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Teachers’ strikes reflect the precariousness of public education in Portugal


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Amid strikes and stoppages in public schools in all regions of Portugal, thousands of teachers and teaching assistants marched through the streets of Lisbon in protest on Saturday (28). It was the second major demonstration in less than a month, exposing widespread dissatisfaction among teaching professionals.

There are new protests scheduled for the coming weeks in the capital and other Portuguese cities, at a time when teachers and the government are in the process of negotiations.

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The list of teachers’ complaints is extensive and ranges from obstacles to career progression to a geographical distribution system that can place teachers in schools more than 200 km from home.

The strikes began in December and, as they are organized by three union groups, they have different models and durations. There are both full-day stoppages and just a few class shifts. Many non-teaching school workers, such as cleaning staff and assistants, have also joined.

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The toughest action is that of the Stop (Union of All Education Professionals), which called for an indefinite strike. Citing the unpredictability of this stoppage and “the accumulated consequences for students”, the Ministry of Education managed to get a court to approve the mandatory minimum services in schools, a measure described by unions as a restriction on the right to strike.

Under the current model in Portugal, a teacher would reach the top of his career after 34 years of service, one of the longest journeys in the European Union (EU). In practice, there are several obstacles that further delay progress in the professional hierarchy.

For economic reasons, there were two periods of “freezing” the length of service accounted for professional progression. Although the teachers have already recovered part of the lost time, there are still 6 years, 6 months and 23 days that are still out of account.

Secretary-general of Fenprof (National Federation of Teachers), Mário Nogueira says that the government is “stealing teachers’ service time”. “Everyone worked normally, it wasn’t a bonus.”

In addition to unaccounted for length of service, the leader of the country’s largest teachers’ union highlights the bottleneck in professional progression. Within the civil service, the teaching career has ten categories —the so-called levels.

Currently, there is an obstacle to the promotion of teachers in some of them. Even if the professor has already taught for the required years and has the appropriate performance evaluation, progression to the next category is subject to the availability of vacancies. “These vacancies are determined annually, without negotiation, by the government.”

With all this, there are many professors who have more than a decade of teaching activity that are not considered for professional progression, even though they have worked normally during that time.

“This has immediate consequences, people earn less than they should”, says the union leader, who estimates that more than 70% of current teachers will not manage to reach the top of their careers.

Another point criticized by the category is the system for distributing teachers, which in many cases allows teachers to be placed in schools far away from home. With a scenario of record inflation and skyrocketing prices in the real estate market, traditionally more expensive cities, such as Lisbon and Cascais, already have difficulties in finding new teachers.

Unions also cite the precariousness of the category, with professionals linked to short-term contracts and with little stability. In addition to the instability of this work model, the period outside the official framework of schools also does not count towards the years of professional progression. “We are experiencing a problem of lack of attractiveness and devaluation of our profession”, says Nogueira.

Young people’s little interest in the career, combined with the advanced age composition of the current teaching staff, in which more than half of professionals are over 50 years old, foresees a series of difficulties for Portuguese public schools in the not too distant future.

Faced with the succession of strikes and the repercussions of the actions, the government is showing signs that it is willing to yield more to demands, expanding permanent contracts and reducing constraints for career progression. However, the Minister of Education, João Costa, was far less flexible in the face of a scenario of total unfreezing of the length of service count.

“We are not going to take a step that we know will not be sustainable [financeira]. We can’t take a step too far, and what we want to ensure is that careers are never frozen again.”

The Executive’s responses, for the time being, have not convinced the unions. Fenprof, for example, has a large demonstration scheduled for February 11, in the center of Lisbon.

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