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The hidden privatisation in public education

by Renate Caesar

For quite some years now people in European countries have been reacting against the waves of so-called educational reforms that are flooding them ever more vehemently. Those changes come up camouflaged as school-reforms, often introduced with the slogan “keeping up with the times”. They do not aim at a necessary renovation of certain elements of our schools, which might require improving; instead they interfere deeply with the respective countries’ educational system by turning educational goals, structures, curricula, etc. upside down. Examples of such processes are the Curriculum 21 in Switzerland or the Curriculum Reform 2015 in Baden-Württemberg, Germany.
Mounting resistance comes not only from teachers and parents but is increasingly pronounced by education experts, historians, linguistic and literary scholars and also politicians. They all agree in the criticism that the intended alterations – many of them have unfortunately been already realized under radar in the past years – do not make any sense, neither with respect to didactics, pedagogic nor to science. How can we improve language learning, for instance, if the so-called communicative competence – one of the reformers’ mantra – is to be achieved by working off hundreds of singular sub-competences, which are to be tested by ticking multiple choice boxes in the end, as designed in Curriculum 21. (cf “Learning to the test” by Marianne Wüthrich in this Current Concerns edition, p. 10). Learning a foreign language is an organic whole: The student together with a polyglot counterpart must for instance listen to a question, seize the meaning, understand the context, search for suitable words and structures to answer, etc.. Or how can a student grow up to be a mature citizen if he is no longer taught history in a systematic, comprehensive and structured manner, instead he is e.g. to “understand and judge” “power relations” by being presented some isolated examples from the Antiquity or the Middle Ages or Napoleon without any basic knowledge, as conceived in Curriculum 21, Switzerland. In short: None of the critics perceives an improvement of school learning by teaching fragments and cutting up context of meaning into hundreds and thousands of broken bits of competences and sub competences. If they do not serve the improvement of learning what then is the end of such “reforms”?
An answer to this question is supplied by an excellent research published as early as 2008 by “Education International”1. Taking the conclusions of this work into account, these seemingly senseless reforms do indeed serve a very tangible goal, however, not the goal of helping our children develop their potential in a democratic society by comprehensive education but instead of stealthily commercialising education, i.e. aiming at creating a profitable market in which the public good education is being transformed into a private good that is to be consumed and paid for, thereby fundamentally changing the contents, values and ends of education as we have known it.

The purpose of the study Hidden Privatisation in Public Education is “to get the trend towards privatization of public education out into the light of the day” (p. 3), since what is going on in secret and comes up with positive but deceptive terms like “modernisation”, needs to be made public so that an open debate about what kind of education we, the citizens, want in our societies, can take place. For the transformation of education into private enterprises in Europe, in the US and in developing countries changes fundamentally the values that underpin education, its tasks and goals as well as the tasks and training of teachers. It also changes the self-concept of teachers, their working conditions, their place in society. This is true whether we deal with endogenous privatisation, i.e. the hidden introduction of market mechanisms or exogenous privatisation, i.e. the opening education to pro-profit private providers. It is in any case the transformation of a public good that serves the community in to a commodity that serves the for-profit interest of the provider.
In short: It is about the very ethics of education. Every society has to answer the question:
“Is education about giving each child, each young person , man or woman the opportunity to develop his or her full potential as a person and as a member of society? Or is education a service sold to clients, who are considered from a young age to be consumers and targets for marketing?” (p. 4)
In order to answer these questions citizens of the respective countries must be able to engage in an open public debate and therefore be informed about what is going on in secret and what is the background of these structural alterations sold to them as “reforms”. To provide greater transparency by their research is the purpose of the authors.

Origin and history of privatisation in education

By “privatisation” the authors mean all market strategies that exclude state control, i.e. “state-free market approaches”, also known as Neo-Liberalism. (p. 20)
The first country experiencing such a “market reform” of its education institutions was New Zealand in 1988 under a Labour government. Key players were graduates from the Chicago School of Free Market Economics2. The influence of the state’s educational administration was reduced, regional education boards were abolished and each educational institution was given power over budget, staffing, etc. as self-managing unit. The next country to follow in 1988 was England with the Education Reform Act. Even before that, in 1981, there had been a complete overhaul of the education system by vouchers and private providers in Chile. Although student selection was prohibited, the municipal private schools selected the better pupils. (In 2006 the Swiss news reported on protests and strikes of teachers and students in Chile demanding high-quality public education for all and to do away with the voucher-based education model introduced by dictator Augusto Pinochet in the 1980s).

So-called school reforms – actually “hostile take-overs” of public education

The so-called school reforms, for example those in European countries, are actually processes introducing a market system into public education, sometimes openly, most of the time, however, in secret. The fundamental alterations hide behind seemingly positive terms like “choice”, “improvement of learning processes”, “more efficiency” and “individualisation of learning”. In fact they are all about introducing techniques and values from the private business sector to the effect that educational institutions are to be run like companies. In their comprehensive study of the education systems of many countries the authors found two different types of privatising procedures:

  • endogenous privatisation, whereby techniques and practices known from the private business sector are introduced into the respective institutions, for example schools, with the undeclared purpose to transform them into companies. The new terms and techniques – competences, competency grids, evaluation, quality management, testing, etc. – allegedly serve to improve the quality of teaching and learning;
  • exogenous privatisation: here by definition the public education system is being opened to private providers on profit base, while those providers by and by determine, implement and manage the educational targets, intentions and processes.

Research has shown that in all examined countries endogenous privatisation was always the first step to exogenous privatisation.
Since the whole endeavour is in all cases camouflaged as “reform”, people are confused and do not understand what is going on. Parents and teachers feel – quite correctly – that those reforms are irrelevant, outside the subject-area, un-pedagogical and even harmful – and also more and more education experts point to the non-scientific character of those machinations3, but the reform waves are overrunning us faster and faster changing everything before one can think. In our schools, for instance in Switzerland and Germany they have already begun to change:

  • the organisation: dissolving school structures, class units, year grades;
  • the leadership: manager instead of headmaster; the school manager is no longer a leading professional but the manager of institutional performances;
  • the curriculum: there are no longer any mandatory learning objectives, obligatory teaching and learning contents;
  • the methods by which lessons are taught, for example each student working (“individualised”) on his individual worksheets and materials, instead of in the class community together with his peers;
  • assessment: testing of competences and sub-competences on computers instead of traditional forms of assessment like written or oral class examinations;
  • the way in which schools, headmasters, students and even whole communes are being judged: they who follow the reforms, are regarded as innovative and modern, they who resist are labelled backward and behind the times;

In the words of a change agent: “We are talking about a change in the culture of schools and a change in the culture of teaching” (p. 23)

Endogenous privatisation proceeds particularly stealthily

The hidden goal of this stealthy process is to re-structure the schools in such a way that they are managed like businesses including the so-called “performance-related pay for teachers”, so that that they can be ranked and compete against each other in the market. However, all this takes place under the disguise of allegedly positive values like “free choice of schools”, more efficient learning by “self-responsibility”, “independence”, better “teaching performance”, etc. This will in the long run affect teachers by leading to a breakdown of national pay and working agreements. All these are techniques and processes of the so-called New Public Management to make public state institutions fit for the market. A lot of money (state money!) is being spent on making the schools more attractive – e.g. inciting them to develop an own “profile” with the undeclared goal to later heighten the profit. Such reforms often involve the state by having it issue a national curriculum even if education is in the competence of the individual cantons, like in Switzerland (for example: Curriculum 21). Nation-wide standardised testing then helps to lay the basis that schools may compete and be ranked (publishing of test scores) and become market players. Such future purposes, however, remain undeclared and the enormous costs of all these alterations are paid by the tax payer.

Transformation of the state

A process, called “re-shaping of the state” by the authors, plays an important role in this context: A shift occurs from “government” to “governance”, meaning that state control is gradually but stealthily being replaced by the market players’ and providers’ control. The latter finally determine the direction of educational policy and supervise its implementation, by providing programs and services like “consulting” and “evaluation”. The state must not be completely discarded, however, but serve the interests of the private sector, primarily by paying the costs.
It would be short-sighted according to the authors, to name these events “de-regulation”, since actually it is a “re-regulation”. Control is being withdrawn from the state and transferred to the international organisations and their string-pullers, who remain in the dark.4 Public education system is thus steered by remote control. A managing network replaces the state authorities. This is part of the process of passing over the national state as the authority by whom politics are being devised and implemented. One example is the Bologna Declaration which fundamentally changed university education in Europe going over the national governments’ heads.
These same processes are taking place in other public national fields, for example in the health care and social welfare system. They all have one thing in common: Alterations come always up as “reform packages” and the same language is always used, i.e. that of New Public Management. The international organisations like OECD, the World Bank, the IFC and WTO are always the driving forces.

Exogenous privatisation

GATS5 made it possible that the national education systems were opened to private global providers. 40 countries signed this treaty that allows private services from other countries. The state is to provide the market place. It allows private companies and NGOs to operate as sponsors in its territory; and this is going on not only in industrial countries but everywhere in the world.
The public education sector as a site of significant profit-making has only emerged some years ago, however, by now the education service industry is growing fast and UK and US education companies have begun to operate internationally. Out-sourcing of testing, curriculum development, etc. has become extensive practice and hardware and software production for schools have become a huge business. Sourcing-out or “contracting-out” whole schools have become a wide-spread practice in the US. As early as in 2003 there were already “417 contracted-out schools in the US, teaching 132,000 students in 20 states”. (p. 32)

Further findings of the study

  • There is no evidence in any of the examined countries that private schools did better with respect to student performance than public schools. If a private school achieved higher scores, there had been a selection of students, i.e. certain population groups were over-represented (racial and social segregation).
  • Competition pressure on schools changes teaching: “Teaching to the test” narrows learning experiences of students, teachers are forced to use pre-fabricated learning materials with controlled speed, which is done above all by young and unexperienced teachers in “low-income-schools” in poorer regions. Complex curriculum contents which evade testing, are no longer taught. (cf box: Diane Ravitch)
  • In developing countries Private Public Partnerships offered to governments are usurping the education system and influencing and eventually destroying the culture and values of these societies. In this field the World Bank is particularly active. The term PPP “is largely a rhetorical invocation of a vague ideal which obscures the role of financial relationships and power imbalances.” (p. 32)
            Education that had been determined and organised by the national state becomes eventually privatised. By consulting, research, evaluation and other influential measures private organisations take over, determine and implement the education policies of the respective countries step by step.
  • privatisation always implies an attack on professional organisations like teacher unions, for they are no longer capable of negotiating just and secure pay and working conditions for their members.

Conclusions: Grave and destructive impact on the countries’ education systems

Privatisation fundamentally changes education as a public good serving the whole community to become a private good, a commodity that superficially serves the interest of the educated individual, actually serving the interests of globalised private business. Education in this form is merely significant as qualifications and certifications for employers. Education as a collective good of a society’s culture, benefiting for the whole community by passing on the societies’ most precious cultural achievements and values to the next generation is being systematically ignored and destroyed and thereby culture itself is eroded. Privatisation promotes competition and individualism and unequal chances of education. In a market system equity, that is equal chances and conditions for all is no positive value. The gap between poor and rich is growing wider and high-qualified education for all is made impossible. The whole process is undemocratic, as passing over and neutralising all democratic institutions.
The study report is meant to open up the eyes above all of teachers and parents in the affected countries to help them realize and question these tendencies in their countries and communities.

What is to be done and is being done already

Parents, teachers, pedagogues and other education experts in Switzerland and the South of Germany have by now answered the study’s appeal to be on guard and to observe and resist these stealthily introduced undemocratic alterations in their countries’ education systems. Resistance against the unreasonable so-called “reforms”, that overhaul well-proved education practices with their non-sensical methods, their competences and test-mania is growing. Ever more people are becoming aware that those so-called reforms carry the thumb’s print of OECD and further international organisations, they are beginning to look through their hidden goals and implementation strategies and reject them determinedly. (Cf Current Concerns No 28-31, 2014 and no 1 and 2, 2015.)    •

1     Hidden Privatisation in Public Education, Report by Stephan J. Bali and Deborah Youdell, Institue of Education, University of London, 2008, edited by Education International, a Federation of Unions, representing  organisations of teachers and other education employees around the globe.
2     The Economics Department at Chicago University, where  Milton Friedman propagated his Neo-Liberalism. Cf also Naomi Klein, The Schock Doctrine, 2007
3     Cf Konrad Liessmann: Geisterstunde – Die Praxis der Unbildung, (Haunting Hour. The Practice of Non-eduction), Vienna 2014
4    Cf “OECD reforms, enforcement strategies and impact”, Current Concerns  No 33 2012.
5     GATS = General Agreement on Trades in Services

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[Translate to en:] Diane Ravitch, die bekannte Kritikerin der Schulreformen in den USA und ehemalige Mitarbeiterin im US-Bildungsministerium («The Death and Life of the Great American School System», 2010) bestätigt in ihrem neuen Buch «Reign of Error» (2014), dass die sogenannte Reform in den USA «der bewusst betriebene Versuch» ist, das öffentliche Schulsystem durch ein Marktsystem zu ersetzen. Der «unnatürliche Fokus auf das Testen» hat «perverse, aber voraussagbare Ergebnisse hervorgebracht». Er hat das Curriculum auf testbare Fächer und Themen hinuntergedünnt, er hat die Geisteswissenschaften ausgeschlossen ebenso wie die volle Reichhaltigkeit der Kultur. «Teaching-to-the-test (das Unterrichten nur auf den Test hin), das einmal als unprofessionell und unethisch gegolten hat, ist heute allgemein Usus».
Bei der Finanzierung des US-Bildungswesens habe das Weisse Haus «Gleichheit als grundlegendes Prinzip der Finanzierung aufgegeben». Es sei «das erste Mal in der Geschichte, dass eine Regierung Programme entwickelt hat, […] profitorientierte Unternehmen im amerikanischen Bildungswesen zu schaffen.»

New York Times, Sunday Book Review, 2014 (Übersetzung Zeit-Fragen)

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