Susan Robertson on private interests and public education

profsusanroberstonWhen private interests into public education simply do not go was the theme of this year’s excellent Caroline Benn Memorial lecture given by Professor Susan Robertson of the University of Bristol on 10th November at the House of Commons.

Susan Robertson’s work draws on anthropology, geography, politics and sociology to help understand the various complex ways education has been drawn into servicing the economy from the global level to the local and individual level.

The lecture offered a broad international perspective on developments in public education policy most of which are harmful and wilfully ignore the evidence of what works best. We were taken on 3 ‘tours’ of global trends in education policy:

1. The rise of market approaches at the expense of public investment:

This involves seeing education increasingly in narrow terms of an investment in ‘human capital’ with a ‘rate of return’. Qualifications rather than actual skills development are seen as a mean of getting ahead or staying ahead. More of the burden of education decision-making is shifted from the state towards individuals and families

2. The increasing influence of private interests on policy:

In an increasingly service based economy, the $43 trillion education sector is seen as a lucrative one, ripe for a corporate raid. Large international companies are now running chains of schools, managing qualifications and producing teaching materials. ‘Venture philanthropy’, ‘school in a box’ and low fee private schools in developing countries are encouraging poor families to choose which child to invest in rather than promoting universal public education.

3. The increasing ‘enclosure’ of the public sphere:

Where the middle class feels it can put its weight behind a public education system, the effects are positive across the board. Conversely, if more parents withdraw from that commitment and opt for private alternatives, they are less likely to support public investment in education and this is likely to lead to greater inequality of provision.

No longer half way there?

In his 2002 Caroline Benn Memorial Lecture The right to a comprehensive education, Clyde Chitty drew extensively on Caroline Benn’s work and quoted from Half Way There, the classic 1970 study of comprehensive education she edited with Brian Simon.

Listening to Susan Robertson’s well researched and objective conspectus it was difficult to disagree with her that we are no longer ‘half way there’. In fact we seem to be going backwards.

Susan Robertson suggested a programme for getting us further towards an education system which might promote social justice. She argued that this required a recognition that public investment and collective action are needed as counters to the trends she had outlined. She also argued that the middle class need to be encouraged to support public education.

In the discussion that followed, we explored some of the challenges that face us as we argue for a more egalitarian and comprehensive public education system in which every young person can thrive. We need to recognise that at a time of anxiety and insecurity much of the ‘common sense’ of our age is pushing us the other way; policies of marketization, choice, competition and  selection seem to many people of all social classes to be the only way to ensure that their children ‘get on’. Rather than simply getting the middle class on board with public education, our aim should be to win a national majority for an expansive, positive, inclusive and aspirational vision of what comprehensive education system can do for us all. It’s not as if there aren’t plenty of local examples of success to draw on, but we’re certainly not there – or even ‘half way there’ – yet.

A comprehensive school is not a social experiment, it is an education reform.

From Half Way There by Caroline Benn and Brian Simon (1970)

See also:

Market madness; condition critical (June 2015)

Archive of past Caroline Benn Memorial Lectures from 2001 onwards.


About Eddie Playfair

I am a Senior Policy Manager at the Association of Colleges (AoC) having previously been a college principal for 16 years and a teacher before that. I live in East London and I blog in a personal capacity about education and culture. I also tweet at @eddieplayfair
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