As the school year begins again in Denmark, we asked education researcher and consultant Jakob Wandall to take a look back at the lockout that closed the schools last March, review the key disagreements that led to the standoff, and consider the implications for the upcoming school year and beyond.
In Denmark, the month of March is usually the most intense period of time in the school year as teachers and students prepare for final examinations; however, this past year was an exception as schools were closed. The Municipalities Association (KL), backed by the center-left government, closed the schools in an effort to dismantle long-standing teacher privileges that the teachers’ union refused to concede in negotiations. The 99 municipalities in Denmark are responsible for running the public schools.
In the first days of April, the four-week “lockout” of teachers came to an end, but as a result, schools are now valued even more highly by the more than 600,000 pupils and about 60,000 teachers who were affected.
The standoff between the Municipalities Association (KL) and the Danish Teachers’ Union (DLF) raised questions about the viability of the so-called “Danish model” on the public sector labor market, which is largely governed by collective agreements between employers and trade unions, relative equals in negotiations. These two parties are accustomed to reaching agreements without the need for the national government to step in through legislation.
This dispute arose because the main teachers’ union did not want to give up the principles upon which working hours were regulated. A full-time teacher taught approximately 25 class periods per week (45 minutes per lesson), unless it was decided that the teacher should perform other tasks (e.g. administrative work, guidance of pupils, further education). This equals approximately 19 teaching hours, and a total of 41 working hours per workweek. This pre-lockout arrangement resulted in schedules that consisted of less than 40% of working hours spent teaching, and no obligation for teachers to be present at school during the remaining working hours. Historically, this schedule represented the belief that teachers had a right to work independently on planning and organization.
According to the Danish model if the parties cannot come to an agreement and further negotiations seems useless, there are four possibilities: the prior agreement could be prolonged, the union could strike, the employers could institute a lockout, or the government/parliament could intervene through legislation as a last resort. The idea behind the strike/lockout is that this should hurt both sides: employers lose production and the workers lose wages. In the public sector, where there is loss of production, there is a greater risk for local politicians as the population could turn against them. In this case, there were several unsuccessful attempts by KL to dismantle the existing working time agreement with the teachers prior to the ultimate lockout of March of 2013.
While Danish students usually go to school from about 8 AM to 1 PM and often attend a publicly financed after-school club, the government and a large part of the opposition to the existing agreement wanted to extend the school day. The additional time would be devoted to academic work and give less time for “free” play, which is something the Danes have always prioritized. Generally, the teachers were against this approach as well as the proposed changes to their workweek, which was viewed as a preliminary step to making the school day longer in the future. They wanted to solidify their right to a specific length of preparation time in a national agreement rather than leave it to local heads of school who may be pressured by budget considerations.
In the media, the government’s reform was presented as very popular; the general school debate over the last decade has been strongly influenced by mediocre PISA results. KL pointed to teachers’ working hours as the main cause of the PISA scores.
At the start of the lockout, parents were faced with the prospect of no school and not knowing when it would start again. It was particularly awkward and difficult for the children. But the parents recruited grandparents, took vacation early or brought the kids along to their workplace as many companies established educational facilities or made space available for the kids. The vast majority in the population felt that this was a legitimate fight between municipalities and the teachers union, and that it should be fought without intervention.
On April 2nd, The Danish parliament passed a law that decided the terms and conditions of Danish teachers without consulting them. The DFL argued that the lockout was premature, heavy-handed, and unfairly one-sided in favor of the local authorities. The teachers union had lost the battle.
But what about the teachers? Many of them spent a month trying to mobilize support led by their trade union and used Facebook and email to show the Danes that they were against the action taken by KL. Most appeared to be delighted to get back to work, despite the general opposition to the agreement forced through by the government. After the conflict everyone worked together and the majority felt that there were no negative effects on cooperation inside the school. Many local governments and school leaders silently disapproved of the lockout. Despite the loss of one month, the mandatory tests and examinations were carried out according to plan. Whether the students have learned less will probably never be explored.
On June 8th 2013, the government and a majority of the opposition in the parliament agreed upon the details for a new plan for school reform. Beginning in August of 2014, the students in Denmark will be spending more time in school. At the same time the applications to teacher training colleges in Denmark has dropped dramatically and 1 out of 2 teachers in Denmark is considering leaving the profession.
The debate over whether this additional teaching time will lead to a better school and more proficient students is ongoing. Meanwhile, at this year’s annual Soroe Meeting (a traditional meeting that brings together those most familiar with pressing educational concerns, including members of parliament, educational journalists, civil servants, researchers, and others) invitees met to discuss leadership and preparation for change. This annual meeting has a strong impact on Danish educational policy, which makes this year’s theme (“Klar til fremtidens skole,” meaning “Ready for the School of the Future”) of great interest to those concerned about what will happen with Denmark’s schools in the near future. While reporters in attendance do not write about what is discussed at this informal meeting, many attendees shared their experiences on Twitter.