Anti-worker forces in education policy

As anti-worker forces seek to set education policy, IEU Research Officer Dr Adele Schmidt asks why – and what is to be done.

Any practising teacher would be acutely aware of the frequency with which both traditional and digital media outlets publish stories that seem designed to do nothing more than amplify negative perceptions of teachers, schools and schooling.

More often than not, these articles diagnose ‘problems’ with various elements of the education system and propose sensational solutions that are obviously (to any practising teacher) overly simplistic and inadequately resourced, and therefore destined to have limited impact, or fail completely, if they were ever implemented.

“Independent” agencies

The origins of such stories can be hard to pinpoint at times, but increasingly can be traced back to the release of some form of report generated by an independent agency which has set itself up as a source of solutions to various policy problems.

Examination of the work history and political affiliation of the authors often reveals that these agencies are not at all independent but exist to promulgate the views of specific sectors of society, garner public support and ultimately votes for the policies of a particular party.

It is also telling that very few – if indeed any – of these self-nominated education experts have worked as classroom teachers.

Examples of such agencies are abundant in the education sector and examples of both left and right-leaning ‘thinktanks’ abound.

A recent study by education researchers from Cambridge University and Queensland University of Technology, shows just how influential the work of these thinktanks can be in terms of their influence on public perceptions and, through that, education policy.

In this context, it is vital that teachers and other education workers are able to critically evaluate policy options and the platforms through which they are promulgated.

Rising populism

To the potential negative impacts on education from such agencies with an anti-worker agenda, it is necessary to understand populism as a political strategy that seeks to divide society into two camps (creating an ‘us’ and ‘them’ mentality).

The aim is to position one of those camps as the ‘underdog’ and then argue the underdog’s case as a just and right cause in stark contrast to the alternative “elite” regime.

The rise of populism as a political and social phenomenon is well-documented and has been clearly linked to the emergence of social media as a mechanism that allows ordinary people to “express themselves without the mediation of traditional media” [1].

The significance of the social media environment in particular is that it tends to boost affective and emotional responses, which means rational debate is often obscured, and downright prevented, by more polarising – and quintessentially more popular – “chains of aggregated grievance” [1].

Watson and Barnes [1] have examined how thinktanks aligned with anti-worker political interests in England have “taken full advantage of changing dynamics of global ideological, political and communicative environments” [1] to create the appearance of widespread popular support for specific policies, which have little grounding in evidence from the education sector in question.

In the specific example considered by Watson and Barnes [1], anti-worker forces have created a dichotomy that sets the “unheeded and disregarded teacher who is looking to regain authority in the classroom against a progressive elite which has used its status in government, in the academy and trade unions supposedly to foist progressive unscientific child-centred practices of the teacher”[1].

Our union, our voice

It is important here to challenge the assumption that unions are in a position to ‘impose’ any specific classroom practice on teachers.

In the case of our union, our activities are governed by input from members and any support for, or resistance to, particular policy initiatives is, therefore, a result of members organising around an issue rather than some external third-party directing activities.

Our representation as key stakeholders on various education committees, boards and government initiatives that in turn influence education policy is also a critical element in our capacity to organise around issues impacting our members.

We encourage all members to maintain an active interest in the activities of our union to ensure that their voice is heard early in the process of education reform, rather than later, when it is harder to counter the implementation of new policy initiatives.

Manipulation of new media

Returning to the subject of the manipulation of social media debate by anti-union forces; however, although the overall proportion of teachers who have bought into the staged debate in England is relatively small, the debate itself is nonetheless influencing policy and practice [2].

Political interests create the appearance of widespread popular support for specific policies that have little grounding in evidence.

Anti-worker thinktanks have achieved this aim largely through exploitation of those features in social media posts that tend to give rise to virality and then use the virality of a post as evidence of the popularity of a particular policy position.

To follow the process to completion, a policy that has established its popularity would then more readily be picked up by politicians and, depending on the outcomes of various elections, find its way to enactment.

Ultimately, the power of such forces to manipulate traditional and new media to generate evidence of support for the policies proposed in their self-published reports hinges on a degree of naivete on the part of the general public that sees them suspend their engagement in rational debate in favour of more immediate, and emotionally satisfying, populist exchanges.

Policies should be based in classroom realities, not political agendas

In their paper[1], Watson and Barnes recommend teachers and support staff develop digital citizenship skills that will allow them to understand the forces at work in the digital environment and how to safely and ethically engage in meaningful debate, rather than feeding into the populist agenda.

As professional educators, teachers understand that the distraction created by uncritical sharing of polarising views does nothing to improve the quality of teaching and learning in our schools.

A clear example of the capacity of teachers to develop more sophisticated responses to complex professional issues is evident in ongoing debate about the role of phonics in the teaching of reading.

Although anti-worker thinktanks have grounded their arguments for adoption of phonics testing in an assumption teachers do not currently deploy phonics in the teaching of reading [3], in reality teachers have never abandoned it.

In Queensland, for example, teachers are formally advised to teach reading through a combination of phonics, whole-word and other approaches that allows them to change and differentiate their practice to suit specific students and cohorts [4]. This has been the case for decades.

As this example illustrates, members of the education profession are highly trained practitioners who are more than capable of subjecting policy initiatives to reality testing and then making their own, contextualised judgements about what practices will bring about positive learning outcomes for their students.

IEU members united Australia-wide

As the influence of anti-worker thinktanks expands to incorporate both traditional and new media, it is more important than ever that the profession unites to challenge the fundamental problem of those with little to no experience of classroom teaching dominating the debate over what policies and practices might bring us closer to the goal of quality education for all students.

As a union of over 75,000 teachers, principals and support staff in non-government education institutions across Australia, our members are consistently engaging in the debate about the industrial and professional issues which faced by the sector.

Members will continue to resist the imposition of policies that do little to improve the quality of education offered to students and to advocate for those in positions of power and influence to consider the views of practitioners over the views of self-appointed experts with a limited understanding of the operational reality of teachers and schools.


  1. Watson, S. and N. Barnes, Online educational populism and New Right 2.0 in Australia and England. Globalisation, Societies and Education, 2021.
  2. Watson, S., New Right 2.0: Teacher Populism on Social Media in England. British Educational Research Journal, 2020.
  3. Buckingham, J., Focus on Phonics: Why Australia should adopt the Year 1 Phonics Screening Check, in Research Report 22. 2016, Centre for Independent Studies: Melbourne.
  4. Queensland_Curriculum_and_Assessment_Authority, Teaching reading and viewing Guide for Years 1–3. 2010, QCAA: Brisbane.