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Mind your own businesses: GATS and the future of UK Schools

George Stevens | 13.04.2009 10:38 | Education | Globalisation

A look at how the Global Agreement on Trade and Services has begun to influence the UK education system and might continue to affect it in future with, for example, the encroachment of businesses into schools and continued enforcement of testing, tables and targets, as well as how it might affect traditional qualifications.

In Charles Dickens’ Hard Times the opening speech is made by a man called Thomas Gradgrind (his surname is entirely fitting) and it begins with the three words, ‘Facts, facts, facts’. Gradgrind runs a school and these words sum up his educational policy which is based on his Utilitarian beliefs. The teacher should pour facts into the empty vessels that sit before him and weed out any sign of imagination or what is called in the book ‘fancy’. The teacher should train pupils to become useful members of this industrial society. In this view children are valuable in so much as they might be useful to the economy. The book might be seen as a critique of that view and to some extent Gradgrind redeems himself by the end.

Have you ever wondered why it is that the government will sit up and take notice of what the CBI say about education when concerns raised by teachers, unions and researchers are shunned? Take, for instance, the CBI’s 2006 report entitled Working on the Three Rs: Employers’ Priorities for Functional Skills in Maths and English. Miraculously, Functional Skills will become a necessary component of the new Maths and English specifications by 2010. Another employers’ report from 2006, undertaken by the Chartered Institute for Personnel and Development, stated that what are sometimes termed ‘soft skills’ should be given more prominence. These include attitudes to work, personality traits and communication skills or what might be called people skills. A year later and QCA announces on its website that it has developed a framework for describing personal, learning and thinking skills (PLTS) and that these are ‘embedded within the Diploma so that they form an integral part of teaching and learning’. The new Diplomas will be vocational courses designed to send pupils down the road to a particular field of employment from the age of 14.

The pace of the growth of business involvement in schools has proceeded rapidly in the last decade and there is clearly a drive to encourage all those who work in schools to see themselves as engaged in a partnership with businesses with the unstated objective of gradually handing over much of the running of schools to private companies. The new Diplomas, for instance, give businesses a hand in drawing up specifications. At one launch meeting that I attended, a local authority statement made clear the hope that employers become equal stakeholders in the education of the county’s young people. This might seem like a sensible move, but what thought has been given to accountability, or to whether employer’s are qualified to determine the direction of the country’s education system? Do we really want McDonald’s or Sodexho in charge of our children’s education?

In the light of the new Diplomas, the meeting asked, what does the future hold for traditional academic qualifications? There is clearly a suggestion that, somewhere down the line, the whole nature of qualifications will change. Either academic subjects will be marginalized in favour of vocational courses or a two tier education system will emerge with students diverging at 14 years old. The government can manipulate the league table system to put pressure on schools to conform to its agenda by giving greater weight to Diplomas in its judgement of exam performance. A Diploma at Level 2 will, for example, be seen as the equivalent of 7 higher pass GCSEs.

In order to explain the background to this phenomena it is necessary to refer to a relatively little known trade agreement which was passed by the World Trade Organization in 1995. The General Agreement on Trade in Services could be seen as the seminal moment in the preparation of schools not only for more business involvement but for a complete takeover by the private sector. At the very least it was a massive spur for governments and policy makers across the world, including in Britain, to prepare the ground (the habituation process as some commentators have called it). The GATS attempted to include public services in international trade agreements. It was basically an extension of the more widely publicised General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade into the public sector. The effects of this agreement have already been felt in some countries across the world. Bolivia gave control of the water service for one of its main cities to an international corporation, with disastrous results.

Some commentators have started to see the various initiatives introduced by the Labour government since 1997 as being in tune with the process of acclimatizing the British education system to the demands of a business takeover. This emerges out of a fear that multinational companies will eventually swamp the UK education system as the influence of the GATS grows or when a new more powerful agreement takes its place and forces the UK to fall into line and open up public services to commercial competition.

The Conservatives had already overseen the privatisation of aspects of schooling such as catering. By the late nineties the Labour government abolished student grants, a further step on the road to turning education into a commodity, and students (or, more accurately, their parents) into consumers. The contracting out of LEA services, the various partnership schemes with private companies, the obsession with state sector school standards and the concomitant boom in private sector tuition, are only some examples of the ways in which education is steadily becoming commercialized. It is also part of a global agenda which Glenn Rikowski sees as ‘corporate capital seeking to make profits out of state financed services’.

There is clearly a feeling amongst government policy advisers that the country’s educational businesses need to be able to compete in a global market. This, it seems, can only be done by allowing businesses to take over British schools and build up operations to the point where they can compete in the lucrative and ever growing overseas education market. The UK education budget alone stood at 73 billion pounds in 2006-7.

There is also a clear feeling that innovation begins in the private sector and the public sector should take its lead from the business world, that the commercial world is more efficient and provides a model for raising standards. The logical conclusion to this model involves seeing knowledge as a commodity, which can be sold both within Britain and across the globe. More urgency has been given to preparations for the advent of a globalised knowledge economy, which is already worth trillions of dollars, with the strengthening of GATS in 2005.

The next time you feel a sense of rising frustration over the culture of targets, testing and league tables, or wonder about the efficacy of Sats, it might be worth putting them into context by remembering that they exist to provide market information in an education system of the near future, and that Ofsted exists to provide comparative data, the equivalent of which can only be found in the Financial Times.

If all this sounds like paranoia, it should be noted that in December of 2007 BAE Systems, the company at the centre of corruption allegations involving trade with Saudi Arabia, was sponsoring a school in Cumbria to the tune of £400,000. The school had been closed as it was deemed to be ‘failing’ and re-opened with private funding. Local pressure groups have expressed horror at the amount of control that any sponsor may have in the school.

In April of 2007, Edison Schools, an American education company, took over Salisbury school in north London. The late Steve Sinnott, then general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, said, ‘Money would be better spent on children's education, whether it be more teachers, better resources or improving sports facilities, far better than lining Edison's pockets.’ If the Salisbury school had done even a cursory internet search on Edison and its record in American schools it might have reconsidered its decision. Edison claims to be able to run schools more efficiently and economically than local authorities. A vital question to be asked is that if the business takeover of schools has as its principle aim the creation of profit for the private companies brought in to run the schools, where might this profit come from? Given that 85% of a typical school’s budget goes on teachers’ salaries, this should be quite an alarming proposition for any teacher.

Even more worryingly, the government has recently announced an ultimatum to schools that do not reach the arbitrary figure of 30% of students achieving at least five A-C grades at GCSE. Local authorities have been given a deadline to come up with a rescue plan and the schools are put under pressure to raise achievement above this level by 2011 or face closure. At present, over 630 schools are at risk. The concern is over what will replace these schools if there is a kind of culling of institutions that are deemed to be failing. The example of the school in Cumbria and the encroachment of the Edison Schools company into British education will no doubt feature in government options.

Consider also the use of terminology such as ‘value added’, the recent installment of performance management regulations and the introduction of performance-related pay. What is all this but the preparing of the ground, or the habituation of the education system so that it can fit neatly into the procedures and the expectations of corporate systems? How obscene is it to consider the ‘value’ of a child in terms of his or her ability to improve average Sats scores from say, 4.55 at key stage 2 to say, 6.37 at key stage 3. That is even before we take into account the various vagaries and inadequacies of the testing system. The word value is etymologically linked to ‘worth’. Can we measure a child’s worth in these terms? Such a conception of education and of children can only lead to the de-valueing and, at the risk of sounding portentous, ultimately the de-humanizing of pupils.

As if to confirm the government’s love affair with the idea of an eventual business takeover of schools and with an education system that is totally geared towards vocational studies, Charles Clarke, the then education minister, said in 2003, that education for its own sake was ‘a bit dodgy’ and that students ‘need a relationship with the workplace’. He went on to say, ‘The idea that you can learn about the world sitting in your study just reading books is not quite right.’ The word ‘just’ in that sentence is loaded with years of cynicism or what might even be called philistinism. You might ask what education for its own sake really means anyway. After all, education should entail gaining knowledge, awareness and understanding about oneself and one’s place in the world. Can that ever be simply ‘for it’s own sake’?

Dickens’ Gradgrind would have approved of Clarke’s sentiments and of the government’s caving in to the CBI’s demands. The government is attempting privatization by the backdoor. You don’t have to be Arthur Scargill to work that out. With the growing sponsorship of schools by big business, the introduction of Functional Skills and the emphasis on vocational Diplomas all added to the existing obsession with targets, testing and tables, we are in danger of regressing into a new Victorian age of education. We would do well to remember that pouring facts, facts, facts into children will produce a generation of perfect factory workers. Turn schools into businesses, send children down career paths at the age of 14, marginalize academic or arts subjects (or even learning for its own sake), and you will produce a generation of adults who can function in the work place and not much else.

As teachers we should be aware of this worrying trend and we should oppose any further moves to whittle away our last shreds of autonomy. We should send a message to the government and to those companies who will attempt to encroach more and more on schools in the next few years. They should mind their own businesses and leave schools to do what they do best: looking after the welfare, learning and all-round development of the country’s children.


BBC News Website ‘Clarke criticised over classics’

Hatcher, Richard ‘Business Sponsorship of Schools: for-profit takeover or agents of neoliberal change?’ Volumizer Public Blog November 2005

Leigh, David ‘Corruption row arms firm offers £400,000 to sponsor academy’ The Guardian December 11, 2007

Light, Julie ‘The Education Industry: The Corporate Takeover of Schools’ Corpwatch (1998)

Rikowski, Glenn ‘The Profit Virus: The Business Takeover of Schools’ Flow of Ideas (2003)⊂=The%20Profit%20Virus%20-%20The%20Business%20Takeover%20of%20Schools

George Stevens
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