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new internationalist
issue 315 - August 1999


The great education scandal

Around 375 million children still out of school,
teachers under siege, corporations in the classroom...
Chris Brazier begins his four-part report on education by asking:
who is selling the world’s children down the river?

The child looks inquiringly up from her work, eyes bright, wide open to the message of the teacher. The image is a classic one that never fails to appeal. Send a photographer to capture the everyday life of a community in any part of the world and they will unerringly home in on a schoolroom and, whether it is stocked to the nines with computers or has no facilities at all, will take photos of children learning. They do this because they know there is a market for such images – we have an apparently insatiable thirst for these snapshots of hope and human improvement.

At the end of a century, let alone a millennium, the demand for such images is all the greater, since children inevitably become a touchstone for our hope that the future will not contain as many mistakes and wrong turnings as the past. So it is no surprise that in this last decade of the century, the political profile of education issues has steadily climbed.

When British Prime Minister Tony Blair was campaigning for election in 1997, he said famously that he had three top priorities: ‘Education, Education and Education’. Brazilian President Fernando Enrique Cardoso’s spindoctors are clearly in the same class as Blair’s: when he took office in January 1995, one of his first acts was to demonstrate that education was his top priority by teaching the first class of the year at the Jose Barbosa School in Bahia state. Meanwhile no Bill Clinton State of the Union address would be complete without a section on ‘raising standards’ in education.

They are by no means alone in their rhetorical fervour. Back in 1990 the world’s governments met at Jomtien in Thailand and, urged on by three UN agencies and the World Bank, committed themselves to the goal of ‘Education for All’ by the year 2000.

Yet here we are, a few months from the twenty-first century, with 125 million of the world’s children still deprived of any schooling, another 150 million who drop out of school without learning to read and write and the absolute number of illiterate adults still growing. All over the world, teachers’ morale is low: they are overworked, under siege and, in many areas, leaving the profession in droves. For all the high-profile political pronouncements, public funds are steadily being drained from education. The state is – slowly but surely in some quarters, with rampant enthusiasm for privatization in others – withdrawing from the field.

What the hell is going on? How can there be such dissonance between what we claim to aspire to and what is actually delivered? Put more challengingly: Who Is Selling the World’s Children Down the River?

Hijacked by education
This issue of the NI is an attempt to find out. Until recently I had no special interest in education; it was always one of those subjects that I cared about in the abstract, but the details and controversies of which rather passed me by. My knowledge of schools was based almost entirely on my own experience as a pupil in the 1960s and 1970s.

Predictably enough, I began to take more interest when a child of my own started school some five years ago – actually in a multicultural school in inner-city Toronto. When we returned to England, my partner launched into a career change that was to result in her teaching in a high school with a particularly difficult catchment area, full of ‘classic’ problems of poverty and social alienation. Meanwhile my children went to the local school, SS Mary and John in East Oxford. Eventually, hoping to do what I could to help and improve it, I joined its governing body – in England, as in ever-increasing numbers of countries, the responsibility for overseeing schools has been largely devolved to such bodies of volunteers. This turned out to be more of a commitment than I had bargained for – I am now chair of governors, a post which, as you might imagine, people do not exactly clamour to take on.

Then, last year, I was commissioned by UNICEF to research and write a report on education worldwide. By the end of the contract I knew more than I will probably ever wish to know again about, say, how a project in Alice Springs which teaches Aboriginal children in their own language, Arrernte, has inspired teachers working with ethnic minorities in the hills of Vietnam.

In other words, my whole life suddenly seems to have been hijacked by education. This issue of the NI tries to take advantage of that by using my experience helping to run an inner-city multicultural school in the rich world – while at the same time harnessing the detailed knowledge of education in developing countries that I picked up while working for UNICEF. These two worlds actually fit together in many different places. I was fascinated, while researching the UNICEF report, to discover that many of the educational issues that we are wrestling with at grassroots level in Britain, far from being the result of one government’s idiocy or intransigence, are actually the local playing-out of international trends.

Take the very practice of ‘local management of schools’ which has left me, a volunteer with no expertise or relevant experience, with the overall responsibility for managing the finances and hiring or firing staff at my children’s school. Britain was one of the first countries to start off down this road, driven by the reforming zeal of Margaret Thatcher, whose desire for greater national control of the curriculum and whose belief in ‘parent power’ led her to attack local education authorities from both sides.

Decentralization is now a worldwide phenomenon, with countries simply at different points down the same long-term road. Some are only just beginning: the Philippines, for example, has long had a highly centralized system in which schools had no control over the appointment of teachers, and is only now experimenting with loosening the reins. Others, like the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais, are in the vanguard, devolving more and more power from the centre to local school boards.

Save bucks and pass the buck
But is this a good thing? Decentralization is one of those concepts which can mean all things to all people. Viewed from the Left it could be seen as taking power away from the mighty – or alternatively as privatization by the back door. Those on the Right might praise it as allowing more parental choice and less power for generally liberal education specialists – or they might oppose it as a threat to national standards and culture.

My own initial presumption was that it was unlikely to be for the best: it was, after all, introduced in Britain by a right-wing government whose initiatives had generally to be treated with suspicion by anyone with social justice and human development at heart. And certainly part of me still considers that placing the responsibility for running schools on the shoulders of volunteers is unreasonable: there have been times, most notably when the school was between headteachers and I was responsible for recruiting a new one, when my main job seemed to be at the school rather than at the New Internationalist. At such times I am likely to conclude that ‘local management of schools’ is all about the State getting the necessary management work done by volunteers instead of by experts for whose skills it would have to pay a decent whack.

Yet the evidence is by no means all on one side. Take an extreme example to make the point. In Venezuela until recently a teacher in a rural primary school, who wished to attend the funeral of a relative, would have to ask permission not of her headteacher or local school board but of the national Ministry of Education, far away in the capital, Caracas. Her plea was dealt with by bureaucrats who had never met her, never seen her school and had no idea what provision might be made to cover her absence.

Clearly this high degree of centralization is absurd: schools have to be able to function with a degree of autonomy and flexibility which allows them to understand and respond to the children they cater for, the teachers who work for them and the communities they serve. The power to make key decisions has to be passed sufficiently far down the system to make this possible. The UNICEF report I worked on concluded in the end: ‘decentralization becomes most dynamic when control of schools is redistributed, concentrating power not entirely in the hands of headteachers but involving the community in management through creation of a governing body with membership drawn from parents, teachers and the wider community’. In other words, pretty much the model that operates at my local school.

Successful examples of decentralized schooling are appearing all over the world. In El Salvador, for instance, giving rural communities control over their schools has not only brought education to tens of thousands of children who were previously denied it but has also improved teaching and results.1 Meanwhile, in Southeast Asia, school clusters which share resources, materials and ideas have been a runaway success. In Cambodia, 20 of these were introduced as an experiment in 1993 and have proved so popular that the system has since been expanded to include 631 clusters nationwide. Knowing that cluster schools tend to have better teachers and equipment as well as newer buildings, parents are moving from their home villages into cluster catchment areas, voting with their feet in a fascinating parallel with those well-off parents in the cities of the rich world who decamp to suburban or rural schools.

Handpumps and homes

This map was created by a team from a village in Rajasthan in India. Part of the Lok Jumbish (‘people’s movement’) project, the point of such mapping is to show where girls and boys are not attending school – and to involve the local community in thinking about why. Their ideas are infinitely more likely to be accurate than those of an education official far away in the city.*

Village map.

[image, unknown] Village boundary
Primary school
Dwelling places[image, unknown]
Handpump[image, unknown]
Place of worship[image, unknown]
Boys attending school[image, unknown]
Boys not attending school [image, unknown]
Girls attending school [image, unknown]
Girls not attending school [image, unknown]

*Lok Jumbish 1992-1995, quoted in UNICEF, The State of the World’s Children 1999.

I guess it is true that vesting power over a school in a group of parents, teachers and interested locals gives a community more chance of contact and control. Even at my brow-furrowed grumpiest I am presumably still easier for a parent to approach about a problem than would have been an unknown education officer somewhere deep in the recesses of the town hall. I can act as a conduit for feedback or encourage the headteacher in a particular direction.

A school should be at the hub of its local community, capable of responding to its needs. And in agricultural communities in the South, these needs may well require a school’s timetable to be flexible enough to allow children to participate in the harvest.

The advantages of giving local communities more influence over schools seem clear, then. But for all that, the whole notion of decentralization remains problematic – and for reasons that relate directly to my original suspicion of it in the British context as a Thatcherite project. The international studies that endorse the value of community management of education are just as clear that it can only really work well if it is funded properly. At its best, decentralization is likely to require more careful planning, more expensive training, more extensive data collection – even more staff and resources. It should be undertaken not as the cheap option but as the best.2

And in a climate of rampant globalization, that is all too rarely the case – especially when so many governments are being forced under the terms of new loans from the IMF to privatize ever more of their functions. Decentralization is being seen by finance ministries all over the world as an opportunity both to save bucks and to pass the buck.

I have seen this process of creeping privatization happening before my very eyes at my local school. Every year since I became a governor setting the budget has been a painful process. I am still waiting for the day when we can say ‘We have this sum of money; how can we use it to improve things?’ Instead every year there is the same agony of budget cuts – and the change from Conservative to New Labour governments at national level has made not a jot of difference. In 1993-94 we had the equivalent of 11 full-time teachers. Now, having just had to cut yet another teaching post, we are down to eight, with the inevitable effect that has on class sizes. Whereas five years ago parents were asked to raise money for special events – cultural outings, visits by theatre groups – now they are asked to buy books and computers. If current trends continue, it is inevitable that parents are going to be asked to make a regular monthly contribution to keeping the school going. A recent survey by the Sunday Times newspaper showed that seven in ten of British schools contacted were raising money from parents in this way, often directly funding teachers’ or classroom assistants’ pay directly.

It is a small step from this to class apartheid. It doesn’t take an expert to recognize that a school in a middle-class area will have more resources to call on than one on a deprived housing estate, whether it is in Auckland or in Rio de Janeiro. Schools in comfortable suburban settings will sail blithely into the sunshine while those in the inner cities will sink even deeper into the hole.

Of course, for some people this is not a horrifying prospect: it is their whole life’s work, a paradise of ‘free parental choice’. All over the rich world, breeding fast in the febrile climate of globalization and free-market faith, advocates of privatized education are crawling out of the woodwork. In Sydney, for example, the Australian Council of Educational Research conference was told last year that public and private schools should be merged into a single system with most parents forced to pay fees. As you might expect, though, the greatest enthusiasm comes from the United States.

In 1993 the last New Internationalist issue on education carried a fascinating article by the eminent US educationist Jonathan Kozol about the threat to public education being posed by corporations such as Burger King taking over schools. He focused on plans to open 200 new profit-making schools by 1996 and to have as many as 1,000 serving two million children by early in the next decade. He argued that a radical reprivatizing of public education was on the way – and that progressive people in and outside education underestimated the power of this corporate lobby at their peril.

Beyond the pale. Brothers Sagi and Obri outside South Africa's financial centre, Johannesburg. Private corporations never solve the educational problems of the poorl

Thankfully Kozol’s nightmare scenario has not yet arrived. The Burger King schools loomed large in the imagination because of the sheer horror of a fast-food company hijacking children’s education for profit. But the greater threat came from two businesses which launched themselves into education in the early 1990s as the outriders of a new apocalyptic free-market model.

Education Alternatives Incorporated (EAI), started by former Xerox salesperson John Golle in 1986, initially ran private schools for profit. But in the early 1990s Golle moved into the public sector, claiming he could run public schools and improve their results while still turning a healthy profit. He told Forbes magazine: ‘There’s so much fat in the schools that even a blind man without his cane could find the way’.3

In 1992 he was given his chance as EAI won a contract to run nine schools in Baltimore for five years – and were given 11-per-cent more money with which to do it than the regular public schools. By 1995 Baltimore had terminated the contract, explaining that not only were EAI students doing worse in reading but the company had falsified data – in one case having to repay the city $338,500 after it had claimed for non-existent students. In Hartford, Connecticut, where EAI contracted to run all 32 schools, the experiment ended in a similar debacle, as the company tried to increase profitability by sacking 300 teachers. The company still exists under the name Tesseract but is currently only running 12 schools.

Even more of a proselytizer for privately run public schools was marketing whizz Chris Whittle of The Edison Project, who announced in 1991 his plans to raise $2.5 billion from private investors to fund a new network of schools run for profit. By 1998 he had still raised no more than $161 million and had opened only 38 schools.4

There is no room for complacency, however. Whittle’s grand design was scuppered by the election of Bill Clinton – the social and political advantages conferred upon Americans by his presidency may be few and far between, but this is one of them. Had George Bush been re-elected a nationwide system of vouchers might well have come into existence – parents would have chosen to spend their child’s voucher either in a private or a public school. Opponents of vouchers may have won that particular day but the right-wing lobby for it is still alarmingly strong in the US – and the idea has advocates all over the industrialized world.

These people preach the gospel of ‘choice’, trying to present a voucher system as an opportunity for all. In reality, the net result would be a diversion of state funds into élitist private schools – and a huge boost to the numbers of middle-class parents opting for private education for their children. Vouchers would fatally undermine the whole basis of public education.

The clearest possible illustration of this comes from the South. Chile introduced education vouchers in 1980 as part of the Pinochet regime’s radical adoption of the economist Milton Friedman’s free-market policies. The country became a laboratory for extreme monetarism and the envy of right-wingers like Reagan and Thatcher. School vouchers were themselves originally Friedman’s idea – he had proposed the scheme unsuccessfully in the US of the mid-1950s. But in Chile his dream came true. Private schools were subsidized by the State and competed against public schools run by local government. All students were given a voucher, though private schools had the right to refuse to accept the vouchers of children who could not afford top-up fees.

There were three main results. First, there was a huge exodus of middle-class children into private schools, so that by 1990 only half the children from the middle-income bracket were going to municipal schools. Second, total spending on education in Chile plummeted even when parental contributions were included: from 5.3 per cent of GNP in 1985 to 3.7 per cent in 1990, as the State started to feel less sense of responsibility for education in general. Third, standards of achievement dropped – especially for students from low-income families.5

Results like these will not be trumpeted by the right-wing advocates of vouchers, who consistently aim to push their agenda by persuading the poor, whose children are likely to be served by the most dilapidated and ill-equipped schools, that such reform could give everyone access to the promised land of private schooling. And the most effective recruiting-sergeant for this cause is not the right-wing campaign itself but the unwillingness of governments the world over to fund public education properly.

The Coca-Cola classroom
In the US, privatization via voucher schemes may be the long-term goal of the Right’s siege of public education. But there is a Trojan Horse at work here too in the shape of the rampant commercialization of ordinary schools. Edison’s Chris Whittle himself came to fame through his pioneering of television advertising in the classroom. His commercials for Snickers, Burger King and other companies are still seen by millions of schoolchildren in the US. In return for a satellite dish and TV sets for each classroom, schools guarantee that 90 per cent of students will watch a 12-minute ad-infested programme every day.

The latest trend is for school districts to conclude exclusive deals with Coca-Cola or Pepsi-Cola, taking money upfront for marketing the firm’s products to children. Up to 1994 such deals were generally only with universities, but that year the first contract was signed with a public school district – with Shaler Area in Pennsylvania. Gradually the idea caught on and the arrangements became more elaborate until in 1998 the number of deals took off into the stratosphere (see The Coke Dude).

School districts, of course, claim they are simply gaining extra income for an underfunded education system. But quite apart from the health implications of promoting such nutritionally worthless drinks (young Americans already drink twice as much soda as milk), the deals often have significant implications for the curriculum. In March 1998, for example, Greenbriar High School in Georgia created an entire day’s curriculum around Coke: chemistry classes measured the sugar content of a can; social-studies teachers lectured on Coke’s markets overseas.

But even in the middle of this depressing saga, there was a glimmer of hope. At the end of the day all the school’s students were dressed in red-and-white Coke T-shirts for a school photo – except that one dissident, Mike Cameron, suddenly pulled off his top to reveal a Pepsi work shirt (he was suspended for his impudence). Shame he opted to plug a rival corporation rather than debunk the whole shameful process, but resistance, it seems, is always possible.

More substantial resistance came from the 126,000 teachers and education workers in Ontario in the fall of 1997, who staged a two-week strike – the biggest political protest in North American history. The strike was a response to the full-scale onslaught of the radical right-wing Harris Government, elected in June 1995 on its promise of a ‘Common Sense Revolution’.

Ultimately the teachers were defeated – and the right-wing blitzkrieg on education has continued apace ever since, implementing many of the most retrograde reforms highlighted in this magazine. Thousands of teachers have left the profession. ‘Those of us who remain,’ says Toronto teacher Thom Corner, ‘continue to be overworked and underappreciated. Constantly vilified by the Government, we have retreated into an angry shell from which we view the Common Sense Revolution’s steady progress towards a market model.’6 To rub salt in the wound, the Harris Government was re-elected in June thanks to a split in the opposition vote.

Yet its education minister was defeated at the polls. Small crumb of comfort this may be, but it is a sign that those two weeks of resistance in which the entire school system of the province was shut down, in which 2.1 million children and their parents were confronted daily with the key issues, still loom large in the public memory. If nothing else, this landmark strike showed that far from being ‘common sense’, the current wave of education reforms are driven by the ideology of the Right and contested by those who know the classroom best. Ontario’s teachers stood up for what they valued about public education. Sooner or later we are all going to have to do the same.

1 EDUCO Learns and Teaches, Ministry of Education of El Salvador.
2 K Bloomer, Decentralizing the education system, Commonwealth Secretariat Program 1991.
3 Quoted in Barbara Miner, ‘For-Profit Firms Fail to Deliver’, in Selling Out Our Schools, Rethinking Schools 1996.
4 Website of the Center for the Analysis of Commercialism in Education, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, June 1999.
5 Martin Carnoy, ‘Lessons of Chile’s Voucher Reform Movement’, in Selling Out Our Schools, Rethinking Schools 1996.
6 Background paper for the NI, June 1999.

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