Teachers' protest outside secondary school Rainha Santa Isabel in Coimbra, on January 11
Teachers' protest outside secondary school Rainha Santa Isabel in Coimbra, on January 11 Photo: PAULO NOVAIS/LUSA

Chaos in education: classes cancelled as teachers protest

Education minister travels to Angola as schools face meltdown

Hundreds if not thousands of teachers, assistants – even pupils – have been gathering in front of schools across the country since December, while in Lisbon a “three-day camp” in front of the education ministry is installed, with teachers backed by at least eight unions taking turns in sleeping-rough and standing on picket lines to publicise their ‘cause’.

This is not a new situation. Teachers have been battling for “respect”, “consideration” and “better professional conditions” since their sector took a battering in the troika years.

But the latest strategy – which has effectively blown another massive hole in pupils’ learning (after two years of upset caused by measures brought in in the name of the pandemic) – has driven many parents to their wits’ ends.

The national confederation of parents associations is calling for the government to decree ‘minimum services’, so that schools can at least remain open for their children, leaving parents free to work and earn a living.

None of this is looking the least bit likely, however. Beset by political crises that have to a large extent pushed teachers’ battles off the front pages and well down in television news headlines, the government hasn’t even agreed to talks with syndicates for another week.

Prime minister António Costa actually ignored a posse of teachers who turned up to protest at an event he was championing in Benavente on Tuesday, telling reporters that meetings have been scheduled between his government and teaching union representatives for Wednesday, January 18 and Friday, January 20.

Education minister João Costa – the man who said at the start of the school year that ‘everything was tranquil’ – is not even in the country: he is taking part in a working group trip to Angola to promote literacy and classes in the Portuguese language.

In the face of this kind of political approach, it is perhaps not surprising that teachers tell reporters that they feel their careers have been “completely defrauded by successive ministries of education”.

The country’s teachers have been saying as much for well over a decade, but the added bite of inflation and the government’s agenda of ‘decentralisation’ has led the country to this heightened state of educational strife.

STOP, the syndicate of all teachers, is spearheading the picket line initiatives that have closed schools “from the Minho to the Algarve”, and which appear to have ‘no end in sight’ (STOP called an indefinite national strike last month).

FENPROF, backed by at least eight other teaching and non-teaching syndicates, is behind the three-day camp, enduring miserable weather conditions, in Lisbon.

The understanding is that no government entities plan any kind of imminent statement: protest actions will be left to run whatever courses they decide until syndicates and politicians get round the table in a week’s time.

João Costa is quoted as saying that, at that point, the government “will present proposals that go further than what teachers are asking for”.

It doesn’t take a genius to query that if this is indeed the case, why then has the situation been allowed to deteriorate to the extent that it has?

In the Algarve, Bloco de Esquerda (BE) appears to have been the only party addressing this crisis (PSD/PCP and others have said nothing at all; again indicative of the multiplicity of other issues swirling as the country enters 2023).

In a statement this week, BE’s district coordinating committee stresses that what is at stake here is the “quality of education and the defence of public schooling”.

Very much like the issues piling onto Portugal’s state health system, the state education system is broken – but unlike what has happened in health, there is no ‘guru’ in place (no ‘executive committee’ created) to save it.

“The detonator was the intention expressed by the Minister of Education to submit teachers to a Placement Programme through local boards of directors, within the framework of inter-municipal personnel charts, thus municipalising their management,” explains BE’s  statement.

Mr Costa, meantime, has been at pains to stress what he calls “misinformation, amplified by WhatsApp (…) There is no municipalisation” in education, he insists.

Thus, this point will no doubt be finally clarified next week. But it is really only the tip of a massive iceberg of grievances. Teachers stress they are faced with unfair ‘career progressions’, poor pay, precariousness, work overload, crippling bureaucracy, and inadequate pension plans.

Non-teaching staff have almost exactly the same issues.

Up until now, industrial action has been planned by different syndicates, in different areas – affecting some more than others. The Algarve BE district committee wants to see all syndicates coming together. “United teachers are unstoppable,” says the statement.

Saturday will see another “mass demonstration in Lisbon” – and then next week, with luck, there will be some kind of truce.

But the reality is that state education right now is a miserable mess in which children and teens are the real casualties – young citizens who have already seen the promise of an ordered education jettisoned over the last two years (in the name of the pandemic), and who now have to suffer the fall-out of adults who seemingly cannot agree about anything.

By Natasha Donn
natasha.donn@portugalresident.com