Worlds of Education

If you don’t fight, you lose!

published 9 November 2018 updated 9 November 2018

By Angelo Gavrielatos, Education International 

Privatisation remains one of the greatest threat to the achievement of quality, free, universally accessible public education for all. And, noting what is at stake, the struggle against privatisation is one of the noblest causes that any teacher unionist can be part of. That struggle can, at times, be dispiriting considering the forces we are up against but we can always find inspiration in gains, large or small.

And, yes, we are winning.

The wins may not be immediately apparent but they are there, being achieved slowly, incrementally. Despite the “organised hypocrisy” (a term in political science describing actors who wilfully ignore their own evidence), intergovernmental agencies are increasingly conceding in their own publications that the neoliberal experiment is failing students, schools and our communities. Case in point, the World Bank (WB) and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

In its World Development Report (September, 2017), the WB concedes: “there is no consistent evidence that private schools deliver better learning outcomes than public schools” The report goes on to cite numerous risks associated with privatisation including the exclusion of disadvantaged or less able or desirable students, social segregation, exploitation of families for profit and the undermining of public education.

Similarly, on more than one occasion, the OECD has warned of the impact of neo-liberal policies.

“School choice advocates often argue that the introduction of market mechanisms in education allows equal access to high quality schooling for all…However, evidence does not support these perceptions, as choice and associated market mechanisms can enhance segregation” (OECD, 2012, p.64).

In regards to school choice, cross-country research and analysis from the OECD shows that ‘schools that compete with other schools for students do not perform better than schools that do not compete…systems as a whole do not benefit from a greater prevalence of…school competition’. (Schleicher 2014, p.104).

And, “after accounting for the socio-economic profile of students and schools, students in public schools score higher than students in private schools on average across OECD countries and in 22 education systems.” (PISA 2015 Results, Volume II: Policies and Practices for Successful Schools, p.18).

This demonstrates very clearly that we have an ever increasing body of evidence which will inevitably see the pendulum swing back from the dangerous heights reached with the neoliberal experiment. Governments, will not be able to continue ignoring it for much longer.

But, now is not the time for complacency. Rather we must refocus our efforts and challenge even more boldly those who seek to privatise and, in doing so, undermine the great social and democratising enterprise of free universally accessible public education the funding and provision of which must remain guaranteed by the state.

We must continue to grow and deepen our movement and strive for the progressive improvement in the provision of public education as this remains the greatest bulwark against those who seek to dismantle it for, one thing remains certain, the forces of privatisation will continue to seek to exploit any real or perceived weaknesses.

One policy proposal which is gaining momentum and is therefore cause for significant concern in the years ahead is Public Private Partnerships (PPPs).

Despite all the evidence, the privatisation cheer squad is becoming increasingly excited about PPPs, After all it’s a system of public risk for private profit. Corporate actors will no longer need to expose themselves financially - having to establish schools and enrol students -all will be guaranteed by the state which would sell its students and schools to the highest bidder. And once having done so, it will never be able to regain them.

As for the evidence, a new report using PISA data to study the impact of PPPs (mainly state-funded or subsided private schools /vouchers) in 17 countries reveals that PPP schools do not outperform public schools when selection and peer effects are controlled for. Furthermore, the findings of a January 2018 report by the U.K.’s National Audit Office, noted that the analysis of one group of PPP projects in education revealed costs around 40 percent higher than the costs of a project financed by government borrowing.

Given the growing evidence against PPPs, it not at all surprising to find proponents become more desperate establishing a narrative suggesting that it’s the quality of the provision that’s more important than the provider and that the role of governments should focus more on monitoring and regulating the providers. If not to provide education for its citizens, what is the role of governments?

Very timely has been the report published by the UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Rights, Philip Alston, effectively shooting down this narrative and taking aim at those lured into a position of assuming and promoting the naïve belief  that if we only made privatisation a little more accountable it would be OK.

The human rights community often seems to assume that privatisation involves little more than a change in personnel and uniforms and that public -sector-like obligations and comparable levels of accountability could be maintained, if only the conditions attached were sufficiently detailed and demanding.

But this assumption is deeply mistaken. It ignores the motivations driving the process as well as the essential unwillingness of the private sector to take on rights-related obligations, the inability of pared-down Governments to exercise meaningful supervision, the difficulty of monitoring disparate private providers, the removal of much economic decision-making from the purview of democratic contestation, and the wide-ranging consequences of empowering profit-seeking corporate actors in what used to be the public sphere.”

The struggle for the achievement of quality public education for all remains the most defining struggle of our time.

If you don’t fight, you lose.

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