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Complementarities and Contradiction in the Pearson Agenda

published 10 July 2015 updated 10 July 2015
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We compliment Carolina Junemann and Stephen J. Ball on their critical analysis of the expanding education work of the edu-business Pearson, and more specifically their critique of Pearson’s Affordable Learning Fund, produced for EI.  Their analysis demonstrates the stark challenges associated with privatisations of schooling of various kinds in both the Global North and Global South. They also show how through political lobbying, PR work, Pearson’s  own research and the use of established academics to legitimate their agendas, that Pearson has become a global policy actor in education and is also seeking to establish a global education policy consensus. This is the move from the privatisation of education to privatisation in education with the potential for the privatisation of the education policy community.

Pearson’s edu-business work in the nations of the Global North has been constructed around testing, data management and analysis and related professional development and teacher materials. Pearson are conducting research on adaptive, on-line testing (and learning) and this is clearly the next big business opportunity for them, as is the ‘big data’ move. In the Global South, as Junemann and Ball document, Pearson have provided venture capital for a range of edu-preneurs to begin and expand low-fee for-profit private schools in sub-Saharan Africa, South Africa, Pakistan, India and the Phillipines.  Business academic Prahalad (2004) makes the point that the fastest growing market is ‘at the bottom of the pyramid’, that is, amongst the poorest, where such people have collective ‘untapped buying power’.  Prahalad adds that by providing services to the poorest, businesses are not only making profit, but at the same time doing good! Indeed, this is the argument of ‘philanthrocapitalism’.’ We note here how Pearson abolished its Philanthropic Trust in late 2014 so as to mainstream ‘corporate social responsibility’. In supporting edu-preneurs in establishing low-fee, for-profit private schools, Pearson have accepted the insights of Prahalad. Yet we note that while such schools might be low fee, they constitute a high percentage of the disposable income of poor families, often resulting in gender discrimination where boys’ education will be given priority over girls in the same family. These schools are also challenging the aspiration that ‘free’, high quality public education for all is central to democracy and a socially just society and concerningly there is little evidence to support the effectiveness of low-fee, for-profit schools.

The additional point we want to make in relation to the Junemann and Ball analysis is that there is potential complementarity between the agendas of Pearson in the Global North and in the Global South. One can see the potential for the testing and data management agendas to be eventually put in place in the Global South. The same will potentially apply to on-line adaptive testing and learning. At the same time, we can see the possibility of lobbying moves for low-fee for-profit private schools in the nations of the Global North. This is an integrated business strategy potentially covering the globe. We say potentially, because Pearson still makes a majority of its profits in North America.

The contradiction between these two agendas is apparent. Pearson proffer strong support for the ‘quality teachers’ agenda in the nations of the Global North (see, for example, Pearson’s series of publications, Open Ideas and in particular John Hattie’s two 2015 pieces), but their support for low-fee private schools that will generate profit is economically dependent upon the employment of un- and under- qualified and very lowly paid, non-union organised teachers often using scripted pedagogies. There is a stark moral contradiction here. It becomes apparent that the bottom-line is profit, rather than social good.

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect any official policies or positions of Education International.