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Whatever is a ‘school in a box’? According to giant education corporation Pearson, it’s everything you need to run a school, from teacher training to testing and curricular software, all in a handy flat pack. Pearson has marketed its boxed schools in many southern countries, and with the advent of free schools in the UK is negotiating to offer the same privatised package here.
In Kenya, a chain of ‘low fee’ private schools called Bridge International Academies, in which Pearson has a stake, use schools in a box. And although the name refers to the box of pre-scripted lessons provided to the teachers (mostly unqualified and working for poverty pay), it might as well refer to the school buildings, which are uncannily box-like, corrugated tin sheds. In Brazil, it’s the name given to Pearson’s Sistema franchise – a standardising system that ensures that all children in the sistema are doing exactly the same things.
There are huge profits to be made from the education ‘industry’. As Rupert Murdoch put it in 2010, ‘When it comes to K-12 education, we see a $500 billion sector in the US alone that is waiting desperately to be transformed by big breakthroughs.’ And indeed, thanks to the US government’s corporate education ‘reforms’ covering for-profit charter schools, standardised testing and performance related pay, outfits such as Murdoch’s education arm Amplify are already securing that $500 billion.
UNESCO and the Brookings Institute have set up the Learning Metrics Taskforce to ‘improve learning outcomes for children and youth worldwide’. Co-chaired by Sir Michael Barber, chief education adviser to Pearson, its main focus is the collection of ‘big data’ so that schools, teachers and teaching can be standardised, judged, compared and if found wanting sacked or closed down. To collect data you need software and printed material – for testing, for standardised curricular materials and for all manner of box‑ticking.
For companies such as Pearson, it is a win/win situation: they profit from the software systems to collect such data, and they rubbish public schooling and justify replacing it with profit-making private schools. They also have control over the curriculum to ensure that children are taught to be the kind of flexible and quiescent workers that corporations require.
Most of us are aware of the struggles of teachers and communities in the UK and US against cuts, testing, performance-related pay and the whole playlist of corporate education ‘reform’. What fewer people are conscious of is that the same struggle is being waged by teachers and their unions in even harsher conditions all over the global South.