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Teachers vs the Germ

A new book looks at how teachers are responding to the marketisation of schools. Its editor GAWAIN LITTLE talks to Ben Chacko about the Global Education Reform Movement

NEOLIBERALS see everything as business. Health, transport and education are not public services that exist to meet social needs, but opportunities for profit, increasingly on a global scale.

In the field of education, one name stands out above the rest: the Pearson corporation. It is a company “positioning itself to develop a near-monopoly of the digital in education,” in the words of Larry Kuehn, director of research at the British Columbian Teachers Federation.

It has contracts with the OECD to run the Pisa (Programme for International Student Assessment) exams. It creates tests and marks them and uses the results to recommend education reforms to governments.

Teachers can’t look at the data it gathers: “It wants to be able to reuse the tests in other ‘markets,’ so it wants full control over all the data.

“This data is no longer owned by the student or the teacher, or even the school board that pays Pearson to give the tests.

“It all becomes part of a rapidly growing set of data that Pearson can use to develop products to sell back to the people who create the data — and whose lives and identities are reflected in it.”

It’s all about ownership and control of information.

So the decision this week by the National Union of Teachers, which published a little book released earlier this year entitled Global Education “Reform” — Building Resistance and Solidarity, to put the whole thing online for free has an ironic twist. It undermines everything Pearson — and the other corporations milking the global education “market” — stand for.

Pearson’s at the heart of what’s become known as the Global Education Reform Movement (less affectionately, Germ). But what is Germ?

“The term was coined by Finnish educationalist Pasi Sahlberg,” says Gawain Little, who edited the book — a compilation of essays from around the world on education reform and responses to it. They include the article by Kuehn quoted above.

“It refers to the international drive in education policy towards competition, choice, standardisation, privatisation, test-based accountability and performance-related rewards.

“Essentially it is the manifestation of neoliberalism in education. It asserts that only a competitive, market approach, with the attendant standardisation and testing regime, can improve education systems.

“In reality it does the opposite — reducing education to a narrow economic process of producing ‘human capital,’ in the words of the Department for Education.”

Little — the NUT’s Oxfordshire secretary — says that the Germ operates in a number of ways. It pursues fragmentation and privatisation of universal state education where that exists, and it introduces so-called low-cost, for-profit schools elsewhere.

In Ethiopia it even led to the effective replacement of teachers by unresponsive plasma screens that doled out model lessons according to a national time plan — predictably, to equally unresponsive and often sleeping students.

But Germ’s fundamental character remains the same.

“Testing is an essential part of the formula, operating as a necessary precondition of informing consumer choice and driving accountability regimes based on performance-related rewards and sanctions for both schools and teachers.

“In the process it narrows the curriculum and focuses both teachers and students towards testing and teaching to the test.

“As a recent report by Professor Merryn Hutchings of London Metropolitan University notes, ‘pupils of all ages are increasingly being required to learn things for which they are not ready, and this leads to shallow learning from the test rather than in-depth understanding’.”

And has Britain caught the Germ?

“Our government is involved in two key ways,” Little contends.

“First, the education system in England and Wales has been progressively restructured to conform to market ideals since 1988.

“Successive governments of all political hues have operated within the bounds of this dominant ideology to increase competition, standardisation, test-based accountability and, with the introduction of academies and ‘free’ schools, privatisation.

“This experience has had a significant influence on other education systems, for example in Australia, where the worst market reforms are repeated with the same results.

“Second, as the key report released this week by the Global Campaign for Education and others shows, overseas aid money is used to force the introduction of private schools and the dismantling of state education systems internationally.”

But there is resistance — most obviously from trade unions, and many of those responses worldwide are covered in the book.

“What was fascinating about editing the book — which has contributions from five continents — was the commonality in union responses.

“Broadly speaking, unions have used a combination of three tactical approaches to respond.

“First they have changed the way they work internally, renewing and developing their democratic structures, increasing the role of workplace representatives and engaging wider layers of membership.

“In some cases such as that of the Chicago Teachers Union, described by their director of research in the book, this has been quite dramatic.

“Second, unions resisting the Germ have sought to build broader alliances with parents, students and others.

“This has necessitated the development of a shared vision of education and the breaking down of barriers which unions have, in the past, been complicit in reinforcing.

“Again, this has taken many forms, from the development of alternative education and the reclaiming of the curriculum by teachers and students in Mexico to the Stand Up For Education campaign of the NUT in England and Wales.

“Third, unions have begun to look to each other’s experiences in fighting the Germ.

“The book was very much part of that — an opportunity for teachers to share their experiences and learn from each other, not just at national level but for local activists too.

“As the book was being published, Education International was launching its first aggressive campaign against privatisation, targeting the massive ‘edubusinesses’ that profit from the disruption and destruction of children’s education.

“We were very pleased that Angelo Gavrielatos, the director of this campaign, was able to contribute a preface to the book, outlining the key issues faced by the international movement.”

Academies, free schools, constant inspections and ever more exams are always presented by their government fans and media cheerleaders as modernisation, and their opponents are painted as stick-in-the-mud reactionaries protecting vested interests and not what’s best for the children.

What alternative should socialists actually be fighting for?

“I think it’s crucial that teacher unions are forward-looking,” Little says. “We can’t hark back to some golden age because the reality is it never existed.

“The real alternative to Germ is for teachers, parents, students and communities to work together to develop an alternative vision of education, built on a broad and balanced curriculum which prepares all students to be critical thinkers and active participants in society.

“A comprehensive system that seeks to develop the talents of all children and young people, without labelling them and putting a ceiling on their aspirations.

“A system based on professional trust and respect, where teachers work in partnership with parents instead of being ‘accountable’ to organisations like Ofsted.

“Of course, we will only ever reach this goal if we are willing to change the way we work.

“The broad approach, which we refer to in the book as ‘an emerging social movement unionism,’ needs to be embraced by teacher unions.

“We need to remove the barriers we have put in our own way, such as the division of teachers in England and Wales between six different unions, and develop a united movement which organises within workplaces and communities for the vision of education our children deserve.”

Global Education ‘Reform’ — Building Resistance and Solidarity is available for £7.99 + £2 P&P from Manifesto Press and will shortly be available as a free download at and Teacher Solidarity


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