'Let's not squander advances in education to the profit motive'

Around the world big steps forward were taken for schools in 2015, writes a leading education trade unionist. But achievements could be hindered by the "profiteers"

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2015 was quite a year for education policy. We witnessed the adoption of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), in which a stand-alone education goal was included. Together with the related targets and the UNESCO Framework for Action, aimed at ultimately turning the goals into action, it’s quite an achievement by the international education community.

However, the privatisation agenda being pursued in many countries and across all sectors of education poses serious challenges to the achievement of “inclusive and equitable quality education… for all”.

This threat, clear to many, is also recognised by Kishore Singh, the UN’s special rapporteur on the right to education, who said recently: “I urge governments to refrain from privatising education to meet these new goals if the education is not free to students, or if it increases inequality in society… The rapid rise of private providers, often unregulated and privileging the wealthy, must be replaced by efforts which reduce inequality and expand opportunities of good quality public education without exclusion.”

Given the size and political reach of the corporate world, there is a well-founded concern that governments may seek to open the door to private companies to allow, facilitate, and in some cases encourage the commercialisation and privatisation of education. While some argue this is a quick and easy way to achieving the education goals, it would in fact undermine and compromise the achievement of the goal and related targets.

For example, allowing the introduction and expansion of so called “low-cost” for-profit private schools and corporate-backed and owned school chains, as is being seen across the developing world, would represent a rewrite of the education goal and related targets. Anything other than free quality education for all undermines inclusive and equitable schooling as any price put on it serves as a barrier for the poorest and most disadvantaged.

These corporate chains contribute to a deepening inequality and segregation in schooling and learning outcomes.

They also undermine the right, as outlined in the targets, of every child to a qualified teacher. In an attempt to maximise profits, corporate chains often employ fewer teachers, underqualified teachers and/or unqualified staff. The employment of unqualified staff earning a fraction of a teacher salary is central to the business plan of many corporate chains.

Often these settings see the delivery of a standardised scripted curriculum – as a way of saving money. This does not constitute quality teaching and learning. Furthermore, scripted standardised curricula show little if any respect for inclusive education and cultural and linguistic diversity.

With respect to the provision of appropriate and safe facilities conducive to quality teaching and learning, too often corporate actors fail to provide proper school facilities.

It is against this backdrop that we call on all governments to implement laws that ensure the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goal 4: “inclusive and equitable quality education and [the promotion of] lifelong learning opportunities for all”.

We believe all governments must:

•       protect and promote the principle of access and equity for all students through the provision of public education;

•       recognise the professional judgement of teachers and educators in questions of pedagogy and on matters of curriculum, assessment and reporting, and respect their professional institutions, including unions;

•       legislate against the provision of for-profit schooling, particularly when non-state organisations are in receipt of government funding intended for the educational well-being of students.

In the interest of transparency and accountability, where the private sector provides schooling, companies would be required to:

•       adhere to strict financial requirements, including independent auditing and regulations to monitor how government funds are spent;

•       demonstrate transactions made for goods and services that are directly required for delivery of education are at reasonable market value.

The profit motive has no place in dictating what is taught, how it’s taught and assessed, nor how our schools are organised. In such a world, it is not only the SDG which is put at risk, but students, teachers and quality education all stand to lose the most.

What has been accomplished this year represents an important step towards the achievement of quality education for all, but now is the time for clear political will and financial commitment to make it a reality. Let’s not squander it to profiteers.

Angelo Gavrielatos is former president of the Australian Education Union and now campaign drector at Education International 

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