The GERM: a virus which is killing the world’s schools

Janet Downs's picture
There’s a growing and malevolent threat to education worldwide. It’s the Global Education Reform Movement. GERM symptoms are:

1Competition between schools.

2Standardisation. Prescribed curriculum, teaching and expected outcomes.

3Test-based accountability.


But competition between schools reduces collaboration. In a competitive school system there will be winners and losers. In competitive school systems the weakest will be marginalised because weak pupils bring down results.

Standardisation dilutes teacher professionalism. You don’t need trained teachers to teach a centrally-prescribed curriculum. In England, academy schools are theoretically free of the national curriculum – in reality the exam system drives what is taught. And ministers make it quite clear what a "good" curriculum looks like.

Accountability by testing narrows the curriculum – only subjects which are tested matter. Creative subjects are marginalised; essential skills which can’t easily be tested are side-lined.

The OECD said their evidence suggests increasing parental choice doesn’t make school systems more effective. And giving parents a “choice” of schools turns them and their children into consumers rather than recipients of a universal right: a good school for all children, good schools for every child nationally and globally.

Why, then, is GERM so virulent? Why does it threaten education?

These were questions asked at yesterday’s international conference, “Global Education ‘Reform’: Building Resistance and Solidarity”. The answer is one word: money. The world-wide education market reached $4.4 trillion – that’s TRILLION – in 2013. It’s set to grow further by 2017. And global organisations want a piece of the pie.

Competition means parents must be persuaded that School X is more synonymous with “excellence” than School Y. This increases demand for marketing to strengthen the appeal of a particular “brand” whether it’s an academy chain in England or global education publishers pushing their own solutions to so-called “failing” education systems.

Standardisation drives the market for published “solutions”, not just off-the-shelf curricula but services provided by education management organisations (EMOs). E-learning – delivering education via the internet – is the fastest-growing sector. And you don’t need trained teachers to supervise pupils in front of a computer – just “grannies in the clouds”. You don’t need trained teachers to deliver ready-made “affordable” education sold as a solution for educating the world’s poor. But for-profit schools for the poor aren’t the answer. If families have to choose between food and education, then they will necessarily choose the former. If families can only afford to educate one child, the other children remain uneducated.

Accountability makes it easier to pay teachers by results. This is sold as rewarding “good” teachers and punishing “bad” ones. But this raises the question of what teachers are for. Are they expected to encourage children to read deeply, analyse, calculate, weigh evidence, discuss, co-operate, create…? Or are they just to push pupils through tests? And tests, of course, demand an exam system. This provides millions of pounds in England alone not just in question papers but materials which support exam syllabuses.

GERM threatens the idea that education is a human right for all children irrespective of their ability to pay. It undermines the notion that education is good for society as a whole. It turns schooling into a product that can be bought and sold for profit. When market forces are introduced into education, equity is at risk.


Yesterday’s conference showed how teachers and parents are uniting to fight GERM – watch this site for details in a future thread.


Education is not for sale – it’s a human right which needs defending.

Share on Twitter Share on Facebook

Be notified by email of each new post.


Sally Tomlinson's picture
Sun, 25/05/2014 - 10:38

Thanks for letting us know about this conference Janet. Could you possibly include a link to the conference itself so our readers can find out more about the organisers, speakers and how to get involved?

Janet Downs's picture
Sun, 25/05/2014 - 11:11

Here is information about the event before it happened.

Janet Downs's picture
Sun, 25/05/2014 - 11:14

Photos and tweets are at #fightGERM.

Brian's picture
Sun, 25/05/2014 - 11:01

Thanks for that information Janet. What a depressing prospect. Unfortunately I'm not optimistic because we have a toxic combination of money to be made and a simplistic technology - based solution.

Janet Downs's picture
Sun, 25/05/2014 - 11:38

Brian - it was encouraging to find out at the Conference what action's being taken globally. I'll write about that later - possibly in a day or two. In the meantime take heart from this message from the Spanish speaking world:

¡La educación no se vende; se defiende!

Education is not for sale; defend it!

Gabriel Gidi's picture
Sun, 25/05/2014 - 15:41

The drive to make teachers technicians rather than professionals is implicit in educational policy, regulatory framework (Ofsted), and in what is considered effective teaching and learning. I came into teaching because my teachers were unique and diverse but now we are all expected to teach in exactly the same way.

FJM's picture
Tue, 27/05/2014 - 22:09

Not true. Wilshaw has explicitly welcomed a diverse range of teaching styles. You need to pay less attention to nonsense from the NUT etc.

FJM's picture
Tue, 27/05/2014 - 22:18

Andy V's picture
Wed, 28/05/2014 - 08:59

Gabriel, May I ask whether you are aware of or have read either of the following?


Page 10 is good place to start and paragraph 37 is particularly pertinent to your comments


Both these documents reinforce what FJM has said.

… - See more at… …

FJM's picture
Mon, 26/05/2014 - 21:18

Choice! Shocking! Whatever next? Will these people stop at nothing?

John Mountford's picture
Tue, 27/05/2014 - 18:26

It is certainly looking like nothing WILL stop them. More's the pity, FJM.

jennyquestions's picture
Tue, 27/05/2014 - 19:24

Here is a wonderful example of a lack of choice:
It's a petition, for Michael Gove's attention, by Mary Stevens, a teacher. It is asking for the secondary school English syllabus to be reconsidered. The complaint is that it is a narrower syllabus and therefore it gives teachers even less choice in choosing set texts. It's interesting that some of the time 'choice' is considered a prize virtue, highly praised and in other situations it is hardly even considered and certainly not praised!

FJM's picture
Tue, 27/05/2014 - 22:07

The idea that Mr G has banned 'Of Mice and Men' is not correct. Some reports say that 90% of GCSE pupils were set this text, which I find extraordinary. The originator of this petition clearly has a low opinion of her pupils, as she thinks that they would not be able to cope with anything more demanding than this rather short and straightforward novel. Sh says, "this is a syllabus which privileges the elite and deprives the disadvantaged." What a load of utter rubbish! Teachers like her are part of the problem.

FJM's picture
Tue, 27/05/2014 - 22:13

Check your facts first, before you engage in your won little LSN twitter-style storm.

FJM's picture
Tue, 27/05/2014 - 22:15

I mean 'your own'.

Add new comment

Already a member? Click here to log in before you comment. Or register with us.