The clash of education visions

written by: David Archer published 23 February 2015 updated 23 February 2015

Education used to suffer from the curse of consensus. Everyone thought it was important but, because there was so much consensus, education never quite reached the top of the international development agenda. Controversy and passion help to attract political attention and resources - so perhaps we should welcome the fact that the broad consensus on education is rapidly breaking down and it is fast becoming a hot political issue around the world. Today there is a real polarisation between those who argue that education is a public good and those, like the World Bank’s Shanta Devaranjan, who reject this and claim education is in fact a private good. Behind this new polarisation there are fundamentally different visions for the future of education.

It is not easy to get inside the head of people who seek to make a profit from education but sadly it must be done – as there is no shortage of people who see education as the next big frontier for privatisation. They see that there are big profits to be made, even from poor people, if you deliver on a large scale. For them the key to maximising profits is to remove the need for high-paid qualified teachers, replacing them with technology and standardised lesson plans (such as those used by Bridge International in Kenya). In this world view the most important measure for all schools is whether they teach all children the basic skills of reading, writing and numeracy – and whether they help children fit into the new global economy.

In this disturbing vision children are considered to be basically the same everywhere – from India to Kenya, from Nigeria to the United States – so you can produce a standardised curriculum, standardised resources, standardised lesson plans and standardised assessments. The larger the scale of your chain of standardised schools the larger the profits. These profiteers would argue that it is only fair that education becomes a market place where every parent can buy the best education they can afford for their children – anything less would be a violation of the rights of parents. Only the very poorest should still benefit from completely free government schools.

To get to this glorious future the profiteers say we need to remove government regulations and open up markets – removing the patently absurd situation whereby governments have a near monopoly on providing education. They seek to get hold of public funding to subsidise private provision (e.g. through voucher systems) - to maximise their profits and build incentives for more companies to enter the market. To succeed they need to regularly highlight the failures of the present public system and contrast this with their own evidence of their own successes, reinforced by a close knit community of supporters who consistently endorse their dodgy evidence. Perhaps most crucial to the success of this privatising project is gaining high level access to political leaders and ensuring that key decisions are taken behind closed doors rather than through transparent or inclusive dialogue.

To contest this we need to re-assert a powerful, positive vision of quality public education in the 21st century. In this post-Piketty period our foundation should be that education is the most powerful equalising force in a society. Society is ever more unequal and stratified but education systems should seek to reduce this stratification and aspire towards a fairer, more equal future. It is one of the most fundamental roles of any governments to guarantee a fair chance in life for all children, ensuring that they can secure their right to a free education in a good quality local school. In the face of climate change, re-asserting the need for inclusive local neighbourhood schools gathers new significance.

Of course the world is indeed changing and schools must change with it - but nothing is more important than a well-trained professional teacher to facilitate learning, helping children to navigate the overwhelming knowledge now available to them through new technology. Schools should respond to the diverse needs of each child, enabling each to fulfil their unique potential – not treat children as standardised units to be processed. Our goals should not be focused narrowly on the economy but on developing active global citizens - who can contribute to the sustainable development of their family, community, country and planet. Assessments should be contextually relevant and primarily formative, focused on improving learning - not just for passing judgment or extracting international statistics. Crucially a wide range of outcomes need to be valued, including those that are not easily measured such as critical thinking and problem solving, social and emotional outcomes.

Central to the defence of quality public education is that new policies should emerge from open dialogue, including with teachers and parents, and should be subject to full parliamentary scrutiny, avoiding the secretive influence of lobbyists and the imposition of ideological agendas. Schools must be asserted as safe spaces where no child should be exposed to aggressive branding or marketing as they are saturated enough outside of school.

In the coming months and years we will need to build a formidable and broad movement based on a positive vision - whilst exposing the injustice and inequality fostered by the privatisers and profiteers. We need to show that those pushing privatisation are not in fact innovative or ground-breaking but rather are promoting an out-dated model based on rote learning and the myth of teacher-proofed schools - a concept which was first pushed in the Victorian era. They want a stratified system where you can purchase privilege and where education becomes a powerful means to perpetuate inequality and injustice in society. In the process they are bankrupting parents and cheating children particularly with new chains of for-profit low-quality private schools. Our positive alternative of properly resourced and accountable public education systems should be the centrepiece of national and global movements for justice and equality.

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect any official policies or positions of Education International.