On a chilly winter morning, a dozen trade unionists gathered with placards and banners in front of a four-star London hotel.
Thickly wrapped in coats and scarves, they were demonstrating against controversial education company (Bridge International Academies) that was listed as a "gold partner" at a summit taking place inside.
The scene, at last year’s Education World Forum (EWF), neatly encapsulated the contrast between the insiders and outsiders of the global education debate.
Gathered on the more comfortable side of the Park Plaza hotel’s tinted plate glass windows was the global education elite: ministers, officials, corporate partners. Shivering outside in the January sun were the protesters concerned about a multi-national education provider's actions in the developing world.
The demonstration was small, calm and peaceful – not a hint of the flares, riot police and paramedics familiar from other global gatherings – but it brought into focus questions about big international education events and institutions: what goes on behind their closed doors – and can countries with such widely varying economic and cultural contexts really learn from each other?
In the week when world leaders gathered in Switzerland for the annual World Economic Forum in Davos, what can we learn about its educational equivalent when it pitched up in London at the same time?
'Largest gathering of education ministers'
This is the Education World Forum’s 15th anniversary.
Originally known as Moving Young Minds, it was set up by the British government through its British Educational Communications Technology Agency (Becta) quango. In 2009, it was rebranded the Learning and Technology World Forum, and after the coalition government abolished Becta, it moved to the private sector, taking its current name in 2011.
It bills itself as “the world’s largest gathering of education ministers” – and has grown from the modest 15 ministers who attended the first event to 100 this year, with organisers providing simultaneous translation in Arabic, French, Mandarin, Portuguese, Russian and Spanish.
It is supported by four UK government departments, including Education and the Department for International Trade, and official partners include Microsoft, the University of Cambridge and HP.
As a private event, only those with official invitations can get through its doors.
This confidentiality was something Kevin Courtney, then the general secretary of the NUT, pointedly drew attention to when he tweeted support for the protest outside last year’s event: “The World Education Forum meets secretly (unions not welcome)”.
And while journalists were admitted on Monday to report on speeches by new education secretary Damian Hinds and Andreas Schleicher, the director of education and skills at the OECD, they were barred from the six “ministerial exchanges” that took place the following day.
These enabled politicians from countries as diverse as Croatia, Laos, South Sudan, England and India to discuss issues ranging from early childhood education and education’s contribution to peace and security to optimising ed tech and developing education equity.
For Dominic Savage, the EWF’s forum director, the very secrecy and lack and transparency that Courtney highlighted is actually the reason for its success.
It gives ministers a rare safe space away from the cameras where they can speak frankly about mistakes they have made and be unafraid to ask questions that might betray the doubts or uncertainties they cannot reveal in public.
“I just think we have got healthy debate, not anything to be concerned about behind closed doors,” Savage says.
Ministerial safe space
That premium on having a safe space is echoed by Blaženka Divjak, a mathematics professor who was last June named Croatia’s minister of science and education.
“For ministers, it’s not always possible to have a secure environment, because usually you are in public and any doubt you have can be risky, but here we can have doubt,” she says.
“We can learn from the success stories, but what is more important is to learn from failures – and try to keep them in mind and make a good plan to avoid what some other countries did.”
And Savage says the event is more than just a talking shop, pointing to three countries which last year decided to collaborate on the potential use of the cellular phone network to compensate for problems delivering the internet in rural areas.
Most strikingly, one minister who had only been in post for three months rushed home halfway through the 2017 forum to immediately put a lesson she had learned into practice.
Savage recalls her telling him: “'I’m sorry, I’m not going to be here this afternoon. I have realised from what I have been listening to this morning that I need to stop something happening which was one of my first decisions as a minister.’"
“As far as I’m concerned, for a mistake like that to have been corrected in time for a country that definitely could not afford to waste money, and could rethink something, that is very significant,” he says.
Summits such as the World Economic Forum in Davos are predicated on the emergence of a global economy. The logic says that, as never before, individual countries are so interlinked that the global elites need to gather to address the issues that they now unavoidably share.
Is the same true for education?
The international architecture is certainly there, with the OECD’s Pisa rankings directly influencing education policies in countries across the world, and an increasing number of events such as the Education World Forum in London and the Global Education and Skills Forum in Dubai gaining prominence.
But critics have questioned the validity of ranking countries on something like education that is so dependent on the cultural and economic context – this week renewed questions were raised about Pisa – and how much the diversity of countries attending the big global conferences can genuinely learn from each other.
It was a point vividly illustrated during a discussion early in this week’s EWF about global competence – the capacity of pupils to understand different perspectives and worldviews.
After speakers on the stage outlined the importance of fostering such intercultural understanding, delegates from developing countries questioned its relevance to them when their priorities are as simple as providing a school building for children to learn in and securing electricity and running water.
While accepting Pisa is not perfect, Savage believes that the growth of technology makes the international landscape unavoidable.
When looking at Pisa outcomes, he says “you have got to take the comparisons quite seriously because at the end of the day the way technology is making everything more global does mean that it is no longer the case that anybody is an island. It will be possible for countries to suddenly leapfrog because of technology, so you do need to take account of things like Pisa – and if you were going down the table and I was a minister of a country where that was happening I would be worried.”
Learning from each other
Gale Rigobert, the minister for education in St Lucia, a Caribbean island nation with a population of 165,000 people, came to London to learn about the challenges of what the EWF organisers termed "the fourth industrial revolution" – the transformative impact of technology.
“The spectrum is so large,” she says, describing the contrast between the range of countries she came across. Nevertheless, Rigobert found herself in constant contact with officials back home with ideas she wanted them to follow up.
“One can extrapolate from others’ experiences," she says. "It might not be an exact neat fit but there are lessons to be learned. There are ways you can imagine adapting and adopting from other experiences.
“I thought there might be a challenge finding that context-specific prescription, but as the days moved on and you went to different panels you were really able to pull it together, and being familiar with the intimate circumstances of your jurisdiction you are able to self-prescribe.”
Particularly useful for her were the networking opportunities built into the forum's programme, which allowed her to find more context-specific information through one-to-one conversations.
And for Divjak, the Croatian minister, there was real value in learning from very different countries.
“There are some African countries [from whom] we should learn how with very scarce resources you can do a lot, especially nowadays when all this technology is available.”
She added: “It’s totally different to before because the knowledge is not something that is kept in a box in some library somewhere in the middle of London. I think these perspectives are very important.”
Serious and worthy
So what actually took place behind the curtains at the Education World Forum?
Many of the private ministerial exchanges were held in the cavernous ballroom in the hotel’s bowels, where giant abstract canvasses on the walls looked down inscrutably on the participants.
Tinged with the glow of the diffuse blue, purple and white lighting, delegates sat around black-clothed tables while the speakers presented their slides on giant screens at the front.
As Tuesday afternoon’s sessions got underway, British ministers had to cut short their appearances to attend parliamentary votes on the other side of the Thames – the empty chairs outnumbered those that were taken.
In one session, two speakers from different continents and stages of economic development outlined their jurisdiction’s approach to a particular issue. One presented detailed slides with flow charts and structures of accountability. The other spoke more contemporaneously about the philosophy underpinning their strategy.
In the discussion that followed, delegates from other countries sought case studies of good practice around the world, probed the success of schemes the speakers had outlined and asked for more details of their experiences.
For those looking for evidence of a conspiracy among the global education elites, it would have been a disappointing occasion.
Instead, it felt serious and worthy – and the possible starting point for conversations that could, in time, lead to something more concrete.
No great confidences were shared, no big mistakes admitted, no revolutionary ideas proposed and no great dialogue conducted.
Some delegates took copious notes. Others spent the 75-minute session on their phones. Some networked in the corridors, others went shopping.
It felt like a conference like any other.