Be afraid: the privatisation of public education

We all know the outward signs of privatisation” taxpayer funded charter schools plus the cut that private schooling takes from our public education dollar. But what about the hidden privatisation…

We all know the outward signs of privatisation” taxpayer funded charter schools plus the cut that private schooling takes from our public education dollar.

But what about the hidden privatisation within our education system – the private providers of professional development (PD) and policy advice; the international companies that sell tests and preparation materials for National Standards?

Education is still seen as a public good” at least by most practitioners, parents and the public. But recent education “reforms” have muddied the waters.

While state schools are told there’s no more money for operations grants, hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars are siphoned off for private gain” not only through charter schools, public-private partnerships and increased funding for private schools, but also through rewards to individual educators, “festivals”, and outsourcing of many functions traditionally held by the Ministry of Education.

If experience in the UK and US is any indication, this is just the start of a wholesale sell-off of public education.

Why is it bad?

Increasing commercialisation leads to fragmentation and a focus on profit rather than teaching and learning. It doesn’t give equal opportunity to all children and it’s also a moral question – public money is used for private profit instead of public good.

Education International – the world’s largest federation of education workers – says as a public good and a basic right, education must be publicly managed. It’s the role of the state to provide a universal quality education.

Massey University professor John O’Neill quotes the philosopher John Locke who long ago said letting money-making interests into a social system like education leads to inequality.

Wild and woolly words

Professor John O'Neill

Professor John O’Neill

But the Global Education Reform Movement (GERM) has spread the idea that free universal education isn’t possible any more. O’Neill says that means the state is no longer the default education provider – it’s now partly state funded and part user pays and we have to have private, philanthropic and other sources of funding.

He says the private sector increasingly runs educational services: “Charter schools, private training establishments, getting rid of the bulk funding of teacher support services and contracting it out to anybody and everybody – groups like Cognition and Core.”

Some New Zealand edu-businesses run parts of their operations as “charitable trusts”, but if the UK is any example, this may just mean profits are recast as “administrative costs”.


International publishers like Pearson sell materials tailored to National Standards, and are the preferred supplier to the Ministry of Education for Maori medium publishing. They sell the Pearson mathematics assessment tool for reporting on progress against National Standards.

Cognition Education and Core provide a range of products, having cornered a good part of the PD market. Some academics have joined their ranks, like Russell Bishop, whose award winning Kotahitanga programme has been transformed into Cognition’s “Culture Counts plus”, and John Hattie, whose “Visible Learning plus” programme run by Cognition uses the Ministry of Education’s e-asTTle assessment tool.

Champagne set

O’Neill says privatisation also extends to education consultants who give policy advice. He says a “champagne set” of academics are sent from country to country to offer simple solutions to complex problems.

He says the current government sees public provision as the last resort and it’s keen to increase private schooling. “If every school is a charter school that’s reduced the risk to government and put the responsibility on the private sector. If public funding isn’t enough, then people will just have to make it up with user pays.

“The one thing governments won’t do is increase general taxation to ensure a universal public education system.”

Once you give away those principles, the result is more and more privatisation. The end of the line is vouchers for education, with no public service infrastructure, just a host of philanthropic and private sector organisations.

Global contamination

David Berliner

David Berliner

David Berliner – Professor of Education Emeritus at Arizona State University – says through the GERM, people are trying to destroy public education in the US. He says their education policies are not in the interests of children, but in order to make money.

The Common Core state standards were developed privately through money from conservative organisations like the Gates Foundation and imposed on states whose federal funding is tied to their use.

“Los Angeles – which has lost most of its arts programmes, has huge class sizes and where many school buildings are in disrepair” spent $US1 billion on i-pads for testing and instruction associated with the Common Core.” Berliner says schools had to pay more than the retail price even though it was a bulk deal. “Corruption is rampant where contracts are so large.”

Gove “relaxed” about profit-making schools

Teacher unions in the UK have warned that England’s education system risks being completely privatised. Nearly two-thirds of secondary schools in England are now academies, and they’re no longer required to employ qualified teachers.

Darren Northcott of the UK teacher union NASUWT says academy schools can’t currently operate for profit, but this is only because the Conservative Party’s junior coalition partner, the Liberal Democrats, insists they shouldn’t be allowed to make commercial profits from providing state-funded education.

But Michael Gove, the Secretary of State for Education, is on record as saying he’s “relaxed” about such schools being owned and run by profit-seeking institutions. The union says a lot depends on the UK general election in May next year.