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International solidarity is key to winning the fight against privatisation

Gawain Little talks to ANGELO GAVRIELATOS of Education International about the importance of a quality free universally accessible public education for all

TODAY, the African Regional Council of Education International held a meeting in Addis Ababa, in parallel with the meeting of African Union Heads of State in the same city. 

At this meeting, Education International (EI) will release a statement drafted by the African Regional Council, condemning education privatisation across Africa and calling on African governments to invest in quality public education for all.

EI represents around 32 million educators worldwide and its African Regional Council is made up of the elected representatives of over three million teachers and education workers across 49 different countries. 

Angelo Gavrielatos, who heads up EI’s global response to privatisation and commercialisation, tells me the timing of the meeting is intentional.

“We are meeting alongside the African Union heads of state deliberately in order to communicate directly to the heads of state a message on behalf of teachers and on behalf of children. The message is very simple: reject privatisation!

“The future of Africa, as is the case for every country in every continent, lies in quality free universally accessible public education for all. The answer does not lie in the privatisation of education which regrettably is spreading rapidly across the continent. 

“We are seeing corporate actors, supported by intergovernmental and government agencies such as the World Bank and the UK’s Department for International Development, carrying out the privatisation of education across Africa.”

Gavrielatos draws attention to the impact of this drive to privatisation on the quality of education across the continent. 

“What we are seeing, as part of the rush to privatise education, is foreign vultures moving in, setting up for-profit chains of schools. 

“The most insidious actor is Bridge International Academies (BIA). Their business model is underpinned by the employment of unqualified staff, paid a fraction of a teacher’s salary, delivering a scripted curriculum developed in the US and not approved in the countries in which Bridge operates, in facilities which the minister in Uganda described as putting the health and safety of students at risk. 

“You cannot talk about quality education with unqualified teachers. A precondition for quality education for all is a qualified teacher in every single classroom. These outfits, driven by the profit motive, are intent on undermining that right.”

This is backed up by research into the impact of for-profit schooling. A recent report by the British Institute for Public Policy Research points out that the quality of for-profit schools in Chile (privatised under the Pinochet dictatorship) tends to be lower than their not-for-profit counterparts. 

Researchers drew the conclusion that this was because they employ unqualified staff on lower salaries in order to increase profits. Gavrielatos is unequivocal on this point. 

“The evidence is in. Even the World Bank and the OECD [Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development] in their reports cite that privatisation deepens inequality, deepens segregation and does not contribute to the improvement of educational outcomes. 

“Yet, with what can only be described as organised hypocrisy, they ignore their own evidence and pursue these policies.”

The statement from African teachers’ leaders also makes the point that these for-profit schools are run with “little connection to the culture or rights” of the people in the countries where they operate. 

As Gavrielatos says, “Africa’s resources have been plundered for centuries and now its most valuable resource — its children — are being exploited.

“We are talking about an approach and a curriculum where there is little or no respect for cultural and linguistic diversity. This is neolcolonialism. We are talking about an operator [BIA] that wilfully set out to operate schools illegally. 

“In an official judgement, the High Court of Uganda said that Bridge set out to operate schools illegally in Uganda. 

“Bridge has similarly been found to be operating illegally in Kenya. So there is no regard for the national laws of sovereign states.”

Gavrielatos and EI are clear that this is not an issue exclusively for Africa and the developing world. Africa, India and other developing countries are, he argues, seen as “laboratories” to test out these products before “upscaling” to the global North. 

“For these global vultures, Africa is the global laboratory to test the product, to create the platforms and then export or transplant these products across the world. England, for example, is already a target. It was announced only a couple of years ago that a Bridge-style school was planned for England.”

He refers to the work of James Tooley, an advocate of introducing for-profit schools to Britain. Tooley is behind the Omega chain of for-profit schools, which operate on the same business model as Bridge.

“Unqualified staff paid a fraction of a teacher’s salary, a scripted curriculum, poor facilities, and indeed in the Omega schools it is ‘pay as you learn’; students have to pay by the day.”

This means that international solidarity is key to winning the fight against privatisation. Gavrielatos is clear about the ongoing role in this played by British unions. 

“The teachers’ unions in the UK have been active in the course of recent years in extending solidarity to the efforts of our colleagues in Africa and elsewhere in confronting privatisation. They are very much part of EI’s global response to the growing privatisation and commercialisation of education.”

He refers to the action taken in support of teachers in Nigeria, Kenya and Liberia when they launched their campaigns against privatisation and the unequivocal condemnation by NEU joint general secretary Kevin Courtney of the misuse of DfID funding: “Aid money intended for the wellbeing of children in Nigeria was lining the pockets of the profiteers.”

But the crucial thing, as Gavrielatos points out, is the stand being made by educators in Africa. 

“The elected leaders of African educators are coming together to make very clear that privatisation must be rejected and that governments, if they are genuinely committed to seeing a more productive and prosperous Africa, must invest in quality public education for all. 

“Governments must fulfil their obligations as guarantors and as providers of quality public education for all.”

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