Greg Thompson

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complement and supplement basic education facilities often in a context where bureaucratic or central support is being withdrawn.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

A Letter to Mr Pyne

Last week on Radio National, Shadow Education Minister Christopher Pyne gave us a glimpse of the Coalition’s vision for education should the Coalition win government.

He focused on two specific areas, school funding and “teacher quality”, specifically on teaching methods.

He said, “we would immediately instigate a very short term ministerial advisory group to advise me on the best model for teaching in the world, how to bring out more practical teaching methods based on more didactic teaching methods, more traditional methods rather than the child-centred learning that has dominated the system for the last twenty, thirty or forty years…”

But there’s a fundamental problem with this argument. Australia was ranked 2nd in the world based on the 2000 OECD data supposedly using these student-centred methods, yet now that Australia has been passed by some other countries on these international rankings (that we should, of course, treat with caution as measures of quality), these same methods are construed as being to blame. As well, there is evidence that schools and teachers are increasingly being required to focus on data, rather than students, as a result a raft of Federal education reforms.

This does not make sense. A better argument is that there is most likely a correlation between the decline in funding to public schools compared to the OECD average and the ranking of Australia on these international measures.

Our expenditure on public schools is well below the OECD average, and has been declining in relation to that average since 2000, while our expenditure, both by governments and parents on private schooling, is above the OECD average.

An argument that the Gonski Report makes well, is that fairer funding has a key role to play in “achieving an internationally competitive high standard of schooling, where outcomes are not determined by socioeconomic status or the type of school the child attends”.

The politicking that we are seeing around Gonski may see the end of our best chance in decades to improve education outcomes for all Australians.

Of course this is complex, as many commentators have pointed out, improved funding alone does not guarantee improvement in student achievement. We agree that teaching and teachers are very important, and their expertise should be valued as such, their skills further developed and their work better supported by policy and policy-makers.

It is commendable that Mr Pyne intends to take advice on education, but it is concerning that he has already decided what constitutes the “best model for teaching in the world”: a return to “traditional pedagogy” and “didactic teaching methods”, as opposed to the “child-centred learning”.

In this belief, Pyne stands opposed to research that’s been done, in Australia and elsewhere, on pedagogy and learning. For example, the work in the 1970s and 80s of scholars like Lawrence Stenhouse in the United Kingdom and Seymour Papert in the United States.

In Australia, we can look to work in the late 1990s in the Queensland Schools Reform Longitudinal Study, and the 2000s, leading to the development of the NSW Quality Teaching framework.

We can also look to recent work conducted over many years by Geoff Munns, Wayne Sawyer and the the “Fair Go” Team. These are all examples of robust, empirical evidence that is internationally regarded as making an important contribution to teaching and learning in schools.

This research demonstrates that good teaching and learning is about building strong relationships between students and teachers; providing intellectually challenging and genuinely engaging learning; developing learning environments where students feel safe and supported to take risks in their learning; shaping learning that is relevant and meaningful to students; offering opportunities for students to develop independence and good “habits” of learning; and providing personal support for students, based on teachers’ knowledge of them as learners.

It’s not the case that “student centred learning” assumes that direct instruction is always inappropriate. Rather, when teachers approach learning in a student-centred way, they make decisions based on their students’ learning needs. They can choose the most appropriate pedagogies to employ.

Sometimes direct instruction is an appropriate approach, although not in all cases, and usually in small doses. As Stephen Dinham told the Fairfax press earlier this week, our debates in education remain “bedevilled in education by false dichotomies” that may not be evident in classroom settings.

Perhaps part of this bedevilment lies in the notion that it’s appropriate to return to teaching methods based on personal memory and experience, rather than empirical research, valuing teacher’s professional knowledge and thinking deeply about what Australia values and requires for our students, both now and in the future.

It’s true that didactic teaching methods and “traditional pedagogy” once reigned supreme. At the same time in Australia, only three in every ten of us completed secondary schooling. Participation in higher education was hardly what it is today: in 1970, 3% of Australians held a tertiary qualification, as opposed to 25% of us in 2011.

Industrial-age education methods may have worked to prepare students for lives of manual or technical work but we no longer live in the industrial age.

The question is whether we want, as a society, to shape an education system as one that prepares our young people for the knowledge society in which they live and work. Or whether we’re content to hark back to the “good old days” where learning was about transmission and children were best seen but not heard.

With all the evidence of the last 50 years of educational research at our disposal, surely our policy makers can do better than this.

**This view is supported by the following members of the Australian educational research community:

  • Dr Ruth Arber, Senior Lecturer, Deakin University
  • Dr Nado Aveling, Senior Lecturer, Murdoch University
  • Professor Jill Blackmore, Deakin University
  • Ms Julie Bowe, Lecturer, University of Newcastle
  • Professor Marie Brennan, Victoria University
  • Ms Kim Browne, MEd Candidate, Deakin University
  • Ms Joanna Brown, Lecturer, University of Newcastle
  • Ms Penny Brown, Casual Academic
  • Dr Rachel Buchanan, Lecturer, University of Newcastle
  • Dr Jon Callow, Senior Lecturer, University of Sydney
  • Associate Professor Brian Cambourne, University of Wollongong
  • Mr Matthew Campbell, Lecturer, Griffith Institute of Higher Education, Griffith University
  • Dr Amy Chapman, Lecturer, The Australian Catholic University
  • Dr Matthew Clarke, Senior Lecturer, University of New South Wales
  • Dr Sharon Cooper, Lecturer, University of Newcastle
  • Ms Catherine Donnelly, Teacher
  • Dr Debra Donnelly, Lecturer, University of Newcastle
  • Professor Barry Down, Murdoch University
  • Dr Scott Eacott, Senior Lecturer, University of Newcastle
  • Professor Robyn Ewing, University of Sydney
  • Dr Margot Ford, Lecturer, University of Newcastle
  • Professor Jenny Gore, University of Newcastle
  • Ms Chris Glass, Senior Lecturer, Murdoch University
  • Dr Tom Griffiths, Senior Lecturer, University of Newcastle
  • Dr Steven Hodge, Senior Lecturer, University of Ballarat
  • Professor David Hogan, National Institute of Education, Singapore
  • Dr Kathryn Holmes, Senior Lecturer, University of Newcastle
  • Ms Jane Hunter Lecturer, University of Western Sydney
  • Professor Stephen Kemmis, Charles Sturt University
  • Mr Barry Kissane, Senior Lecturer, Murdoch University
  • Dr Elizabeth Labone, Senior Lecturer, The Australian Catholic University
  • Dr Simon Leonard, Lecturer, University of Canberra
  • Professor Bob Lingard, University of Queensland
  • Dr Julianne Lynch, Senior Lecturer, Deakin University
  • Associate Professor Jacqueline Manuel, University of Sydney
  • Dr Kelli McGraw, Lecturer, Queensland University of Technology
  • Dr Andrew Miller, Lecturer, University of Newcastle
  • Dr Wendy Miller, Senior Lecturer, University of Newcastle
  • Mrs Kate Moncreiff, Associate Lecturer, Deakin University
  • Dr Leila Morsy, Senior Lecturer, University of New South Wales
  • Associate Professor Julianne Moss, Deakin University
  • Dr Virginia Nightingale, Honorary Associate Professor, University of Sydney
  • Ms Jenni Parker, Lecturer, Murdoch University
  • Ms Carmel Patterson, Lecturer, The Australian Catholic University
  • Dr Laura Perry, Senior Lecturer, Murdoch University
  • Dr Eva Bendix Petersen, Senior Lecturer, University of Newcastle
  • Mrs Fiona Phillips, Associate Lecturer, Deakin University
  • Ms Shiralee Poed, Lecturer, University of Melbourne
  • Mr Greg Preston, Lecturer, University of Newcastle
  • Professor Jo-anne Reid, Charles Sturt University
  • Professor Alan Reid AM, University of South Australia
  • Assistant Professor Philip Roberts, University of Canberra
  • Dr Sue Roffey, Adjunct Associate Professor, University of Western Sydney
  • Mr David Roy, Lecturer, University of Newcastle
  • Associate Professor Sue Saltmarsh, The Australian Catholic University
  • Dr Heather Sharp, Lecturer, University of Newcastle
  • Associate Professor, Michele Simons, University of South Australia
  • Mr Michael Stuchbery, Teacher
  • Ms Debra Talbot, PhD Candidate, University of Sydney
  • Mr Matthew Thomas, PhD Candidate, University of Melbourne
  • Dr Katarina Tuinamuana, Senior Lecturer, The Australian Catholic University
  • Dr Jan Turbill, Senior Fellow, University of Wollongong
  • Professor Russell Tytler, Deakin University
  • Professor Margaret Vickers, University of Western Sydney
  • Dr Julie White, Senior Lecturer, La Trobe University
  • Dr  Jane Wilkinson, Senior Lecturer, Charles Sturt University
  • Ms Cheryl Williams, Lecturer, University of Newcastle
  • Ms Sally Windsor, Lecturer, University of Melbourne
  • Dr Amanda Woods-McConney, Senior Lecturer, Murdoch University
  • Dr Lew Zipin, Senior Lecturer, Victoria University


Photo Nicole Mockler 178x178Nicole Mockler is a Senior Lecturer in Education at the University of Newcastle. Her research interests include teacher professional learning and identity and the politics of education, and she teaches in the areas of curriculum, pedagogy and professional practice and research methods. Her published work includes Facilitating Practitioner Research: Developing Transformational Partnerships (Routledge, 2012), Rethinking Educational Practice through Reflexive Inquiry (Springer, 2011), Teacher Professional Learning in an Age of Compliance: Mind the Gap (Springer, 2009) and Learning in the Middle Years: More Than a Transition (Cengage, 2007).

156Greg Thompson is a Senior Lecturer at Murdoch University in the School of Education. His major teaching areas are the philosophy and history of education, education policy and secondary English curriculum. In 2011 he was awarded an ARC Discovery Early Career Researcher Award to look at the ways that NAPLAN has impacted on school communities in WA and SA.