Jake Richardson - The commodification of education
The general public’s anger over the introduction of academies and free schools is understandable and rational. The policies are part of a wider agenda by this government to open up public utilities for plunder by private corporations. This particular policy is clearly driven by blind ideology rather than sound evidence and is leading, perhaps most worryingly of all, to the commodification of children’s education through the involvement of private companies, to whom education is secondary to profit. The focus of this article will be to analyse such harmful consequences in an effort to better understand and overcome disastrous neoliberal policies in the future.
The commodification process begins with the reduction in real terms of state funding that a school receives if it converts to an academy. The start-up funds provided by the government to new converts run out almost immediately, leading to redundancies and lack of resources as the school’s primary focus shifts from quality of education to funding. However each academy does still receive a comparatively small financial allocation from the local authority (which has little control over the running of the school), meaning that taxpayer money is used to finance institutions that have no obligation to follow the national curriculum. In some cases going to schools that refuse to teach evolution, meaning the government is effectively paying special interests to impose their ideologies on pupils.
It is logical to look at the effects of similar and more developed policies when attempting to analyse what consequences to expect, and in American charter schools we find a valuable example. In extreme cases entire schools are sponsored by McDonalds, who have effective control over areas from curriculum to nutrition (no prizes for guessing the only option for lunch!). I am not claiming that the situation in the UK at present is anything like as severe, just that this example clearly shows the consequences of the private sector involvement in schooling (now necessary to compensate for reductions in government funding). In the UK each Academy has a private sponsor, either a charity or company, and as schools increasingly rely on private business for most of their funding, they become another place for corporations and special interest groups to push their agenda, which brings us to the commodification of state education.
The situation I have described is surely abhorrent to the objective observer. However it is increasingly seen by groups from evangelical Christians to weapons companies as offering an invaluable opportunity to recruit what they see as future workers and consumers; as well as to procure an environment conducive to the furthering of their agenda. Thus corporations compete for the ability to educate what they see as potential investments- and one fears what would happen were they to decide that these investments aren’t producing sufficient returns. This leads to the increasing exposure of education to market forces and thus has potential to make its quality vulnerable to fluctuation in demand for future workers/consumers.
In the face of the vacuity of credible and convincing evidence supporting their policy, and when confronted with such strong evidence to the contrary, ministers like Michael Gove attempt, through language such as ‘reforms’, to promote the image of a progressive and innovative policy with a positive impact on those who it effects. The reality however is that they are regressive policies threatening to increase inequality and further entrench this country’s two tier education system; inspired by an ideology shown again and again to fail in improving the lives of ordinary people. Michael Gove’s adherence to Thatcherite doctrine makes the coalition seem like the last government of the neoliberal era as opposed to the first of the post great recession era.
This is particularly striking when we view the current ‘reforms’ in the context of the broad neoliberal agenda that has shaped the historical narrative of British politics in some form or another since 1979. There are numerous examples illustrating that this agenda inevitably detaches the service from public scrutiny, destroying the mechanisms previously enabling it to adapt to public demand. This along with the socialisation of risk and privatisation of profit has been the predictable results of privatisation time after time. Religious adherence to the doctrine is evident right through until the present day, with the most recent example being George Osborne reacting to the sound advice of investing in Green energy by cutting its subsidies by 10%. Additionally Michael Gove’s education policy continues Thatcher’s war on organised labour by targeting public sector unions, the only to emerge relatively unscathed from 18 years of Tory rule.
Therefore when we react to and discuss the Coalition’s ‘reforms’ it seems vital that we view them in their correct historical context. As we have seen they are clearly not part of Cameron’s project of ‘compassionate conservatism’, nor are they central to any empty oxymoronic aspirations to ‘spread privilege’. Rather they are functions of a misguided ideology, which weakens the Coalitions credibility the longer they follow it. It leads the public to the conclusion that either their officials are unable to comprehend rational economic and public policy and are thus not competent enough to be in office; or that they are well aware of the harmful consequences of their policies and are carrying on with them regardless, making them appear somewhat pernicious. Either way it is clear that a change in outlook and policy is needed for the health and longevity of our public utilities, as well as to restore the public’s confidence in politicians’ capacity to have a positive impact on their lives.
Jake Richardson is a Compass Volunteer
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