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What is education for? How the market fails our children

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Schools are increasingly focused on exams and targets. Adam Unwin, co-author of a new book on education, told Sadie Robinson competition lets children and teachers down
Issue 2500
Marketisation of education has meant schools have become obsessed with tests
Marketisation of education has meant schools have become obsessed with tests (Pic: Kennysarmy/flickr)

The Tory plan to force England’s schools to become academies is part of a drive to stamp out critical thinking, entrench inequality and weaken unions.

That’s according to Adam Unwin, co-author of a new book, Rethinking Education. The book looks at how neoliberalism has transformed education systems across the world—and the nasty ideas about class and education that underpin it.

“What has happened in education is part of a wider neoliberal reconfiguration,” the authors argue. This has seen a “shrinking of the state and an expanding role for business” in public services.

Adam told Socialist Worker, “Forced academies are sold as being about parent power. That’s a load of rubbish. It is about getting accountability and democracy away from education.”

The attacks open up the spectre of for-profit schools in the future.

“Government policy is about the marketisation of education,” said Adam. “If you start measuring things, you can compare them. You can make them into a product and attach a price to them.”

The authors note that “there never was a truly comprehensive, truly inclusive system.” But they explain how competition has meant that schools have become obsessed with testing, results and league tables.

Education is treated as a transmission belt—from teachers who hold all the knowledge to students who must simply memorise it.

The book argues that this “inculcates a way of behaving outside school where one accepts the status quo, takes for granted the explanations by the powerful that this is the way things should be”.

Adam said, “The idea is that chunks of knowledge can be transferred and a person can repeat them back. We wouldn’t say that’s meaningful learning.”

Adam added that there is now a false but “sharp divide” between academic and vocational learning. “Academic learning is seen as showing success while vocational learning is undervalued,” he said. This is linked to the idea that children have “innate” abilities and intelligence. Children become categorised as more or less “bright”. Different children are told they are “naturally” suited to different kinds of work or lifestyle.

This divide means that “social inequalities are reproduced”. And what’s more, the system that reproduces them seems “entirely rational”.

Adam pointed to the long history of unions resisting damaging changes in education.

But the forced academy plan would mean teachers have individual employers who would be free to decide pay, terms and conditions. This would threaten the ability of unions to fight on a national level.

The book argues that this is not an “unintended consequence”. “Teachers are one of the most highly unionised workforces in Britain,” said Adam. “This is a way of breaking that.”

Another school is possible—what is the alternative?

There are “powerful, wealthy and well-organised” forces pushing neoliberalism in education, the book warns. But they don’t always get their way.

Alternative approaches “are being explored every day in classrooms somewhere near you”.

In Reggio Emilia in northern Italy a more progressive model of education has been operating for the past 50 years. This is “child centred” and treats children as the “co-constructors of knowledge”.

In Brazil the Landless Rural Workers’ Movement has “around 1,800 schools for 200,000 children”. Teachers are elected.

Adam pointed out, “Canada and Finland don’t have narrow education systems like the one we have in England. And there is less private schooling in some countries.”

The book describes emancipatory models of education in Argentina, Ecuador, South Africa and Mexico. There are limits to such projects. But as the book explains, they “show that other ways of doing school are possible not in some far-distant future but now”. And they are also “embedded in a different vision of society”.

Adam said it is “difficult to get out of the cycle” of focusing on tests and league tables. “But teachers in their own classrooms can do a lot. There are still elements of autonomy. I don’t think we can give up.”

Pearson is always earning

Pearson is the biggest education company in the world. It had an annual turnover of nearly £6 billion last year.

Pearson has over 40,000 workers in over 80 countries. It produces software, online learning materials and textbooks. Its motto is “always learning”.

Unwin and Yandell suggest that motto should be “always earning”.

They note that Pearson decided to focus solely on education because of a “hard-headed business assessment of where the profits were to be made”.

In 2011 Pearson appointed Sir Michael Barber as its chief education adviser. Barber had previously worked for former Labour prime minister Tony Blair.

In that role he promoted an approach that assumed “entrepreneurial innovation” could “remedy the deficiencies and failures of the old, monolithic public services”.

In 2012 Barber launched the Pearson Affordable Learning Fund. This for-profit fund helped develop private schools across Africa and Asia.

The schools are “privatised, centrally controlled and outcomes-focused”. They are cost effective because “who needs a qualified teacher when you can have a tablet?”

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