The final frontier for privatisation: schools

As in the NHS, the government’s structural changes to schools are just the start of a massive privatisation process.

Tamasin Cave
31 March 2016

Mossbourne Community Academy, London, wikimedia

‘The dramatic expansion of the academies programme’ represents a ‘dramatic shift of power from the old educational establishment’.

So said Education Secretary, Nicky Morgan, a whole year before last week’s ‘dramatic’, although far less antagonistic, announcement that all schools are to be forced into becoming non-state, education providers.

 Hang on, though. She wasn’t finished.

‘Now, with those foundations laid, we need that same determination; that same pioneering spirit; and that same clarity of vision to embrace and shape the next stage of our reform programme.’


The removal of the state from the provision of education isn’t peak privatisation? There’s more? 

The next stage of the government’s reforms, Morgan is ‘convinced’, has education technology ‘at its heart’.

It goes something like this:

Step one: take responsibility and resources out of the hands of the public sector and hand it to unaccountable privately-managed companies.

Step two: private providers accelerate the use of technology in schools in order to 'improve cost efficiency’, as leading academy chain, ARK, put it.

The second reform phase has as much to do with privatisation as the first.

The Ed-tech Giant 

As in the health sector, education has become a magnet for tech interests.

Companies are lining up to provide schools with education technology, or ed-tech, products: online content, interactive software to teach and entire virtual courses; digital marking, online testing and continuous machine assessment; data management tools and analysis; timetabling software and behaviour management tools.

There’s not much that schools provide that can’t be improved (according to tech interests) with technology. Even the development of children’s social and emotional skills offers an opportunity for ed-tech firms, says a recent report by management consultants, Boston Consulting Group.

Reducing teacher workload is one of the ‘sells’, and the government’s teacher ‘workload challenge’ launched this week could be seen in this context. Rather than employing more teachers, and reducing class sizes, technology – and tech-literacy in teachers – is being pitched as a solution to the current workload crisis (see the case studies on the ‘challenge’ blog, here, here and here).

Last year, $500m was invested in US ed-tech firms focused on ‘transforming’ schools. Alongside the venture capitalists, big name corporates have been throwing money at ed-tech: Google, Facebook, Pearson, Microsoft and Apple.

It’s not just global, tax-lite tech companies that have gone frothy at the mouth over edtech, though. The UK government is backing it as a lucrative export. Its 2013 Industrial Strategy for Education set out an ambition for the UK to be a world leader in education technology. The strategy launch was held just round the corner from Whitehall, at the HQ of the ‘world’s leading education company’, Pearson. 

‘Technology... underpins the growth of multinational education companies,’ says the government. It sees its role as ‘facilitating’ that growth and actively ‘stimulating innovation’.

This is what that looks like. In January this year, at the Education World Forum conference in London, which the UK government hosts and the ed-tech industry sponsors, education ministers and officials from 91 countries (representing over 80 per cent of the world’s population) gathered with Nicky Morgan to discuss the future of education... before being marched by British officials to the Excel Centre for the UK’s enormous ed-tech trade show, BETT... and the hard sell.

What UK policy-makers, Pearson and the tech giants have their eye on is the global education technology market, or rather the slice of the $5trn global education budget that can be diverted to technology. ‘People don’t realize how big it is’, said a Pearson representative at a recent ‘education investor’ conference in London. There are ‘hugely exciting times ahead’.

Consultancy giant, PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), which is heavily involved in education system reform, has put a figure on it. It estimates that the ‘connected education’, or ed-tech, market ‘will grow at around 32 per cent annually over the next 5 years and, by 2020, will be worth almost $446 billion globally.’

The growth of ed-tech ‘raises a number of questions around the preparedness of the sector’, writes PwC’s Chris Kirk in an essay on ‘Managing Teacher Supply – a Strategy for a Digital Age’, which features in a report – The Importance of Teachers – published earlier this month by the free-market think tank, Policy Exchange. ‘What will be the implications of this growth – particularly for the supply of teachers,’ he asks. Will technological change, which he sees as inevitable, have a positive impact on the profession?

Will teachers, for example, embrace ‘virtual classrooms’, where a teacher no longer needs to be physically present in the classroom. As Kirk writes: ‘One could imagine that such a model could be used to support regions of the UK where recruiting from a dwindling pool of teachers is becoming increasingly challenging.’

(Note 1: Kirk is at pains to point out that ed-tech isn’t just a solution to teacher shortages and will benefit pupils too: ‘It is remarkable that something that was once the preserve of the wealthy – access to new innovations in technology – is creating an opportunity for affordable access to another previously elitist resource – personalised, high quality teaching.’ This is the same Chris Kirk that told a private gathering of UK education reformers just a few years ago: ‘The evidence on technology raising learning [standards] in a traditional setting is quite weak... The evidence on learning only using technology is quite strong. It’s not a particularly great idea.’)

(Note 2: PwC isn’t necessarily a disinterested observer of these reforms. At the same private education reform gathering in 2012, a representative of PwC outlined a service it had developed to partner with groups of newly created academies to provide back-office functions, which it called a ‘schools solution for sharing’. Unlike public sector ‘sharing solutions’, however, this service would be provided on a for-profit basis. ‘PwC isn’t spending all this money for the hell of it,’ said the PwC rep regarding the investment the firm had made in developing the service: ‘We see this as a great opportunity.’)

(Note 3: The gathering was hosted by James O'Shaughnessy, now Lord O'Shaughnessy, a central reform figure in the UK, now free-school operator. He believes that academy chains will open branches abroad and become another education export. O'Shaughnessy is a graduate of Policy Exchange, the think tank formerly chaired by Michael Gove, funded by countless academy sponsors and undisclosed others, and which provides a nursery for so many of the UK’s education reformers. For years it has pushed for the radical reform of England’s education system on market-based principles, including advocating profit-making schools).

 “It is ‘the final frontier of a number of sectors once under public control that have either voluntarily opened” or “been forced” to open up to private enterprise”

In investment terms, education is ‘the big enchilada’, according to one US investment firm. It is ‘the final frontier of a number of sectors once under public control that have either voluntarily opened” or “been forced” to open up to private enterprise, wrote its analysts.

Opening up a ‘resistant’ schools market

Schools, though, have yet to fully embrace technology at anything like the scale that some tech interests would like to see.

This is less true, however, for privately-operated schools. In the US, charter schools – equivalent to our academies – are seen as leading on technology. ‘Charter schools often leverage new and promising technologies’, says leading ed-tech firm (and BETT exhibitor), Knewton. More than this, Charter Management Organisations (CMOs) – the US equivalent of our Multi-Academy Trusts – are described as ‘ideal first customers for ed-tech entrepreneurs’, providing ‘fertile ground for innovation.’

Put another way, a publicly controlled school sector is seen as a barrier to technology. The private sector is seen as a much more willing buyer. Right up until this week’s announcement, the UK was seen as having ‘a resistant schools market’.

Another ‘driver of change’ in favour of ed-tech, according to one major US ed-tech investment firm, is the ‘evolving teacher base’. ‘With a teacher retirement bubble coming in the next five years,’ it writes referring to the US, ‘we believe the new teacher base will be younger and will include more career switchers, both of which are generally more tech-savvy and forward thinking.’

If the creation of a schools market and a less-experienced workforce are seen as increasing the uptake of technology in schools, technology is also seen as a way of accelerating the marketisation of education.

As two US advocates, John Chubb and Terry Moe of the conservative Hoover Institution write in their 2009 book, Liberating Learning: ‘Technology is destined to resolve the political problem that has prevented reformers from taking effective action. To put it simply: the seepage of technology into the system – which cannot be stopped and will continue – works slowly and inexorably to undermine the political power of the teachers unions. With their power to resist weakened over time, the floodgates will then be opened.’

Chubb and Moe suggest that ‘new computer-based approaches to learning simply require far fewer teachers per student [their emphasis] – perhaps half as many, and possibly fewer than that.’

(Before dismissing this as a case of over-zealous American Right optimism, England’s former education secretary, Michael Gove described Liberating Learning – a genuinely disturbing book – in a 2012 speech as ‘excellent’, before in the next breath pronouncing that the ‘wondrous world of technological innovation will see children’s learning ‘liberated from the dead hand of the past’, quoting the authors.)

Restructure and the rest will follow

The structural changes to the English school system, announced last week, could do away with a lot of this resistance to ‘innovation’.

Like the structural changes to the NHS, the government’s school reforms will hand more control to the private sector. Across both sectors, increasingly it will be unaccountable private interests that get to say how these multi-billion pound budgets are allocated.

This is not how it was pitched to us.

The NHS reforms were sold to us as empowering GPs. ‘The whole point of our NHS reforms,’ said David Cameron, is ‘to put the power in the hands of local doctors, so that they make decisions based on what is good for their local area.’

Likewise, Nicky Morgan said last week: ‘We need to put our trust into the hands of the people that know best how to run our schools – the teachers – and the academy system does just that.’

No one believed the line on the NHS reforms. If the reaction to a recent blog post by Morgan on Mumsnet is anything to go by, few believe Morgan.

Her intention is to strip power from this ‘old education establishment’ and ‘break up the closed-shop schools system of the past’ (her words).

To see its replacement – the new establishment in education – you’ll need a ticket to one of the many gatherings around the world of the for-profit education investor community.

Try this one in London in May. Or this venture capital-led summit next month.

You’ll find they’re all sponsored by Pearson, Microsoft, Samsung, IBM and co.

What you won’t find is many teachers.

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