Today I was privileged to represent the National Union of Teachers (NUT) at a global protest at the annual general meeting of one of the world’s largest edu-businesses, Pearson.
The NUT was joined by representatives of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) including its President, Randi Weingarten; the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL), including General Secretary Mary Bousted; Global Justice Now campaigners including Director Nick Dearden; and parents from the UK and New Jersey who have direct experience of the devastating impact of high-stakes testing on their children, their schools and their families.
British-based Pearson is a leading player in the global edu-business market which has rich pickings for those seeking to profit from its $4.2 trillion opportunities. Janet Downes has previously blogged about Pearson including in this piece which explains the rationale for today’s lobby.
Today’s event was a shot across the bows to Pearson – letting the company know that the alliance of global labour and social justice intends to pursue and challenge those who seek to commercialise and privatise education. Our message is a simple but powerful one: Education is a public good and a human right, not an opportunity for corporations to profit. Private business can play a role by supporting educators through the provision of textbooks and materials. However, we will not tolerate corporate interests dictating the education policy agenda, teacher pedagogy, children’s access to free high quality state education or the educational experiences of young people.
Campaigners lobbied shareholders going into the meeting, demanding that:
Pearson supports calls to end high-stakes testing and its consequences and reject all practices that promote and support the testing obsession in the UK, the US and in other parts of the world. These include the company’s involvement in the monitoring of the social media accounts of teachers, children and their parents, gagging orders on teachers and retaliation against those who express opinions which challenge testing or Pearson’s products and services; and
Pearson stops promoting, supporting and advocating for the creation and expansion of so-called ‘low fee’ private schools in the global south which exploit parents’ desire for their children to be educated.
John Fallon, Pearson’s CEO, came out to meet protestors ahead of the AGM. I told him that Pearson had a social responsibility in addition to its responsibilities to shareholders. High-stakes testing was extremely damaging for children, I added, and Pearson’s privatisation programme in the global south was destroying nascent state education systems.
Inside the meeting, Randi Weingarten pressed Pearson to respond to campaigners’ demands. Pearson responded that it had a moral duty to educate the 65 million children in the global south who were not in school. This ignores the fact that they are making a profit from private schooling and simultaneously undermining or preventing the development of the state education systems that they claim to support.
London parent Sarah Williams caused clear discomfort in the room when she described the impact of high-stakes testing on her child following the forced academy take-over at Downhills Primary School. She asked whether the suicide bars reportedly being fitted in exam rooms in China would soon become common practice in the UK, as stress increases on children due to unnecessary, high-stakes testing.
At the press conference that followed, Randi Weingarten said Pearson had reported to shareholders that company profits had risen by 235 per cent over the last ten years. This, she said, was partly on the back of low-fee private schools in the global south where “parents have to now spend upwards of 30 per cent of their income for their child to attend school.”
Nick Dearden described how taxpayers’ money, through Department for International Development (DfID) aid funding, was supporting the growth of the private sector in providing essential public services such as health and education in the global south.
“One of the most scandalous aspects of what Pearson is doing is the fact that they are using public money, British aid money, to establish private education provision around the world,” he said.
Inside the AGM, Nick had challenged John Fallon to square his alleged support for free, universally accessible, publically-controlled education with the provision of private schools which undercut public provision. He asked: “Don’t you see a problem with that if you’re taking public funds that should be directed towards that type of education which instead is funding private schools.”
In reply, Fallon stated that he saw no such contradiction.
In the US, Pearson has contracts with a large number of states to administer common core standardised tests. New Jersey parent Christine McGeoy told the press conference that Pearson has told parents that they cannot talk to their children about the tests.
“We are now in a situation where high-stakes testing has become the centre piece of American education. Pearson sits at that centre as the provider of the tests in the majority of our states.
“I would like to say to Pearson that I do not appreciate having a large corporation stand between me and my child.”
Christine described how parents have organised a series of community gatherings at which it has become clear that parents don’t trust the tests and don’t want their children to take the tests.
“In the town where I live in New Jersey, 42 per cent of children just refused to take the tests,” Christine added.
“For me as a parent it comes down to the question of who owns our schools. I believe that when the schools are financed by the public, for the public good, it’s the people who own the schools…. But when the schools are turned over to corporations, we lose our voice and we lose our standing.”
Mary Bousted told the gathering: “If education is run for profit, money which should be spent on education provision has to be directed to shareholders. It is difficult to make profit from running schools because of staff costs. This is why Pearson is now looking to the global south.”
Just as the Global Education Reform Movement (GERM) has a global reach, so too does international labour and its allies. Today’s event was just the beginning of a campaign by Education International affiliates and their allies to tackle global efforts to corporatise, marketise and ultimately privatise education. The GERM may be powerful but the antidote is even stronger and is determined to ensure that education remains a human universal right, not a privatised commodity.
Kevin Courtney, Deputy General Secretary, National Union of Teachers