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October 5th, 2022, marked the 112th anniversary of the implantation of the portuguese Republic, with the president and the prime minister attending the official Lisbon town hall ceremonies. This time, however, as a small protest of educators and instructors gathered near the country’s political power, attention began to rise for the day’s second vital symbolism – the world teachers’ day.  

Brief History:

The portuguese education system has been on shaky grounds ever since the 2008 financial crisis, with the government markedly cutting its funding between the years of 2011 and 2015, making Portugal the OECD country where teachers’ salaries dropped most significantly, and where the number of students per teacher rose most predominantly.  

Through the years, there have been significant uprisings over the teaching conditions in Portugal. 2013 saw high school teachers boycott the national student evaluation period, with direct repercussions on access to higher education, protesting against mandatory weekly working hours rising from 35 to 40. It was also a way to contest the delay in including teachers in the “special mobility” government program in which they would stop being allocated to a school district hundreds of kilometers away from their place of residence. 2018 also saw notable unrest in the streets of the capital, as educators demanded a renegotiation of their contracts that had been “frozen” ever since the beginning of the financial crisis, more than 9 years prior. 

While instructors’ teaching conditions have ever so slightly improved since the worst days of the budget crisis – with salaries finally being (partially) unfrozen, the firing spree coming to a close, and finally breaking the increasing number of students per professor trend – unsatisfaction remained strong. Most notably, as per 2016, Portugal was still below the education spending average of both OECD and EU countries.  

In what ended up to be a small gathering, the 2022 5th of October protest saw pre-school and primary school teachers advocating for a rehauling of the “Estatuto da Carreira Docente”, the set of regulations that governs the career progression, working conditions, and professional rights and obligations of teachers and educators in Portugal. Teachers, however, promised to increase the pressure. Not waiting for the end of the year, December 17th saw a staggering 20 to 25 thousand teachers from all across the country rallying, with “Teachers fighting are also teaching” and “Teachers united will never be defeated” phrases multiplying in the crowd. Calling for the chance for school principals to be able to choose their teaching staff regardless of professional graduation, the absence of service time count that has been frozen, and penalties on retirement after 36 years of service, teachers, under the “STOP” union, announced a strike “for an undetermined amount of time”

Current situation:  

Continuous discontent for the state in which the education system has been for years culminated in some of the biggest teachers´ protests in memory. In February, once more under “STOP”, an estimated 150 thousand teachers took to the streets to demand better pay and a more democratic and decentralized school management system.  

Teacher’s protests in Lisbon, February 2023

The uprising continued through March, in which thousands of teachers, under “Already, here we are again” banners, paraded in Lisbon in protest against government proposals for a new recruitment and placement regime and the lack of openness to negotiate old claims such as the recovery of service time. In what heavily focused on the precariousness of the teaching profession, known for the “carrying their houses on their back” slogan due to the frequent job relocations, even teachers’ children and students came to the rally in support.  

The struggles with the impacts of the strikes have led the ministry of education to request a formal assessment of the legality of the procedures of “STOP”. It was confirmed that, despite the previous warnings made regarding strikes being legal, the execution was, in fact, dubious. Furthermore, the “Procuradoria-Geral da República” (PGR) issued comments questioning the legality of the “self-service” strike established by “STOP”, claiming to have been an “abusive” practice. Teachers have challenged these claims and accused the ministry of education of depriving them of the right to strike and protest for better working conditions. 

Ultimately, these occurrences, coupled with the increased and continuous discontent of teachers for not having their needs met, have managed to amplify the already heightened levels of tension between the two parties, making any prospect of a resolution between the government and teachers appear increasingly remote.  

What are the social implications of the movements?  

As dimensions around the strikes and protests augment exponentially within the sector, opposing opinions and positions on the matter in discussion begin to gain force, in what could jeopardize its original cause. Some professionals working in the sector recently began to view the movement as “extremist” and disagree with the way labor unions have gone about their complaints, with many arguing it to be counterproductive. Opinions are evenly divided among the portuguese people, with studies conducted informing that half the population being sampled displays support for teachers, while the other half argues that the demands are unrealistic and excessive. 

The union societies in charge have, recently, announced strikes that can affect evaluation meetings, in which grades are discussed and attributed to students per trimester. This intensification is, mainly, due to the lack of concessions on the government´s side, namely to solve the issues regarding the allocation of teachers to schools.  

Thus, questions regarding the future of the education system arise: What are the implications for students looking to apply for a higher education degree? What about students in primary school who need to learn how to read and write? What about students with special needs? Inequality and compromised evaluations are at stake and, despite being sympathetic towards the cause, parents are concerned with the future of their children.  

To combat these valid concerns about the education system and on-going disputes, teachers agreed to strike during extraordinary hours of service and non-academic endeavors at schools. 

So, do teachers have a chance at having their demands met? 

A few days after the demonstrations, a big battle was won by teachers as the government approved the new regime for the recruitment of teachers and academic personnel which has been negotiated for at least five months. However, the primary goal of compensating educators for the career freeze endured for six years, having not allowed for career development, remains elusive

Upon the current public manifestation for better working conditions and job satisfaction among teachers, one additional concern comes to light: the lower academic pursuits for teaching positions.  

In addition to the decreasing engagement with the profession itself, these public disputes only strengthen the newfound priority for the government within its educational systems: find solutions for the lack of professionals – as reflected in the aggravation in the number of students without a teacher in at least one subject from 60 thousand to 80 thousand in October 2022. Therefore, both parties involved will need to tread carefully to not dispirit aspiring teachers and professors even more. Considering this issue, what demands may be met with the current discussions, and can they succeed in making the job more attractive for prospective future teachers? 

The government has not yet agreed to entirely make up for the frozen years in professors’ careers. This does not mean that the government will not support teachers, since it was already stated that the asymmetries caused by the instance are set to be corrected and two years will be compensated. Additionally, modifications in the recruitment process in schools will also be dealt with to target precarity among teachers and reduce the distance between home and the school in which they are allocated. There is still, however, much discontent with the measures and the strikes do not appear to see an end to the tunnel just yet

Final thoughts:   

The overall consonance is that the value attributed to teachers is below par. The demands for better conditions and support for teachers are seen as valid, as these professionals compose the first pillar of society. Unlike other professions, where lack of services can be countered with outsourcing of foreign employees or alternate closing of businesses, in the teaching market these solutions are not viable. Nevertheless, there is room for innovation in the sector, as demonstrated by the adaptive measures put into practice during the COVID-19 period. 

It should be of utmost importance to guarantee the continuation and satisfaction of workers within such an instrumental function of society. As Portugal remains in the tail end of most education indicators within the EU, from number of students per teacher to early dropout rates, the government should look at these massive protests with concern.  

Sources: Observador, SIC Notícias, FENPROF, Expresso, PÚBLICO, Diário de Notícias, Jornal de Negócios, Governo de Portugal 

Madalena Zarco

Manuel Rocha

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