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Issue #1776      May 10, 2017

Education not a commodity

Britain: Perhaps it is too much to hope that protesters outside Shell-Mex House on London’s Strand will prick the consciences of shareholders attending the Pearson AGM. Those who make their profits through the privatisation of education systems in the developing world are unlikely to object to privatising education systems in the developed world.

Even so, the education unions and NGOs organising the protest highlight an issue which has escaped public scrutiny for too long. Pearson is the elephant in the room for anyone looking at developments in education worldwide, one of the most powerful engines of what teachers call the Global Education Reform Movement (Germ).

It’s up to its neck in the privatisation of schools in Africa and Asia, helping to fund Bridge International Academies, a so-called “low-fee” school chain backed by some of the world’s cuddliest corporate philanthropists such as Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg.

Bridge has also received millions from Britain’s overseas aid budget in its mission to educate children in the world’s poorest countries (at a price) – attracting criticism from the United Nations committee on the rights of the child, which pointed out that using aid money to fund private education providers clashes with UN sustainable development goals on providing “inclusive and equitable” education to all children.

Bridge has been booted out of Uganda for teaching kids in unsanitary conditions and for using unqualified teachers – the latter a common theme with the “free” schools promoted by the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government from 2010-15.

Bridge’s “academies” undermine public education in Third World countries, starving it of investment and funds. Britain’s academies and free schools do not charge fees at the door, but they are built on the same marketised vision of education.

Like Bridge, they reduce education from a right all children deserve to a commodity provided for a return. Schools are designed to compete against other schools and teachers made to compete against other teachers for the “best” results, which are measured by subjecting children to endless standardised tests.

Teaching unions in Britain and beyond in Africa, Asia and the Americas have highlighted the weaknesses of this approach, where a standardised and scripted curriculum is delivered by teachers following lesson plans on a tablet.

Education is not geared to the needs of the student but to the needs of the test – producing a “rapidly growing set of data that Pearson can use to develop products to sell back to the people who create the data,” in the words of the British Colombian Teachers Federation’s Larry Kuehn.

Free schools have avoided the limelight recently, with Theresa May’s crazed mission to disinter the 11+ and segregate children by supposed ability (in reality, by ability to pay) taking centre-stage.

But they remain at the heart of Tory education policy, with the March Budget promoting plans to build another 140 free schools despite opposition from parents, teachers and even the National Audit Office, which pointed out that millions of pounds of public money has been squandered on free schools standing empty in areas where they are not needed – while other communities are desperate for more school places to become available.

Local authorities are barred from opening new schools to meet this need – although Labour has promised to return this power to councils if elected on June 8.

Pearson is not the only driver of the Germ – but it is the world’s biggest education company and wields an enormous influence on education policy in numerous countries.

That influence is wholly negative, promoting a neo-liberal education market that’s bad news for teachers and children alike.

Morning Star

Next article – Unions march for climate, jobs, justice

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