the exciting potential of families, school staff and communities stopping the LOMCE being enacted? This could set an important example for the so-far flakey organisation of resistance to SATS in UK primary schools. Organising, school-by-school, needs to start now!