Bob Lingard

The creeping commercialisation of public schools

The privatisation of public education is attracting a lot of attention around the world but what is happening within public schooling is falling under the radar. Increases in commercialisation in public schooling, both in Australia and internationally, is attracting less scrutiny. Commercialisation is the creation, marketing and sale of education goods and services to schools by private providers.

With commercialisation private providers work with and within public schools to support schooling processes. They don’t take over the delivery and running of schools in the way privatised school models work, such as low-fee for-profit schools and some Charter schools in the US, Academies in the UK or Free Schools in Sweden.

In the commercialised school, public monies intended for public schooling are being used to fund the operation of commercial businesses. However, the scope of commercial activities in schools remains largely invisible to taxpayers, as commercialisation has crept into schools as a seemingly necessary way to deliver education in the 21st century.

On this point it is worth noting that commercialisation has had a long (and relatively uncontroversial) history in schools, beginning with commercially produced textbooks which have been around since the early 20th century. Similarly, schools have tended to involve the private sector for transportation services, food supply and specialised instruction and facilities. However, since the 1990s many educators have become interested, and concerned, about the scale and scope of commercialisation.

The increasing economy of standardisation

In Australia for example, the creation of a national system of schooling (e.g. the Australian curriculum, NAPLAN, a national funding approach) has helped create an economy of scale that is attractive to businesses who now have the opportunity to become major suppliers to school systems in local education markets. Commercial providers can utilise increasing standardisation to offer ready-made ‘solutions’ to the various education ‘problems’ schools are facing in improving student outcomes at scale – meaning they can develop a product and sell it nationally.

These services complement and supplement basic education facilities often in a context where bureaucratic or central support is being withdrawn. These services include the provision of curriculum content, assessment services, data infrastructures, digital learning, remedial instruction, professional development for staff and school administration support.

It’s not all bad

Not all aspects of schooling have become commercialised. A lot of teachers are doing what they have always done and are going about their business without engaging in commercialisation. However, there are particular services that are considered useful, even necessary for teachers to effectively do their jobs.

Our recent research commissioned by the New South Wales Teachers Federation, the largest teachers’ union in Australia, about the extent of commercialisation in Australian public schooling, surveyed AEU members and found that 40% of the participants suggested resources and curriculum materials that supported their development of innovative learning experiences were important. Indeed, 28% of teachers reported they regularly use commercial lesson plans.

Similarly, many participants argued that ICT and technology solutions including things such as attendance and timetabling software, as well as programs that assist in the recording, summarising and reporting of student assessment were absolutely necessary to purchase from the private sector, particularly because teachers, school leaders and even Education Departments do not have the skills or expertise to develop these services and programs themselves.

But commercial providers should not influence decision-making or de-professionalise our teachers

Those responses that argued for some level of commercialisation in public schools tended to offer a caveat for commercial assistance, suggesting commercial providers should not be able to influence school, state or national decisions about curriculum, pedagogy or assessment.

What teachers and school leaders did express concern about was the idea that increasing commercialisation would lead to an intensification of the de-professionalisation of teaching. For example, some respondents referenced their unease with the outsourcing phenomenon in schools, particularly in Health and Physical Education (HPE). This means that rather than employing a specialist HPE teacher, schools contract an external provider to come in and deliver HPE for them. Often this results in sports coaches rather than teachers delivering these lessons. An associated concern with this shift is that these providers are not 4-year, university trained teachers and far from experts in curriculum, pedagogy and assessment. Ultimately, this jeopardises the academic value placed on subjects like HPE.

Transferring of costs to parents

Others expressed concern about how the costs of commercial programs were being transferred to parents. For example, one participant observed that at their school parents are asked to pay for their child’s subscription to online learning programs, and if they were unwilling or unable to pay, their child would not be able to use the program while all other students could.

Given our research is exploratory we do not know how common this practice is, but it is certainly cause for concern in the public education system that has historically been considered free and based on principles of social democratic equality.

‘Free’ public schooling in jeopardy

Interestingly, it was this traditional, social democratic view of public education that many teachers argued was being jeopardised by the increasing commercialisation of schooling. 72% of respondents had significant concern that schools were being run like businesses and 68% were significantly concerned about the notion that schools will be increasingly privatised and commercialised, following the path of reform in the US or even in Australia’s own VET education sector. Respondents to the open-ended survey question called on governments and Education Departments to learn from these failed models and implement stricter regulations about the role of commercial providers in schools.

We need to learn more and do more about commercialisation in public schooling

It must be stressed that this survey was intended as an exploratory study. As this is the first research of its kind in Australia, it is important to note that all exploratory studies suffer from limitations, which means that it is not advisable to assume causal conclusions as a result. We are only just beginning to map this phenomenon in Australia and we need further research to understand the affordances of commercialisation, because some commercialisation in schools is inevitable. But we also need to consider at which point commercialisation has detrimental effects on the rationale for public schooling.

It is clear we need a strong and informed system to help regulate commercial activities in public schools and ensure that we are putting student interests before profits.

 

Anna Hogan is a lecturer in the School of Human Movement and Nutrition Sciences at the University of Queensland. Anna has been researching the commercialisation and privatisation of education policy and practice. She is currently working on projects that investigate the commercialisation of Australian public schooling, global for-profit models of schooling, the effects of curriculum outsourcing on teachers’ work and the commercialisation of student health and wellbeing. Anna has recent publications in the Australian Educational Researcher, Journal of Education Policy, Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education, and Critical Studies in Education

‘School funding on a budget’ paper (a justification for dumping Gonski) is nonsense, here’s why

The Centre for Independent Studies is an Australian free market think tank that produced a policy discussion paper School funding on a budget in the lead up to the first Coalition federal budget in April, 2014. The paper was part of the think tank’s campaign to get the Australian Government to reduce spending.

The paper got substantial media coverage in the lead-up to the Abbott/Hockey budget that reduced funding to states and territories by $80 billion. This is significant because the paper provided a justification for the government’s failure to implement Gonski and helped push an agenda for further privatisation of Australian schooling.

As these policies have implications for all Australians I decided to have a closer look at what the paper said, how it was said and the evidence used to justify its stance.

School Funding on a Budget (SFoB)

SFoB is an exemplar of the think tank report genre. It is written in plain language, by author Jennifer Buckingham, and purports to be a research report, with this claim affected through some academic accoutrements (such as tables, footnotes and appendices). It has the user in mind and is readymade for mainstream media. Even the campaign name, TARGET30 (all in upper case) has the feel of an advertising slogan about it. The length of the paper is 27 pages; long enough for policy makers, politicians and journalists to take seriously, but not too long to put them off reading it.

There are eight tables, nine figures, 60 footnotes, and two appendices. In the footnotes, there is cross-referencing to other CIS reports and those of other think tanks, the work of a conservative free choice US Foundation that promotes the use of school vouchers, and to the reports of consultancy firms such as Pricewaterhouse Coopers. These references are granted equivalence with academic research by influential Australian education academics such as Steve Dinham and John Hattie and to analyses by the OECD in PISA reports and in Education at a Glance.

Something of the political framing is indicated in the section of the report outlining why government spending on schools has to be reviewed – because of the supposed need to reduce government expenditure and to enhance ‘productivity’ in schooling. This is an economistic construction of the work of teachers and their achievements.

The argument goes that increased funding does not result in better outcomes for students, therefore funding should be linked to improvements in outcomes. To do this, tight controls should to be in place.

Please go to my full paper (link at the end of this blog) for more detail about my thoughts on all of this.

Here, I want to take serious issue with the argument categorically stated in SFoB that there is no relationship between increased funding and improved student outcomes.

The OECD demonstrates quite unequivocally that schooling systems with the most equitable funding approaches are those that achieved the best PISA outcomes, that is, higher quality and more equitable outcomes. Beyond a threshold level of funding, what matters is the equitable targeting of additional funds. This is the Gonski approach to school funding – targeting those most in need. It is also important to acknowledge that across the time since the first Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) in 2000, the strength of socio-economic correlations with performance in the 34 member countries has grown.

Additionally, across this period there has been a decline in the percentage of resilient students in all OECD countries, that is, students in the bottom socioeconomic quartile who perform in the top two categories (poor students who achieve top results.) For Australia, this figure was 8% in 2003 and 6 % in 2012. This is the period of school reforms supported by the CIS and that the SFoB seeks to strengthen even further. It is also the period of growing inequality, a reality not acknowledged in SFoB.

SFoB speaks of the decline in Australia’s PISA performance. On one reading this is correct. However the performance of different states and territories are added together to depict a crisis. The substantial differences between school systems are hidden. If it is broken down we see a vastly different, but more informative picture: Western Australia and the ACT, for example, perform very well indeed, while Queensland is at the overall average for both quality and equity. It is the very poor comparative performance of the Northern Territory and Tasmania that contributes most to the picture of declining Australian PISA performance.

This evidence about the Northern Territory tells us more about structural poverty in remote Indigenous communities and high levels of youth unemployment in Tasmania, along with a lower level socio-economic community in total. I would stress that the pressing educational policy issue in contemporary Australian schooling is equity. This is silently denied by SFoB.

The report gives Eight ‘Tips’ for reducing government expenditure on schools

Here are the ‘tips’ and my responses. (I see the use of ‘tip’ rather than recommendation is another way this report seeks particular media attention.)

Tip 1 is to ‘revise the federal government funding model’

The Coalition government has been forced to do this, given its rejection of the Gonski model.

Tip 2 is ‘abolish the federal Department of education’

Any remaining programs, it is suggested, could be run through other federal departments or agencies. It is also argued that 90% of federal recurrent and capital funding for schools could be funded and overseen through Treasury. In assessing, and rejecting, this recommendation, we need to think about the Whitlam government’s reasons for federal involvement in schooling. It was to ensure that all young Australians, no matter where they lived, their socio-economic background or which schools they attended, had the same educational opportunities as all others. Back then it was mainly about giving more funding to poor Catholic schools.

This was an equity framing of federal involvement in schooling and it is one still needed. This is why we need a federal department, redistributive funding as articulated by Gonski and targeted federal programs such as the Rudd/Gillard government’s National Partnerships, which were abolished by the Abbott government.

Tip 3 is ‘reduce the cost of state and territory bureaucracy’.

This amounts to reduction of ‘out of school’ costs compared with ‘in school costs’. It is linked to more devolution of education policy and funding directly to schools. Interestingly, in research I have conducted recently with a group of schools in regional Queensland, the major criticism proffered by the principals has been that they are now responsible for everything, without systemic support.

Tip 4 is to remove ‘mandatory class size minimums and eschew further class size reductions’

This is a covert criticism of the teacher unions, who have lobbied hard and long for class size reductions. It is also seen as a straightforward way to rein in expenditure. Here SFoB also links class size reduction to the employment of more teachers, pointing out that in most OECD countries the ‘major commitment of education expenditure is teaching staff’. Interestingly, the evidence on class size relationships with student achievement and other kinds of outcomes is equivocal, and it suggests the biggest impact is in early years and for disadvantaged students. Class size is an equity issue, but not recognised as such by SFoB.

SFoB also argues class size reductions have negatively affected both teacher salaries and teacher quality because of the growth in teacher numbers. The evidence provided in SFoB for rejecting any relationship between class size and student performance is think tank reports, including from the CIS itself and the Grattan Institute.

Tip 5 is ‘Education Bursaries for low-income students to use at non-government schools’

SFoB argues that such bursaries would save money, as there is more government money expended on government schools than on independent schools. SFoB states, ‘Low-income students could be offered an education bursary valued above the average per student expenditure on non-government schools but below the average cost of attending a government school (say $10,000)’. This is choice at the extreme, and destabilising of the democratic and social justice purposes and qualities of government schooling.

TIP 6 is ‘charge high-income families to attend government schools’

The specific charge mentioned is $1000, a small amount, but which would be the ‘thin edge of the wedge,’ so to speak. It is noted that there are half a million ‘students in government schools from families with a household income that might be considered high’. Reflecting the ideological bent of CIS, this call is argued to be equitable because the schools these high earning parents attend received $15,000 per student of government funding, at the same time as some low income families pay for their children to attend non-government schools with less government support. This is a perverted reconstruction of equity.

Tip 7 is ‘reduce the oversupply of teachers by elevating entry standards to teaching degrees’

I have some sympathy for this ‘tip’. We see here the tension between state intervention and market driven approach to university enrolments. This ‘tip’ is represented as a supply and demand question and one of economic efficiency at one level. It is interesting that the recent Review of teacher education commissioned by the previous federal minister rejected such a call for minimum entrance standards to teaching degrees. The Australian Education Union supports a minimum entrance score.

Tip 8 is ‘decentralise teacher employment and make it easier for principals to dismiss ineffective teachers

This is also part of devolution that is supported by CIS. Historically Australian schooling systems have had centralised staffing because of the difficulty of staffing schools in remote communities and in very disadvantaged urban communities. There is also an issue of social justice and equity.

Conclusion

SFoB is about agenda setting and ideas for policy in the context of a down-sized state and fast policy making. It sought to use a political moment to drive an agenda that, in my opinion, would further entrench inequalities in Australian schooling.

The Abbott government appointed Professor Steven Schwartz, currently an academic advisor for the Centre for Independent Studies (CIS), to chair the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority ( ACARA) and Dr Jennifer Buckingham, author of the SFoB paper, to the Board of the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership ( AITSL).

I won’t be alone in wondering if CIS will be as influential with the Turnbull government as it was with the Abbott government.

 

SBS-017Bob Lingard is a Professorial Research Fellow in the School of Education at The University of Queensland, where he researches in the sociology of education. His most recent books include: Globalizing Educational Accountabilities (Routledge, 2016), co-authored with Wayne Martino, Goli Rezai-Rashti and Sam Sellar,  National Testing in Schools (Routledge, 2016) (The first book in the AARE series Local/Global Issues in Education),co-edited with Greg Thompson and Sam Sellar, and The Handbook of Global Education Policy (Wiley, 2016), co-edited with Karen Mundy, Andy Green and Antonio Verger. Bob is a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Social Sciences and Co- Editor of the journal, Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education.  You can follow him on Twitter  @boblingard86

The paper  Think Tanks, “policy experts’ and ‘ideas for’ education policy making in Australia can be found here