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'Don't let profit-making companies run education' says UN report

Governments are bypassing their “moral imperative” to provide free state education by outsourcing public schooling to profit-making companies, a new United Nations report says.

States should remain primarily responsible for providing free and quality basic education to all, it claims, and not allow their education systems to be exploited by private companies “reaping uncontrolled profits”.

The report calls for countries to put an end to “market driven education reforms” that provide subsidies to private education. States should also not allow or promote low-cost private schools and the provision of school vouchers, it says.

The report’s author, Kishore Singh, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the right to education, told the UN General Assembly: “Education is not a privilege of the rich and well to do; it is an inalienable right of every child.

“The exponential growth of private education must be regulated by governments to safeguard education as a public good.

“The state is both guarantor and regulator of education which is a fundamental human right and a noble cause. Provision of basic education free of costs is not only a core obligation of states, it is also a moral imperative.”

Mr Singh added that governments must meet their “international obligations” through careful regulation and monitoring of private schools, especially in developing countries where the public system is overwhelmed and unable to cope with rapidly rising demand.

“Not doing so has resulted in for-profit low-cost schools taking money from parents, but failing to deliver a quality education to their children.

“This perversely traps poor students into a further life of poverty, despite the best efforts of their parents,” he said.

In some developing countries fee-charging schools are “flourishing”, it says, with “scant control” by authorities – leading to a “crippling effect” on the fundamental principle of equality of opportunity in education.

Some private providers also “inadequately respect” quality of education and “undermine the status of teachers” the report says.

The report comes as the issue of who can make a profit from public education has come to the fore in both the Western and developing worlds.

The debate over whether for-profit providers should be allowed in England has raged for several years. While former education secretary Michael Gove appeared open-minded about the idea, the current education secretary Nicky Morgan last week told MPs was adamant she did not think schools should be run for profit.

The launch of the UN document comes just months after a coalition of organisations supporting girls’ education claimed low-fee private schools were still too expensive for many families in the developing world, leading to the exclusion of girls because parents tended to prioritise boys’ education.

At the time, Keith Lewin, professor of international education and development at Sussex University, said charging for education was “an outrage”, adding that poor boys also missed out.

Ian Macpherson, from the Open Society Foundations – founded by the philanthropist George Soros - which works to support democracy, education, health and justice in 100 countries, added: “The private sector can play a positive role but unchecked privatization in education is leading to the further deterioration of state education and the poorest and most vulnerable people being relegated to low performing state schools.”

Supporters of low-cost private schools in the developing world said it was important not to tar all providers with the same brush.

James Tooley, an academic and co-founder of the low-cost Omega Schools chain in Ghana, said many groups were doing vital work and promoting equality rather than hampering it.

He added: “This report is writing off a whole sector, but all the evidence shows that these private schools, including low-cost schools are out performing government schools. It is saying that education is a fundamental human right but governments have drastically failed to show themselves up to this task.

“But there are thousands of educational entrepreneurs out there who are up to it. How dare he [Kishore Singh] condemn them?”

Privatisation and the Right to Education:

Related stories:

No return for Sweden’s free schools: 24 October, 2014

First for-profit school admits it is providing sub-standard education: 1 March 2014

Girls left behind in the march of private education:  25 July, 2014

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