KL and teachers battle for sympathy

As the lockout enters its fourth week, final exams – and even fish – are at risk

As the teacher lockout drags on into its fourth week, and with rumours flying that the government will not even consider intervening until the first of May, both sides are in a pitched battle to win in the court of public opinion.

The sight of teachers picketing in their local communities and handing out flyers while those driving by honk their horns in support has become commonplace over the past few weeks. But, as the lockout drags on and neither side seems willing to strike a bargain that will put bored children back into classrooms and give working parents scrambling daily for childcare options a break, the beeps of support have dwindled and the flyers wind up littering the sidewalks.

The struggle between the teachers and KL, the local government association, is as much a struggle for the hearts and minds of the public as it is a battle over working hours.

"Both sides are going to try to paint the other as the villain in the coming weeks,” Henning Jørgensen, a professor and researcher at Aalborg University, told Berlingske newspaper.

In addition to making themselves visible outside their schools and at local train stations, the teachers’ union, Danmarks Lærerforening (DLF), is also using the media to tell its side of the story.

“KL has spent a lot of effort making claims about how little time teachers spend teaching and trying to spread the perception that teachers are lazy,” DLF spokesperson Jenny Bøving Arendt told Berlingske. “We have to do the opposite.”

Arendt said that the teacher’s case is more difficult to present in a soundbite, but that their basic message is that the government’s idea of what a school day should be should not come at the expense of the classroom teacher’s preparation time.

“It will result in a lower quality of education and does not help the kids,” she said.

Teacher and union representative Miki Kalfner from Sølvgades Skole said that the teachers need to get, and keep, the public on their side.

"Public opinion is extremely important in such a conflict, because the politicians listen to the people,” Kalfner told Berlingske. “When I hand out flyers to parents going by the school, I feel strong support.”

Both sides have ample facts on hand to show why their position will result in the best education for the nation’s children. KL’s strategy has been to lay out its case for longer working hours and hope that the public sees the logic in its argument.

"It is natural that sympathy lies with the teachers because they have a relationship with the parents and use the media well,” KL spokesperson Line Aarsland told Berlingske. “We are viewed a bit as ‘the evil employer’, so we can only hope we are communicating our message and that the public understands it.”

Jørgensen said that the public taking the teacher’s side could spell even more trouble for the already-embattled government.

"If the public decides they are against the lockout, that will reflect poorly on the government, which people see as really being behind the whole thing,” he told Berlingske, adding that it is important for the government that the negotiations end with a mutual settlement and not with a government intervention.

Two sides meeting again

Meanwhile, there is a chance that representatives from both sides will meet some place other than a television studio for the first time since the conflict started nearly four weeks ago.

DLF head negotiator Anders Bondo Christensen and KL’s Michael Ziegler have accepted an invitation to have coffee with members of the parents' organisation Skole og Forældre.

Skole og Forældre's president, Mette With Hagensen, told Politiken newspaper that she hopes the two will sit down together this Wednesday.

Although her organisation has been vocal in calling for the government to intervene and put and end to the lockout, Hagensen said that she hopes the two sides can reach an agreement on their own.

“It would be better if the two sides reached their own agreement so that neither side feels like something has been forced on them,” she said.

Hagensen said that along with getting the two sides at the same table, her goal is to send them a strong message.

“This is not okay anymore," she told Politiken. "If they do not reach an agreement, we will go to the government directly and ask for an intervention.”

Hagensen said that the lockout is beginning create what she called a "hostage syndrome" among students who cannot get to school.

“Parents are worried that their children are not thriving and are becoming more and more apathetic,” she said.

As the conflict enters its fourth week, the risk of upper-secondary school students not being able to take their final examinations has become a serious issue.

"Concerns for exams are very real at the schools where they have had only the minimum number of hours in the eighth, ninth and tenth grades,” Hagensen said. “Those children are certainly not ready to take exams scheduled for May 2.”

Educators expressed concerns that even if students are able to take their final exams, the results may be compromised. Teachers said that the last month leading up to finals is essential because students use the time to practise for the exam.

"All things being equal, this will mean that students get lower grades because they are not as well prepared for the examinations as they would have been,” Anders Balle, the president of the school leaders' association, Skolelederforeningen, told Politiken.

Balle advised students to read up on their own.

"My recommendation to students is that they sit down and read through some things alone or form study groups to help each other to out,” he said.

The first 600,000 winners in the lockout

In one bizarre twist, the lockout very nearly resulted in the deaths of 600,000 fish at a vocational school on Funen. A single teacher will now be allowed to go onto school grounds and release the salmon hatchlings into a stream.

“We have always taken the position that a private individual should come and take care of the fish,” Hanne Pontoppidan, a union representative for teachers at the country's vocational schools, told Politiken. “There was plenty of time, but nothing was done.”

Pontoppidan said the union’s decision to allow one of the three teachers from Elsesminde vocational school to assist in their release was made to assure their safety. If the fish grow too large without being released, they will begin to attack and eat each other.

The organisation had previously said no to permitting a teacher to help, even though the government said it would allow a teacher to tend to the fish in spite of the lockout.

“We do not want the fish to suffer or die,” said Pontoppidan. “But it is a bit surreal that the government would allow help for the fish but not for the young people that have had their educations interrupted.”

Pontoppidan said that the lockout is causing students to completely lose faith in the social system.

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