Worlds of Education

Quality Education – a public good at the heart of democracy

published 17 November 2016 updated 17 November 2016

By Susan Hopgood, Education International (EI) President and Fred van Leeuwen, EI's General Secretary

When we look back on our education, we remember teachers who changed our lives, who opened new worlds to us, who challenged us to think and to debate and to discover. We recall the excitement of learning.

We discovered and learned to respect differences among people. Tolerance, honesty and other positive values were often able to ‘crowd out’ bigotry and fear. If we were migrants, our teachers helped us establish roots in our new homelands. If we were on the margins of society, education became our ladder into its mainstream.

But, what will be the school memories of today’s subjects of ‘reform’; of those who were not schooled in a caring public service environment, but rather in the harsh market-world with its exaggerated reverence for measurement, evaluations and so-called accountability?

Will education be recalled as a series of standardised tests? Will youth be remembered as an anxiety-ridden trap that blocked rather than facilitated learning?

In the future, will valueless, push-button education be passed onto each new generation? We are mobilising, united, around the globe, to spare future generations that fate and, together, we can achieve this.

Education is not the only area of public life where confidence in what has worked has been edged out by market experiments. It is the triumph of ideology over experience. Nothing demonstrates the dilemma better than the economic crisis.

While the financial crisis (2007-2008) that launched the current Great Recession was the deepest financial crisis since the Great Depression, the political consequences were different. Both crises originated in the US. In response, in the 1930’s, strong political leadership shifted trust away from failed private actors to democracy and public services. As President Franklin D. Roosevelt put it in 1933, “the money changers have fled from the high temple of our civilisation.” He went on to call for the restoration of “social values more noble than mere monetary profit.”

The second time, however, policies and results were radically contrasting. Banks were bailed out and massive private debt was shifted to the public. Inequality and insecurity became our leading growth industries. And, the money changers remained in the temple.

The 18th century philosopher and founder of classical free market economic theory, Adam Smith said, “I have never known much good done by those who affected to trade for the public good.” Smith saw the ‘free market’ as an efficient way to organise the economy, not as an idol to be worshipped.

In some quarters, government actions or other forms of ‘interference’ with private power, including trade unions, are seen as ‘market distortions’, but there are few political leaders who seem to recognise or admit that markets and private actors are creating serious distortions in public service.

We will continue to act. But, others need to join us. Quality education for all can only be achieved when precarious work, crowded classrooms, inferior training, narrowing of curriculum or other low quality factors are addressed by governments. The fundamental causes of these crises, including austerity, must be addressed or education will limp instead of jumping forward. The same is true for many other public services.

Education is a public good, not a business. Educators are professionals, not ‘service delivery agents’. Students are precious human guardians of the future, not products stamped out to serve the engine of the economy or the business agenda. Quality education can enable people, instead, to live their lives as successes. It is a way out and a way forward.

We have learned that bad ideas proliferate quickly, but they spread thinly. Good ideas, like quality education, advance relatively slowly like the roots of a tree, but become powerful and sustainable.

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