School in continuous descent? Enough is enough!

by Felice Pensatore

A short while ago, an article from a parenting magazine landed on my desk. Its title was “School of tomorrow”.1 Starting from Curriculum 21 with its planned lessons on information and communication technologies (ICT) and media, the writer sketches out the future school life of our children. Equipped with a tablet and accompanied by learning coaches, they are supposed to acquire their competences by way of digital learning path management and digital learning tasks in age- and performance-mixed groups in order to pass the desired standardised tests, which will in future take over the evaluation and selection for promotion in place of the teaching staff.
The writer points to the large companies waiting in the background and ready to offer cloud solutions, social media, interactive websites and all kinds of apps and learning programmes, as well as video tutorials, modular learning materials, learning path tracking and international tests, all this on a subscription basis, possibly including specialised teachers to cover the offer locally or in remote coaching. Corrections could largely be carried out automatically. Writing would become less important because texts could be dictated to the computer, and human-like robots could answer questions, cover emotional needs, sing or tell stories. This is a summarised extract of the article.
Just to clarify a much heard misunderstanding of parents and teachers of good faith – this is not about a school in which digital, or better said electronic, devices and media are used temporarily as didactic means to practice skills or to illustrate learning content according to the age of the learners, and alternating with other learning and teaching opportunities. Nor is it a question of understanding digital technology and computer structures in preparation for the corresponding professional fields. For in that case, devices without a network connection and a local server could be used. No, here we are talking about “learning factories” in which the work piece “child” is led from learning station to learning station, where algorithm-calculated learning units and exercises impart and test the desired competences. This would then provide the basis for individual learning profiles and further learning programmes.2
Are we to laugh or to cry about such scenarios? Moreover scenarios described by a high official of the umbrella organisation of teachers Switzerland (LCH), which claims to represent the interests of the teachers and thus also of the pupils! And yet:
Even though it is hard to imagine today, that such scenarios could one day become reality, the writer with good reason refers to other professions and industries in which this hind of development is already underway. Media houses, IT experts and self-appointed education experts already have quite specific ideas of how they would like to have this new “learning culture” put into practice.3

PR strategies instead of clear facts

If we do not want to force such prospects for the future on our children and if we want to make true education possible, we must take a closer look at what is happening there, closer, because because skillfully devised PR strategies are used to try and steer the public’s opinion in a certain direction: “The digital world is our future.” “Pupils must be able to deal with technical equipment and use the potentialities of the internet competently.” “Digital competences must be learned at an early stage,” etc. And it is being made clear as an irrefutable fact that in view of the new Curriculum 21 and its cantonal variants, there is little communes can do but digitalise their schools, which implies high investments. Education as a commodity? A cause for celebration for the educational companies! In view of such developments, it is worthwhile to try and analyse the players and strategies involved. Because such developments do not happen overnight!

Public services over the counter

The process described above began more than twenty years ago. An important step was taken in the WTO negotiations when the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS) came into force on 1 January 1995. The GATS was intended to open up services markets worldwide. This agreement was signed for Switzerland in the framework of the WTO by Luzius Wasescha, then Delegate of the Federal Council for Trade Agreements and member of the executive board of the State Secretariat for Economic Affairs (Seco). There had not been a referendum.
As a result, there was criticism from various quarters. There were fears of a reduction in public services. Rightly so! Admittedly the “services provided in the exercise of governmental authority should be exempted from liberalisation”.4 However, a demarcation was difficult because in many European countries private and public service providers have traditionally existed alongside each other in the traditional areas of general interest (health, education, energy and water supply, transport, postal services, telecommunication) – this also applies to Switzerland.5 Luzius Wasescha persistently stressed that public services would not be affected in any way whatsoever, and that the WTO negotiations were only concerned with tradable services.6 And Henri Gétaz, the person responsible for the service negotiations, replied to the critical question posed at that time by a journalist: “I do not see a connection between the ongoing service negotiations in the WTO and the threat of a reduction in the public service in Switzerland – you have to explain this to me.”7 Perhaps, however, these statements were an expression of what Renato Ruggiero, then director of the WTO, had more bluntly proclaimed: “We have a sales job to do. We must find new ways to bring across the benefits of globalisation.”8

Lack of transparency

The development since that time has shown itself to be the opposite. It was initiated by the separation of the PTT from the lucrative telecommunications branch, which has now been opened to the market. As a result, it was no longer possible to cross-subsidise Swiss postal services with the lucrative transactions of telephony. It is probable that everyone has noticed that since then the postal services have become ever more limited or expensive. Post offices are increasingly degenerating into village stores, and even well-frequented post offices are being closed, much against the will of the population. It is brazenly being claimed that a sufficient basic supply will always be guaranteed. Similar developments can be observed in health care and education. The truth, that Switzerland is integrated into international trade agreements, the ultimate aim of which is be the complete privatisation of the service sector, is still being withheld from the public. But other contracts of the same kind have since been launched.

Milton Friedman and the policy of empty coffers

We have to remember this political background, if we want to classify and assess today’s developments in education as well as future scenarios, like those mentioned in the article above. Otherwise, as mentioned above, we run the risk of falling for the strategies of the PR bureaus, which want us to take these developments for unavoidable and necessary. In fact, there are no pedagogical objectives attached to them, but the aim is to privatise and economise the education system in view of a new lucrative market. A look at the Anglo-Saxon world shows in which direction our education system should develop, according to the wishful dreams of education corporations. There the American economic theorist Milton Friedman (1912–2006) and founder of the Chicago School provided the specifications. He pleaded for the state’s withdrawal from the economy and placed the market in the centre of his theories. The resulting neoliberalism subsequently became the dominant economic theory. It stood for deregulation and flexibilisation, privatisation and globalisation.
According to Friedman the state education system should also be opened to the financial market. As usual, he argued that competition would lead to better quality and lower costs.9 Also, the idea of education vouchers is attributed to him. Friedman became an advisor to Ronald Reagan and Margret Thatcher. Both pressed ahead with privatisation of public services to a dangerous degree. Thatcher characterised this strategy with the slogan “TINA – There is no alternative”. – Friedman was aware that the privatisation of public services might provoke resistance, and his motto was: “The only way to change the behaviour of politicians is to take away their money.” The austerity packages being implemented now in all areas of public services in our country are an expression of this strategy, because the neo-liberal market ideology has been well received here, too.10 The education companies’ CEOs have exploited their opportunities well.

When you go on a journey …

In the late 1990s, Bill Gates travelled around the world and made the offer to distribute his software for free to many governments. This happened in Switzerland in 1998, when he visited our country and had a conversation with Federal Councillor Villiger. He did not value the direct democratic decision-making procedures common in Switzerland very highly, but instead, he considered the US procedure of a small number of MPs making the decisions to be more efficient and useful.11 But he also found supporters in Switzerland. The former education director Ernst Buschor in Zurich took the lead. From 1993, soon after his election to government, Ernst Buschor began implementing his ideas, first in the health and welfare department, then in the education department. He accepted an invitation to attend a symposium in Boston. He then wrote the basic concept for a reform that has been characterising our schools ever since. He did not seek to obtain the necessary financial means by a democratic process, but instead he got it through a newly founded association, which finally raised 2.5 million francs for the school reform project “School 21”.12 This money was mainly used to finance the training of teachers and the scientific evaluation of the project. It was self-evident that computer manufacturers were willing to supply classrooms with their products at a special rate.13 For Buschor it was clear even then, that in future times the public sector would only have to provide easy-to-test basic subjects, the rest would have to be financed by the parents as an investment in the future of their children.14

Stop – enough is enough!

Since then a veritable flood of reforms has flooded our elementary schools, in which children and their relationship to their teachers became the “quantité négligeable”. Curriculum 21 is part of it. The human factor is missing – and that in Pestalozzi’s country! What is mentioned in the article above has not yet quite become reality, but the course is set, also including the dominant role of educational colleges in training “curriculum-compatible” teachers specially instructed in their new role as learning coaches and learning facilitators.15 Despite current findings of development and learning psychology and despite independent studies that point out the misguided foundations of the present reform projects, the transformation of schools is further promoted. Will the continuous descent of state schools be followed by their grounding? It is up to us to bring about a rebound! It is about time, plus we owe it to the next generation.    •

1    Brühlmann, Jürg. Die Schule von morgen. (School of tomorrow) In: Fritz + Fränzi, Oktober 2017
2    There is a book well worth reading about this: Lankau, Ralf. Kein Mensch lernt digital. Über den sinnvollen Einsatz neuer Medien im Unterricht. (Humans so not learn digitally. A sensible way of using new media in class.) Weinheim Basel 2017. ISBN 978-3-407-25761-1
3    cf. Lankau, Ralf. Kein Mensch lernt digital. Über den sinnvollen Einsatz neuer Medien im Unterricht. (Humans so not learn digitally.  A sensible way of using new media in class.) Weinheim Basel 2017. ISBN 978-3-407-25761-1
4    GATS, Art. 1, para. 3 (c)
5    cf. the detailed analysis of the Berne Declaration: Jäggi, Monika and Hochuli, Marianne. Das WTO-Dienstleistungsabkommen GATS und die Schweiz. Analyse der GATS-Verpflichtungslisten der Schweiz in den Dienstleistungsbereichen des Service public. (The WTO Services Agreement GATS and Switzerland. Analysis of Switzerland’s GATS Commitment Lists in the areas of service of the Service Public). Zurich 2003
6    cf. Hochuli, Marianne. Online büffeln und fern heilen.Online swotting and healing by television. In: Wochenzeitung of 11 January 2001
7    ibid
8    Alden, Edward. Trade Protectors hit home. In: Financial Times of 19 November 2000
9    “The State‘s objective would be better served by a competitive educational market than by a goverment monopoly […] As in other industries such a competitive free market would lead to improvments in quality and reduction of cost.” Friedman, Milton. The Promise of Vouchers. In: Wall Street Journal of 5 Dezember 2005
10    This policy has been described for Switzerland in: Pelizzari, Alessandro. Die Ökonomisierung des Politischen. New Public Management und der neoliberale Angriff auf die öffentlichen Dienste. (Economisation of things political. New Public Management and the neo-liberal attack on public services. Constance 2001
11    cf. Gates, Bill. In: Felber, Ursula / Gautschi, Eliane. The Trojan Mouse. Computers in schools – learning for the future. Zurich 2002, P. 75.
12    Members of this society were, amongst others, Anton E. Schrafl, Vice Chairman of the Holderbank Board of Directors, as well as the entrepreneur Klaus Jacobs, who spontaneously provided 1 million. See: Ernst Buschor – A man becomes the thing in schooling. In: Bilanz, 31 December 1999
13    ibid.
14    This was a comment made by director of education Ernst Buschor at a public event, before the vote on the new Zurich “Volksschulgesetz” (law on state schools) in Affoltern a. A.
15    Of course, even today there are still lecturers at the universities of teacher education who want to train their students differently, but they can only be found in niche areas.