Education International
Education International

Public education at risk of privatisation by stealth

published 4 September 2008 updated 4 September 2008

A new study commissioned by Education International reveals that a growing trend towards privatisation of public education is often camouflaged by the language of "educational reform," or introduced stealthily as "modernisation." Hence the title of the study: Hidden Privatisation In Public Education.

The research was undertaken by Prof. Stephen Ball and Dr. Deborah Youdell, both of the Institute of Education, University of London. The authors explore two key types of privatisation: one in which ideas, techniques and practices from the private sector are imported to make schools more business-like; and another in which public education is opened up to private sector participation on a for-profit basis. The former type often paves the way for the latter. Both types of privatisation have profound impacts upon the way education is delivered, how curriculum is decided, how teachers are trained, how students are assessed, and indeed on the fundamental values underpinning public education in both industrialised and developing countries. “A central issue, as this report so clearly shows, concerns the very ethos of education,” said EI General Secretary Fred van Leeuwen. “To put it in the starkest possible way: is education about giving each child, each young man or woman, the opportunity to develop his or her full potential as a person and as a member of society? Or is education to be a service sold to clients, who are considered from a young age to be consumers and targets for marketing?” Teachers and their unions around the world actively defend the concept of quality public education as a fundamental right of child. Therefore, this stealthy transformation of education from a public good into a commodity to be used for private profit is of deep concern. “Education International commissioned this study to shine a spotlight on the trend towards privatisation. We need greater transparency and we need to get a better understanding of what is happening, so that we can engage in an open public debate about the future of education in our societies,” van Leeuwen said. A preliminary report was published for the World Congress in Berlin in July 2007, and was presented by the authors at a break-out session. The EI Research Institute commissioned the report, and the EI Research Network met twice to discuss issues of privatisation and to evaluate the emerging findings. The final report was launched 17 June at the Trade Union Centre in London. John Bangs of the National Union of Teachers and a member of the board of the EI Research Institute, said: “It’s the first genuine analysis of the global impact of these trends toward privatisation on public education systems.” Referring to the lately deceased General Secretary of the NUT, he added: “Steve Sinnott would have been absolutely delighted to see this report.” “This is the first blast of the EI trumpet against the monstrous impact of the privatisers in education,” said Jerry Bartlett, General Secretary of the NASUWT and a member of the EI Executive Board. “Privatisation is an abdication of the state’s responsibility to provide a fundamental right. This will be a really useful tool to use to campaign against the loss of the public sector ethos in education.” Stephen Ball noted that the so-called education industry is enormously profitable. “Education services are the single largest export industry for the UK, valued at about 28 billion pounds a year,” he said. “This is big business!” And within this big business, the newly emerged class of “edupreneurs” are set to reap the biggest profits. Testing companies, for example, are multi-million dollar enterprises in countries that place high priority on test results as a measure of educational quality. Under George Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” legislation in the United States, about 45 million tests are administered annually at a profit of up to US $517 million to the private sector, he said. And, at a global level, the World Bank is also actively promoting private corporate involvement in public education systems. “The World Bank is placing the private sector at the centre of its policy in the developing world,” Ball said. Youdell added that in many developing nations privatisation tendencies are often more prevalent in newly-established World Bank or aid-funded educational projects. Because they are more dependent on external funding, developing nations are inevitably also more vulnerable to privatisation in all its forms, she said. In many countries, privatisation has proceeded so far that it is seen as inevitable or simply “common sense,” Ball warned. He urged educators to be sceptical of private initiatives, and to look more deeply beyond the immediately apparent benefits of, for example, “free” computers, equipment, or learning resources. The most insidious effects of hidden privatisation, Ball found, were the ways in which relationships between teachers, students and parents are changed. When education is commodified, the results—including the accomplishments of students—become seen as products. In this way, school leaders become business managers, teachers become technicians and students—depending on their test results—become assets or liabilities in a school ranked against all its neighbours. He emphasized that there is a strong need for “ethical audits” to evaluate the impact of private involvement in public education. Bob Harrris, EI Senior Consultant, welcomed the report and praised its potential as a tool for teacher unions to develop their strategies and resist the most egregious forms of privatisation. Harris emphasized the need for trade unionists to gain a deep understanding of the threats posed to public education (and indeed all public services) by the pressures of privatisation, and to act energetically to implement counter-proposals. “The debate should not be about whether education reforms are needed, but rather about the kind of reforms and the conditions for success,” he said. By Guntars Catlaks

This article was published in Worlds of Education, Issue 27, September 2008.