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complement and supplement basic education facilities often in a context where bureaucratic or central support is being withdrawn.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