Education, business and democracy

How multinational corporations are robbing us of our democratic voice

This article by Nadia Edmond and Aidan Pettitt outlines the growing influence of business in education and how this reduces the democratic voice of parents, teachers and the wider community. It  is based on a contribution from the Campaign for Education in Brighton & Hove to a session on privatisation at a recent conference organised by the People’s Assembly in Brighton & Hove.

When CityLink sacked thousands of their workers over Christmas we thought it was appalling behaviour – but perhaps we weren’t surprised. We’ve become used to stories of asset stripping and a disregard of working people by private sector entrepreneurs. When we hear of companies relocating or setting up labyrinthine structures to avoid tax we’re angered but not amazed. We’re not naïve: we know what the pursuit of profit by private companies means. After all, who would deny that they’ve been cynical about estate agents or car dealerships? But we assume the public sector, and especially the education and health sectors, behave differently. We’d like to believe that schools and universities are run for the public good and are accountable to us – the public – and not run for profit by an investment bank or private company. We don’t expect those running our local primary school to be more interested in the value of the school’s land than the education of children or our universities to be primarily concerned with selling their degrees for a profit.

But increasingly, education is being treated by government and the private sector as if it was a business – to be managed by private interests for profit. We’re told that it’s better if the market replaces the democratic control of education and health. We’re told that schools and hospitals are better in private, not public, hands and that the private firms taking over parts of the public sector need to be rewarded with profit – because profit is the measure of success.

Education & Business

You may have heard of the Kings Science Free School in Bradford. A vice chairman of the Conservative Party had some significant involvement with this free school. He was quoted extensively as a supporter of the school and seems to have had some role in setting up the school. It also turns out he was paid £6m for the site on which the free school site was established even though the local council bought land for a larger local authority school in the town for far less than £6m. The arrangement was particularly questionable since the Department for Education believed him to be the free school’s chair of governors when they issued the contract for the land.

This story seems extreme but in some ways it’s pretty tame.

On conversion to academy status, land on which a school is located is transferred from public to private hands. It’s estimated that the value of land transferred from the public sector (mainly local government owned) to privately owned academy trusts is at least £10bn. This is ten times the cost of the undervaluation of Royal Mail which handed ‘only’ £1bn of public money to the private sector.

And it’s not just land where public money continues to seep to the private sector. The TUC estimates that the government’s free school and academy programme has cost taxpayers nearly £80m in private consultants’ fees.

And despite the mantra that there are no alternatives to austerity because there is no more money, the Public Accounts Committee found that the oversight of the academy programme was so weak that the programme managed to overspend by £1bn. So additional funding can be found to help privatise our schools.

In higher education, managers increasingly want to outsource campus services. Too often they ignore the wishes of students and lecturers who reject the commercialisation of learning and who believe that education is not a commodity to be bought and sold. The introduction of eye watering fees for university education is but one facet of this commercialisation.

Remember the dispute at the University of Sussex in 2013? As one student said at the time “Across the country universities are becoming more and more like businesses ….”

It doesn’t take long to find a university developing relationships with private companies like Kaplan, a private provider of education that ‘partners’ universities including the two based in Brighton, or Interserve – a private company providing non-teaching services to universities – including in Brighton.

In the academy sector these sorts of ideas are beginning to gain traction too. Last year, AET – the largest academy sponsor in the country – announced the possible outsourcing of all non-teaching posts in its 77 schools to a for-profit organisation, some £400m of publicly funded education services.

More and more, private interests see education as ‘big business’ and they know profits can be made if the ‘business’ is in private hands.

Government adopts this pro business, pro competition, pro market approach for ideological reasons (after all the privatisation of education merely follows the privatisation of public utilities, transport, refuse collection, housing and much else) but it’s also almost a form of quantitative easing. Remember that the ‘sponsors’ of academies and free schools don’t invest their money in the schools they convert to academies – but they do benefit from the public funding they receive to run the school and also have the school’s assets transferred to them.

After all, if even large companies like Tesco and Marks & Spencer are suffering from the recession, why not allow the private sector to sell us what we thought was ours in the first place – Royal Mail, water, healthcare and schools – and make up for the fall in profits by allowing profits to be made from public services?

Education and Profit

If you have any contact with any secondary school or college in Brighton & Hove you’ll have come across Pearson text books and Edexcel qualifications.

Pearson is a multinational publisher of books and eBooks. They publish the set texts for Edexcel exams. Edexcel is one of the three big GCSE exam bodies in England, awarding BTEC qualifications and taking over the old University of London GCSE and A level exam board.

What isn’t obvious, though, is that Edexcel is owned by Pearson. Nor is it so obvious that Pearson is a private, ‘for profit’ company.

And Pearson provides a case study of the lengths to which privatisation is creeping into all parts of education – local authority schools as well as academies, free schools and universities, in the UK and across the world.

Pearson carries out tests on contract. They have a $500m contract for five years with Texas to carry out testing in Texas schools. There have been protests in New York over Pearson’s contract for testing and until 2008 Pearson had the UK contract for school SATs.

Pearson is also involved in schools improvement. Perhaps they encourage schools to improve by using more Pearson text books and entering more pupils for Edexcel exams? And controversially, Pearson even agreed a deal with Stanford University, in the US, to license teachers.

As Diane Ravitch, a writer on US education reform has said: “Pearson is overstepping the bounds of the role of a profit-making business. The corporation is acting as a quasi-government agency in several instances…

In the UK, Professor Stephen Ball, from the Institute of Education has commented: “[Pearson] want to offer products and services in all areas of school practice: assessment, pedagogy, curriculum and management, and they want to create the possibility for that through policy work. They want to have indirect influence in policy to create opportunities for business expansion. It’s a very well thought-out business strategy. I think we should be thinking about it, because a lot of it is going unnoticed.”

We could mention Aurora – a company that sold (yes that’s right, sold) its primary school curriculum to academies it owned in East Sussex. The curriculum it sold was developed for the US and replaced the National Curriculum. Appropriate?

Or we could mention IES Breckland in Suffolk – England’s first for profit school run by a Swedish company that admitted, last year, that its standards weren’t very good – but we think we’ve made the point!

Education and Democracy

For those interested in profit, there’s usually little point in making a profit if the profit accrues to the local community. So there’s little incentive for those interested in profit making a school accountable to its local community.

For this reason, increasing privatisation has been accompanied with the undermining of democratic decision making and accountability. This undermining is often obscured by using plenty of references to ‘freedom’. We’re told that these ‘freedoms’ allow parents to take control of their schools.

But when a small clique of governors and the head at Hove Park School wanted to convert the school to an academy, they didn’t offer parents and staff the freedom to make a decision. They didn’t even want a public ballot or to fill three vacant parent governor places before the decision was made.

The ‘freedoms’ claimed by those who apologise or promote academies are never the freedoms for parents and teachers to decide if tests are appropriate for pre-school children, or the freedoms for teachers or students to decide if a school or university service should be privatised.

The ‘freedoms’ are there, though, for a few to decide on the organisation of education for the majority and for a minority to claim ownership of public assets with the hope of making a profit.

Nor are the reforms that encourage and allow privatisation about ‘standards’. Even the Chief Inspector of Schools, Michael Wilshaw, now admits that struggling schools are no better off as academies – echoing research carried out by the Local Schools Network that shows that there are good academies and poor academies, but that conversion doesn’t make an awful lot of difference. In fact, if a primary school performs poorly it’s better for that school to remain a local authority school than to convert to an academy.

As the claims and excuses turn out to be mirages the real reasons for the policy become clearer. Shortly before the 2010 election, Professor Stephen Ball said “Academies are one of a number of small steps … leading to the dissolution of the state system, … education will no longer be organised and delivered by the local authority, but by private providers”


The steps described by Stephen Ball are part of a wider and international strategy that has been described as the Global Education Reform Movement (GERM). One of the international educationalists to have done much work on analysing and understanding what’s going on with GERM is the Finnish educationalist Pasi Sahlberg.

He identifies five globally common features of education reform policies:

  • The standardization of education based on the (increasingly erroneous) belief that setting high performance standards for schools, teachers, and students improves quality.
  • A focus on core subjects, in other words, literacy and numeracy.
  • The adoption of policies emphasizing achievement of predetermined standards and prioritized core subjects – all leading to a narrower education.
  • A move to test-based accountability policies where school performance is closely tied to processes of inspecting, and, ultimately, rewarding or punishing schools and teachers.
  • The use of corporate management models as a main driver of improvement. Educational policies and ideas are taken from the business world and motivated by economic profit through privatisation, rather than the moral goals of human development.

Pasi Sahlberg has found that, far from helping education systems to improve, GERM limits the role of national policy development and the enhancement of an education system. It paralyzes teachers’ and schools’ attempts to learn from the past and from each other.

Defending Education

So what do we do? We can and should take on the Pearsons, Kaplans and the AETs nationally or internationally but we might also want to start at the grass roots and build up our campaign.

The Hands Off Hove Park School anti academy campaign was successful because it relentlessly exposed the hollowness and dishonesties of the academy proposals. It demanded democracy and wasn’t afraid to take action. This campaign was not alone. In Lewisham a vibrant campaign has held off the first attempt to convert a school to an academy against the wishes of parents and staff. And in Surrey a campaign is growing over the attempt to wrest Oxted School from the local authority and begin the process of turning it into an academy.

Later this year, SE Region TUC and the Anti Academies Alliance will hold a conference on how to resist the privatisation of education with speakers from Sweden’s education system, national trade unions, parents, university academics and education journalists.

Last year teachers at an Islington free school took strike action over ‘zero hour’ job terms and the right to belong to a trade union. They won. For more than six months, a dispute has raged at Lambeth College where lecturers have been forced to take action to defend their contracts. It now looks as if they have won. And at City College, in Brighton, last year staff were forced to take action to defend jobs and courses. In recent days we’ve even learnt that the University of Sussex has been forced to apologise to those students who took action against privatisation.

And then there’s the May 2015 general election.

Reclaiming education from 30 years of Global Education Reform will not be easy. We’ll need to challenge those who canvas for our vote to offer a clear alternative to the GERM policies of privatisations, outsourcing, private finance initiatives, academies and free schools. The NUT has produced its own Manifesto for Education because neither of the parties likely to form a government seems willing to break entirely with current policy. Yet it’s doubtful that simply relying on the outcome of the election will be enough.

We are going to need to continue to build alliances between children, students and their parents and all those working in education and their unions. We need to unite successful campaigns against academies with students and staff who will resist the privatisation of higher education.

What unites all these groups is a desire to see education as a public good, publicly funded and free at the point of delivery, rather than as business opportunity for the making of profit.


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