Bad Education: why we need to change it

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Bad Education: why we need to change it

The Right is controlling education all over the world. Hazel Healy writes about how to do things differently.

After the attempted coup against Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in July 2016, teachers who criticize his government have lost their jobs. Erdogan says they are terrorists.

As a result of the attempted coup teachers are one of the biggest groups to suffer. Tens of thousands of teachers have lost their jobs. Academics have also lost their jobs. Almost 5,000 have no work.

Erdoğan is not the only authoritarian leader who wants to control education. In India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi is rewriting text books to make his government look good. In Hungary last April, President Viktor Orbán took control of the Central European University, which wanted to teach the values of open society and critical thinking. And there are many other examples.

Education is an important battleground and not only for authoritarian leaders. The attack on critical thinking comes in other ways. There is an increase in private business in education. This is part of a number of neoliberal changes that want competition, testing, and privatization.

There is nothing new about the battle over how to educate our children. But now it is very political as there are more enrolments, greater global needs, and powerful new technology companies involved. Quality in state education is now a problem and it is more important than before.

The neoliberal ideas about education are increasing in new ways and often we do not notice them. We see them in privatized schools like the independent schools in the US and New Zealand/Aotearoa, or free schools in Sweden. Australia gave its national testing programme to Pearson, the world’s largest educational business. Across the Global South, in countries such as Kenya, the Philippines, and Ghana, there are more and more chains of low cost private schools.

There is more and more business interest in schools too, with companies selling digital learning, data services, and teacher education. The ‘Global Education Industry’ is now worth $4.3 trillion. Its business model wants efficiency, choice and competition, as it says state systems are not doing enough.

In the UK there is the problem of unaccountable academies. Technically they are charities but in fact they are spending taxpayers’ money but with fewer rules than local-authority schools. They can decide their own salaries and admissions policies and they work like businesses.

In England more than half of secondary schools and nearly a quarter of primary schools are now academies since 2010. Channel 4 television found they are spending taxpayers’ money on very high salaries and staff benefits.

There is less evidence of progress for children who are finding it difficult in the state system. Instead, academies and ‘free schools’, seem to increase segregation and seem not to help children who need it.

Rachel Crouch was a head teacher. She didn’t want her primary school in Oxford to be an academy school. She says academy schools are very careful about the children they accept in their schools. ‘They have to show they are improving so that they can give higher salaries. So some academies will fail pupils like children with special educational needs. They only want results – and that becomes more important than the children.’

Testing is king

Technology has helped those who want testing. There is a lot of data now and it is easy to share. So teachers and administrators are accountable for their students’ learning in new, disturbing ways. This comes from the neoliberal idea that education is a product, something to buy and sell. So it is important to measure and compare the product.

Big data has made testing and evaluation extreme. In Weapons of Math Destruction, Cathy O’Neill describes how a computer algorithm to evaluate teachers resulted in a very good and very popular teacher in Washington DC losing their job and many hundreds of others. They did not tell the teachers about the scoring system. It was to evaluate their maths and language teaching. The children scored high in the year before but low in the following year. The unlucky teacher concluded that last year’s teacher cheated. But nothing could change the result. The algorithm was king.

There is often cheating when there is pressure on teachers to produce high test results. In Atlanta, over 180 teachers cheated because they were afraid of losing their jobs. Low costs and profit

Action Aid’s David Archer says, ‘There is a very big industry which wants to improve the assessment of learning and scoring people.’

The big example is Pearsons, the educational business. They publish textbooks, run exams, and make money from low cost private school chains. They made sales of over $5 billion in 2016.

Archer says it is dangerous. ‘Pearsons say that learning is the same everywhere and so they use the same books and exams. That means they can produce them at lower costs and make bigger profits.’

But there is no evidence that improving assessment will improve quality of learning. You could torture children or drill them to get results but that’s not a quality education. What about the education of the full human personality?

This is not only in the West. In the Global South, 13 per cent of primary school children are in private schools compared to 5 per cent in the West and 25 per cent in private secondary schools.

There are many different kinds of private schools. There have always been faith schools, or those run by NGOs or particular communities. But there is something new. Since 2014 there are more and more chains of private schools for poor families. They are for profit and they are low cost. The biggest is the US business, Bridge International Academies. It has over 500 schools with about 100,000 children in Kenya, Uganda, Liberia, Nigeria, and India.


A child practises writing the days of the week on the wall of her house in Meme, Cameroon. ©Chris de Bode/Panos

Bridge have teachers who all read out lessons – written in Boston – on an e-reader. They say they can give schooling 30 per cent cheaper than governments and they predict a profit of $750 million by 2025.

British professor and business man, James Tooley, runs Omega Schools in Ghana in a similar way. High-school graduates give the same planned lessons and children use a pay-as-you-go bracelet. They say it is a system to help parents with irregular salaries. If you’re charged up, you get in.

Delphine Dorsi is a human rights lawyer who organises the international Right to Education Initiative. She asks, ”Can we play with education like that? A child’s schooling is so important for them, for society. If they miss class, how will they catch up? Can we treat students as customers, like paying for electricity, like it’s a normal business?’

Could do better

Most research says that low cost schools create segregation, just like any other private school. There is also little or no clear evidence that education in these schools is better than the state schools. They say that these schools are giving education to children who would not normally get it but there is no evidence for this. Most children who are not in school are in rural areas, but there is not much evidence of low cost schools in these places.

There have been many warnings about more and more education businesses. UN groups concerned with human rights have made strong suggestions. But countries like Britain, the US, Netherlands, and the World Bank are persuaded. They have invested millions into Bridge, and others. There are about 263 million children still out of school, or in school but not learning much, and the private sector has sold itself as a solution in careful speeches at the World Education Forum and other meetings.

It’s true that state education is quite bad in some poor countries with not enough money for education. There is also corruption and natural disasters. ‘States are finding it difficult,’ agrees Dorsi. ‘We must help. But we cannot do so in a way that takes away the right to education. It’s not about ideas. It’s not that “state education is better”. It’s that everyone should have quality education – it shouldn’t matter what their ethnicity is, or their language or how much money they have. All states agree on that.

Helping the poorest

Lucy Maina is programmes director at the Africa Educational Trust (AET), which works in some of the world’s poorest, isolated places. Dol Dol in northeast Kenya is an example. AET helps primary schools there and runs classes for Masaai women. Lucy is not sure that Bridge is going to places where there is no education.

Lucy says, ‘In these poorer places, everything is difficult to reach, difficult to get.’

Do Dol is about 80 kilometres on bad roads from the nearest large town. Dol Dol has no internet and very few can read and write – but there is plenty of drought, cattle stealing, female genital mutilation, child marriage, and animals such as buffaloes and elephants that stop children from getting to school.

Teachers often don’t stay long here. And because their children do so badly at school, parents often see no reason to send them to school. They prefer their children to look after the cows.

Over three years AET has changed the situation. At first they trained primary-school teachers to teach younger Masaai children to read in their own language. This was very successful. Then AET taught mothers basic maths and reading and writing.

‘You have to teach close to where the women are because they have so much work to do,’ says Lucy. Women will often bring containers to collect water after the class, an axe to make firewood for the evening meal, and grandparents to look after the babies.’

About 400 women are now good in maths and can read and write their names. It has really changed them – they can receive and send money and make phone calls. One woman is now a polling officer and voted in the last election for the first time.

But it has an important effect for their 2,000 children too. ‘They try to do better than their own children, and learn from them,’ Maina says.

These parents, who can now read and write and know how many teacher should be in their area by law, have talked to the Kenyan government to get 19 new local, bilingual teachers. ‘Now they see their own people come back to serve them. There is a lot of excitement about learning,’ says Maina. Already, children’s test scores are improving and students stay longer.

Helping teachers

‘Rene Raya works for the Asia South Pacific Association for Basic and Adult Education (ASPBAE) in Manila. She says, ‘The World Bank talks about children not going to school and says it is the teachers’ fault. But the teachers are working in a difficult system. They have– low salaries and no one looks after them or helps with their training. They feel bad and powerless.’

ASPBAE is one of 5,000 organizations in the Global Campaign for Education network, which is in 87 countries around the world. Raya talks about how just a two-week course on languages and social awareness really helped teachers.

‘Afterwards they worked hard for their students, working to get them back in school,’ he says. And parents started to help the weaker students and the parents who sent their children to private schools brought them back.

‘You don’t need to spend billions of dollars to make state education better,’ says Raya. ‘You need to help teachers and involve them in making decisions.’

Critical thinking

In Pakistan, one educator is working for more quality, and how to teach critical thinking.

‘As a society, we don’t question enough,’ says Aamna Pasha from Karachi in Pakistan. She trains teachers in schools with low-income groups to teach critical thinking to children aged 11-14. ‘I want children to learn how to think about problems and think about possible solutions,’ she says.

Pasha trains teachers to help children be more creative in their classes of between 5 and 60 students. She changes the courses for children’s different situations. So for endangered animals, in Karachi, children work on Indus river dolphins; in Gilgit, up in the mountains in the North, the Markhor deer. In Gilgit children visited and interviewed a hunter, and to help the deer they suggested different jobs for him.

Children say they are more confident, and teachers say their children are more interested.

In Oxfordshire, Rachel Crouch is very happy with Philosophy for Children (P4C), in which primary-school children think about moral questions such as, ‘when is it OK to steal?’ Crouch says, ‘Children can now discuss and debate. When they go out and get jobs, they need that – it’s their future.’ She’s sure her school’s recent SATS scores (national tests for 11 year olds), which are the highest ever, show this.

Seriously equal

State schools in Finland, parts of Canada and Cuba do better than the private schools in Sweden, the US, and Chile in international PISA assessments.

Finland’s very good state system does not have the testing that takes away confidence. Teachers spend 10-15 per cent of their time studying. All have post-graduate level training and schools are free to make their own courses. There are no school inspections, but the Finnish government can look at a random sample of 10 per cent of students’ work. The country spends 30 times more on training for teachers than on testing students and schools. It is the opposite in education systems which use a lot of testing.

Finland works hard for equality to make sure students’ education does not depend on how much money they have or their background. Finland puts more money in schools in poorer neighbourhoods.

Tax, not aid

Some of the money poorer countries need should come from aid – now at $12 billion per year. But it is unlikely it will increase to the $39 billion needed – this is less than 2 per cent of what the US spent on arms in 2016. Aid to education is less now. David Archer from Action Aid says that donors often want to use their own ideas on how best to educate children.

Brazil shows what politicians can do. It increased its budget to education from 10 per cent in 2000 to 18 per cent in 2016. With a cash programme to help parents, the number of years in school for the poorest 20 per cent of children doubled from four to eight. Sadly, the new rightwing government has stopped.

No place for profit

Profit has no place in education.

We need education that wants better quality for everybody – good teachers, good courses that interest children, help for inclusive and progressive learning.

These things are not difficult. We see them all over the world, but we will need to fight for them. In today’s world people need to learn how to think for themselves, to imagine better futures, and use the power of imagination.

Dephine Dorsi says, ‘There are very big problems in the world. We’re killing the planet and fighting each other. If we want equality, if we want to work together to build a better society, then education is the most important thing.’

Hazel Healy became a co-editor at New Internationalist in 2011.


(This article has been simplified so the words, text structure and quotes may have changed).