Education & Family

Mobile phone minister halts strikes

Esteban Bullrich
Image caption Education minister Esteban Bullrich invited teachers to call him with their complaints

An education minister in Argentina has stopped waves of teachers' strikes by giving every teacher his mobile phone number and inviting them to call him.

Esteban Bullrich, in charge of schools in Buenos Aires, inherited a system plagued by teaching union walk-outs.

Coming into office as the third education minister in 12 days, he published his personal mobile number as a way of opening a direct dialogue.

The number of strikes fell from 14 a year to none in the past four years.

Mr Bullrich, the minister for education in Argentina's capital, said he decided to hand out his number as a way of breaking the culture of distrust and confrontation between politicians and teachers' representatives.

Call back

Strikes had become a chronic problem, ministers only lasted a short time in office and he had to negotiate deals with 17 separate teachers' unions in Buenos Aires.

So in an attempt to break through this logjam he gave staff in 1,200 schools his personal mobile phone number, inviting them to call him directly if they had concerns.

"If you have any questions, comments or complaints, call me," he told teachers.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Teachers' strikes in Buenos Aires have been cut since the minister opened up to calls

Speaking earlier this week at the Global Education and Skills Forum, Mr Bullrich said there had been an initial deluge of calls - about issues such as pay, problems with school buildings and disagreements about allowances.

But he said teachers were surprised and then much less angry when they found the education minister either took the call personally or called them back.

One teacher who called at 2am was startled to get a call back from the minister at 2.15am, to talk over his problem about a delay in his pay.

"People didn't really know if it was true that I would answer. This guy rang at 2am and really blasted me on the phone - 'You owe me money'. So I called him back at 2.15am and said 'Hello this is the minister of education.' First there was silence on the line and then we got the information and we solved the problem."

Listening to grievances

Mr Bullrich belongs to a centre-right party and there was initial suspicion from teachers' unions.

"The relationship massively improved when people realised someone was listening," he said.

"People think it's crazy, but the benefits are huge. Teachers are a close-knit community, communication flies around very quickly. Now if they have questions, people call me."

The calls have been an effective way of "taking the temperature" and identifying grievances, he said, allowing his education department to intervene before disputes arose.

From an average of more than one strike a month, the capital's education system has not had a strike for almost four years.

This has helped his plans to modernise and raise standards in state schools.

The number of calls has now been reduced to about 80 to 100 phone calls per day, he said, even though he has also published his number for parents to ring.

Mr Bullrich said that the quality of education is affected by low morale among teachers, who he says need to be "motivated motivators".

"Teachers in Argentina can feel frustrated. They think politicians have abandoned education, that they don't really care what's happening in schools."

'Excluded'

The annual season of teachers' union conferences is about to begin in the UK, which is likely to show tensions between the teaching profession and government.

Brian Lightman, leader of the ASCL head teachers' union, which is meeting this weekend, said what was important was that ministers should be more willing to listen.

"There has been too little trust," he said.

Russell Hobby, leader of the National Association of Head Teachers, said a direct line to ministers would be a good idea.

"Teachers do feel excluded from decisions on education. Consultations feel like cosmetic exercises and they get talked at through the media, which is not a great way to learn about changes to your job.

"This hurts ministers as much as it hurts teachers - their ideas get misunderstood and their reforms get blocked."

Related Topics