Saturday 28 April 2012

Schools for profit: the future

I guess we're all interested in looking at new ideas in education. After all, the world changes, new forms of living take shape, new problems arise, technology changes and so on. Education should, in theory, be part of that change. I often reflect on the fact that my ways of working have evolved with the technology. This blog is an example of that.

Technology, though, is not some kind of neutral, value-free 'good'. It is sold to us by massive multinational corporations locked into competitive battles with each other (see Nintendo vs X-box, Pixar vs Dreamworks, PC vs Apple) and any percentage point of competitive advantage is gold dust. This advantage can be won in the usual traditional ways: automating (always a high cost) and paying employees less. But the other invisible way, is to engage the agencies of a state in some way to secure you contracts. We've seen this in stark form with the Murdoch BSkyB episode. This is a classic case of a major capitalist not content with presenting dossiers and portfolios to some kind of arbiter to decide, it's clear that Murdoch tried personal shmoozing to win the big prize. As Polly Toynbee has eloquently shown, the prize was much bigger than Murdoch securing the total ownership of BSkyB. He was after creating a hyper-cheap media bundle of TV, newspapers and online news and chat which would have eliminated the competition. 'Press freedom' would have been a phrase meaning the 'Murdoch freedom'. And he has himself explained how his newspapers express what he thinks. He chooses the editorial line, the position on wars, trade unions, deficit reduction, and which political party should be voted for. In the world of ideas (which after all, is at the heart of media output), this would have meant that the capitalist logic of 'bigger means lower unit costs' would have won for Murdoch the right to portray the world as he sees it to the majority of the population of the UK. My point, however, is that this position needed the state. He needed the agency of the government (Jeremy Hunt) to give him this leg-up.

Education has been at the heart of any country's policy. It is almost synonymous with 'the state'. It's what the state does. Up until recently, there has been a general consensus that the only way a whole population (not just some of it) can become literate, numerate, able to access what contemporary society needs us to know, and sufficiently 'skilled' in what employers (capitalists) say they want from us, is for the state to arrange this either directly or through local government.

(Pause for a moment to point out that education has always been a battleground over this very matter with people from all sides contesting this model of hand-and-glove ie of schools simply serving the needs of 'business' or simply delivering the minimum. Elements on both the left and the right have insisted that there are other humanistic features that education could and should offer (eg 'the arts' ), that it's important to offer students 'critical literacy' ie the means to critique what is offered and that it's important for students to learn how to learn ie that it's not simply a matter of 'what' they have learned but whether they can act on 'stuff' (knowledge, processes, skills) be curious about it and learn what they need or want to learn)

Of course, with differential incomes and wealth, it's possible to make education a paid service but to 'deliver' all that personal contact, expensive materials, buildings to house it all in, it doesn't get cheap enough for it to be financially viable. It can only work if you charge serious amounts of dosh, which can only be paid by the seriously well-off, which of course serves this elite well by 'reproducing' the elite. The elite pay for elite schools which produce the country's elite.

But now, what is emerging is a way for capitalists who have worked for years on the edge of education to take it over. So, for as long as there have been state exams and text books in order to pass exams, then major 'educational publishers' have of course competed to produce the exam papers, text books, learning guides that enable you to pass the exams. The competition to sell text books and course books into schools has been as 'fair' as any market is fair but it's always been predicated on this cosy relationship between the state and the exam-publishers with long-lasting contracts being the big prize.

Yet, this isn't enough. Competition is all, we must remember. So what's the next step? Clearly, what would be terrific for the education capitalist is to find a way to make schools profitable...but charging poor people to go to school is no good because poor people haven't got enough disposable income. But the state has. Aha. So what needs to be engineered here, then, is a situation in which the state buys the services of a 'provider' to not only run the school on the basis of being 'experts' or 'experienced providers' but as sellers of materials, technology, commodities. In other words, the state gives the school money, the school buys both the curriculum AND the materials, the hardware, the software, the books from the 'provider' (the capitalist).

This seems to be the Gove vision. Pilot schemes are being run already. Take a look here:

(I wasn't able to see anything on this site about costings. I couldn't see anything anywhere that explained how Pearson was going to pay its way. Presumably, you only get to that if  you click for more information. Funny, how money is like the relative you're ashamed of, so you keep him locked in the attic.)

Now I'm not going to dismiss what Pearson is offering here. The idea of schools having a version of what universities have had for a while - an internal internet or 'intranet' - is great. For my MA students I select chapters of relevant books, these are cleared by copyright arrangements in the library and go up online for the term. A few moments on the web and you'll see universities all over the world providing bibliographies, course outlines etc for their students. It's part of what your fees pay for. Of course schools should have this sort of thing. I visit primary schools where the school website is growing into a place where the children's work can be 'displayed' and more and more schools are looking at blogging as a way for children to write about things that they want to write about. One of my students has done a term's 'action research' on it working with a lunchtime group.

But who decides this curriculum? In the case of the MA I've been teaching, this was worked out by a group of us with reference to other similar courses in the UK, Australia, Canada and the US. Its methods were monitored by various agencies within the university mostly acting on behalf of the students and ensuring that what we offered was in line with what other courses offered. In the case of school curricula, as we know, the state sometimes takes on a huge interfering role (New Labour was an extreme form of that) and at other times expresses what 'it' wants in terms of principles often spelled out through major 'Reports' (Plowden, Bullock, Rose etc). These are then controlled (or 'enforced' if you prefer)through exam and inspection systems.

Whatever criticisms I might have of how this has been enacted in the past, I can't deny that it's a product of the electoral system. We elect a government which chooses its education mandarins who then run this system of schools, exams, inspections, reports and so on. Sometimes in my lifetime, a general election really did offer a choice between different visions of what kind of school system we wanted.

What seems to be on the agenda now, though, is for multinational corporations to receive guaranteed income from the state in return for providing technology AND curriculum. Under the heading of 'innovation' (which of course capitalism does, it does 'innovate' in order to survive), they will be able to make schools for poor people pay.

I think at this moment, we need to take in a big breath, and go back to my bracketed paragraph above, which I began with 'Pause for a moment...' This is about what education is for and the contested vision. Now of course it's very easy to lapse into generalised tosh about all this with high-minded phraseology and well-intended homilies. I will admit to doing quite a lot of it myself. So I'll proceed with caution. No matter how directed education has become, how much box-ticking (by teachers and pupils), no matter how much education has been a matter of right and wrong answers, every day I hear teachers talking about children involved with education at the level of ideas and their personal development. I see projects in schools which are not driven by the immediate need of these right and wrong answers but by 'bigger stuff'. I've seen primary school children running a school radio, putting on plays, producing books, writing blogs, putting on a jazz opera, doing a project on local history and culture by interviewing local people and then presenting it in assembly etc etc. My own students have devised projects with their students and monitored how these have progressed over a term. All this has emerged from teachers' own practice and theory.

So how does the Pearson-Gove model work? If you're a school that buys in the total package, how much control will teachers have over what's taught and how? How much chance will there be for schools to be about the free circulation of ideas, and the exploration of what are not pre-determined outcomes? Can a capitalist model for education allow for that kind of freedom, those kinds of rights? Or are they just 'learning packages' bought by the state to feed the multinational maw? How soon in the process will the more humanistic objectives about learning which are in the publicity material be dropped or sidelined and we'll be having 'discipline packages' and 'behaviour management packages' and 'minimal learning packages' which enforce the stratification and segregation of children?

Whatever it is, whatever they are, this is the next phase in the debate about education.