Article in The Drum: Ideology of the marketplace underpins school "reforms"

Originally published by the ABC 16th March 2012 here.

Last weekend the NSW government announced the most far reaching reforms to school education "in a century".

The main proposal was to give more power to school principals. Hidden in the announcement were proposals for more temporary staff, and confirmation that the Government is intending to introduce performance pay.

Actually there is little new here. For the past 25 years, Australian education has been steadily re-shaped on market lines. We have had a drum-beat of "reforms": university fees, corporatisation of TAFE, overseas students as cash cows, more subsidies to private schools, national achievement testing, MySchool website, de-zoning of public schools, more selective schools - and more.

Beneath this visible story are hidden changes in the way schools, colleges and universities work. The idea is to make them more like little corporations competing with each other, and less like cooperative public institutions. The power of managers has grown, and workforces have become more casualised.

Both Labor and Coalition governments have supported this agenda, at state and federal levels. It has become the common sense of policy-making. If something is a problem, apply market logic to it. If something is still wrong, apply more market logic.

Urged on by the Business Council of Australia, our Federal Labor Government is on the point of re-introducing that fine 19th century innovation, Payment By Results for teachers. Ideally, business expertise will take over the whole sector. We have a splendid model in the pre-school department, where ABC Learning led the way.

Many people have been uneasy about these changes – teacher and parent organisations especially. But with the major parties in agreement, and the mass media in support, and business pointing the way, where do critics turn? The unions, for instance, are easily dismissed as a "special interest" resisting reforms that benefit the whole community.

Does the market agenda benefit the whole community? Actually, I doubt that it benefits anyone but a privileged minority. It is time to put the whole agenda under scrutiny.

Are we comfortable about testing systems with systematic social biases? Do feel-good stories about happy winners each year outweigh the fact that competitive testing requires losers, lots and lots of them – and that defining students as losers destroys their education? Do we really want to subsidise gated communities in education, where parents pay to keep the rubbish people out?

Markets commodify things, that is basic: markets are based on buying and selling. Actually you can't commodify education as a human process. But you can commodify access to education. If you ration education, you can sell a privilege to those with enough advantage, and you can reduce the need for public investment in education for all. That's what the market agenda in education basically does.

You can commodify privileges such as entry to universities, smaller class sizes, better facilities, better-trained or less-stressed teaching workforces, curriculum materials such as textbooks, or (with the help of PR firms) the prestige of schools or universities. You can even commodify certificates and degrees and the labour market privilege they deliver, though that's usually defined as corruption rather than market logic. The more you commodify, the more you hand advantages to groups who already have privilege. Twenty-five years of market "reform" has done nothing to close the social gaps in Australian education.

Crucial to the market logic of competition and the rationing of access is a means for defining and then measuring "success" vs "failure" - and making it look objective. That's why a competitive testing regime has become central to Australian education policy. It's also why our policy-makers have turned away from negotiated curricula, community participation, multicultural education, and the other democratic initiatives in education that don't go with competitive testing and managerialism.

For teachers, the market agenda has meant growing insecurity in employment (sharply increased, in TAFE), growing inequalities and new forms of surveillance (in the name of "accountability"). Above all, where the testing regime is in force, it means pressure to teach to the test – and that means narrowing the curriculum, reducing the richness of education.

Teachers resist this pressure, of course. Overwhelmingly, teachers want education to be good for all their students, not just a high-scoring few. But there are limits to how far they can resist the self-affirming logic of the whole system, not to mention parents' and students' anxiety.

Market fundamentalism in business places power in the hands of top management. That's why we have those huge salaries and bonuses for CEOs. In education too, management prerogative has grown at all levels, the recent NSW announcement being another example. An important consequence is a top-down policy process, driven not by educational expertise nor democratic decision-making, but by market logic and the agendas of ministers and their minders.

We can do better. There are other possibilities in education. Before they can emerge, we need clarity about where the problem actually is. At the next panic about test results, ask whether we need these tests at all. At the next website launch, whether it's MyUni or MyKinder, show a little tough love and ask the awkward question: what interests are really being served by this?
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