GERM – neoliberal policy infecting the world’s classrooms

Susan Robertson explains how the neoliberal mantra of ‘choice’, tests and privatisation is poisoning our education systems worldwide

October 17, 2014 · 9 min read

SONY DSCDiane Ravitch was once a leading advocate of more testing, ‘choice’, and the development of charter schools (the equivalent of England’s free schools and academies) in the US. In 2010 she switched sides, offering a whistleblower’s account of how major foundations, individual billionaires and Wall Street hedge fund managers were destroying the US public education system in the pursuit of ideological goals or plain, old-fashioned profit. From across the Atlantic, another leading figure was writing about the toxic nature of competition and teacher-bashing in schools. The Finnish educator and scholar, Pasi Sahlberg, was explaining how this was not the formula for success. He termed it the ‘global education reform movement’, or GERM.

This rather benign-sounding phrase is used to describe a pernicious range of policies that have increased the involvement of corporations in education, alongside cuts in teacher numbers and a narrowing of the curriculum. Around the globe our education system is in upheaval, and it is being characterised by education commentators as nothing short of a noxious virus.

There are five common features of policies that began to circulate in the 1980s and, partly driven by the austerity agenda, have spread rapidly in the past few years, destroying good education systems in both northern and southern countries.

The first is standardisation through outcomes-based approaches. This is typically top-down and increasingly driven by corporations happy to supply the texts and other learning materials as a one-size-fits-all package, rather than as varied resources for learners with very different kinds of learning needs, styles, home support and so on.

Second is a focus on core subjects only. These are important, of course, but the emphasis has undermined other areas of learning that are important for healthy minds, bodies and communities, including physical education, music and art.

Third, there is a search for low-risk ways of attaining learning goals. This is hardly surprising, given that in many of these systems the learning outcomes of the students are tied to presumed teacher performance and teacher pay. We can see this at work in efforts to measure the so-called ‘value added’ of a teacher or a school. And while critics have pointed to the flaws in these kinds of assumptions and practices – including the noted education statistician Professor Harvey Goldstein – this has done little to deter policymakers from embedding them in the system.

A fourth element of GERM is the use of corporate management models, which assumes that corporations know better how to run a school than those in the public sector. Chasing a profit margin is quite different to creating the space for a child to learn and blossom. The logic of capitalism (profits) and the logic of education (learning) are quite different dynamics and confusing them can have disastrous consequences.

Finally, there is an assumption that test-based ‘accountability’ is the means to raise student achievement. This creates a culture of ‘teaching to the test’ and institutional ‘gaming’, such as excluding students who are likely to generate the wrong kinds of results.

Finland has rejected all of these reforms and it is likely that this is a significant reason why it is a top performing country in the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD)’s education rankings. Instead it has policies that value teachers, pays them well and encourages them to develop professional and sensitive approaches to all pupils and their individual learning needs.

This is the kind of vaccine that we need injected into our damaged school systems.


In September, thousands of teachers protested in Karachi because they had not been paid for two years. The Sindh government says that 13,000 teacher appointments were made despite there being only 1,500 vacancies. Education in Pakistan is desperately underfunded, so the government’s solution is simply not to pay its teachers.

Earlier this year, in neighbouring India (see page 19), teachers were fighting performance-related pay. This was introduced on the recommendation of advisers such as the Pearson corporation’s Sir Michael Barber, who was paid $7,000 a day to prescribe the predictable raft of measures, including privatisation, mass data collection and performance-related pay. Pearson, which makes four fifths of its profits from education, recently announced that one of its four fastest growing markets is the Indian subcontinent.


In August, teachers in Buenos Aires and other provinces in Argentina took 48-hour strike action to demand a living wage. They are also calling for more money for education infrastructure in the city’s crumbling schools. In March, teachers struck for a fortnight over the same demands, with the government using threats to force them back to work. Although they won a wage rise, it has already been eroded by hyperinflation, so once again teachers are finding it hard to survive on their salaries.

The Buenos Aires mayor is millionaire businessman Mauricio Macri, who pursues pro-rich and pro-privatisation policies. Argentina has one of the oldest public and secular school systems in Latin America, which is why its adult literacy rate is second only to Cuba’s and higher than that of the US. Yet the kind of policies being pursued by Macri and other elites in the country mean that this is being run down, while private education thrives. A popular slogan on Argentinian teachers’ protests reads ‘la escuela publica no se vende, se defiende!’ – public education is not to be sold but defended.


Teachers in Mexico face fierce competition for jobs – in one case, more than 800 people had to compete for just two positions. As of this year they are evaluated through a standardised test. If their scores are deemed inadequate they are downgraded to an administrative post or offered voluntary retirement. New teachers will be on probation for three years before getting a secure post. Those who do not succeed will be fired.

In response, teachers have mounted a remarkable campaign. They have blocked national and state motorways and ‘liberated’ toll roads, allowing traffic to pass without paying. Even more audaciously they have blocked the world’s busiest land entry point, the Tijuana San Isidro border crossing, on three occasions. The last time, in 2013, involved more than 10,000 teachers.

In September 2013 the teachers’ movement erected a tent city in the capital’s main square, the Zócalo, just in front of the National Palace. The occupying teachers were violently evicted by the federal police on direct orders from the president, after which they moved to the Revolution Monument a couple of streets away. They have also occupied national senate and congress buildings.

Alternative education models have been developed in some areas, including the Zapatistas’ ‘University of the Land’. In the state of Michoacán, teacher dissidents created an alternative ‘comprehensive’ curriculum model. This varies according to the location, but as well as teaching conventional subjects such as maths, science, language and arts, it incorporates community activities, environmental education, community culture and so on.


Since the onset of the economic crisis, Spain has seen huge cuts to all services, including education, with schools closed, class sizes growing, teacher layoffs and a chronic lack of facilities as basic as heating in some schools. More than half the country’s young people are unemployed. These cuts have been met with mass protests, particularly in the capital Madrid, as well as teacher strikes and school occupations.

Parents have been occupying the Arcipreste de Hita school in Madrid since July in protest at the closing of a nursery class, which has left their children without school. Parents say there is a room and a teacher but the municipality has cut the class, despite the fact that there are 19 children waiting to start school. The determination of the parents has drawn huge support, both locally, with people bringing food for the occupiers and coming in to join them, and throughout Spain. ‘These days you even have to fight to get chalk!’ said one the occupiers.


Public education is desperately underfunded in India and teaching has been undermined by the use of temporary contracts to keep costs down. Contracted teachers can earn as little as Rs500 (approximately £5) a month. Because of the federal character of India, these wages differ from state to state. There is no national law ensuring uniformity in wages.

Barely a month has gone by over the past two years without teachers taking action – including hunger strikes – against temporary contracts. Teachers in the Punjab have been campaigning against the takeover of schools by public-private partnerships, which are paying staff poverty wages. In Ludhiana, the largest city in the state, the authorities imposed a ban on gatherings of more than five people and then used the security forces to arrest 58 protesters. In Bihar, where 66,000 teachers are on temporary contracts, earning only half what their permanent colleagues do and with no job security, teachers attempted to peacefully march on the state assembly in July. They were attacked with police wielding lathis, long batons.


There has been a wave of teacher strikes and protests across Greece this year, catalysed by the suspension of 2,500 teachers’ jobs. The job cuts have led to student courses being cancelled or curtailed. This year’s suspensions are only the latest round of cuts, which have seen teachers’ salaries drop by 25 per cent, pensions attacked, thousands of teaching jobs lost, schools closed and class sizes increased. The cuts have been imposed as part of the Troika’s austerity measures.

In March teachers chained themselves to the railings outside the Greek parliament. In June they joined office cleaners in setting up camp outside the Greek finance ministry, and throughout the year teachers have been present on many anti-austerity marches.

There has been a repressive response from the authorities. In March riot police beat and teargassed teachers who protested outside a meeting of the Greek government and the Troika. Police have visited schools to question teachers about students who have taken part in protests after occupations of more than 100 schools last October.

The information about each country is from, an independent website on global struggles to defend public education, Twitter: @teachsolidarity Information about Mexico by Israel Salto

Photo by Rsinner on

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