By Guest Blogger George Thompson

An government sponsored education “summit” to be held in Ontario on September 13th and 14th this year will bring together privatizers from around the globe to focus on sharing “best practices.” While the big name on the venue will be the pro-privatization U.S. Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, the summit will be hosted by Ontario’s (and Louisiana’s) chief education advisor, Michael Fullan, and by Sir Michael Barber who was Britain’s chief education advisor during Tony Blair’s neoliberal reform (and who is now with a private global education consulting firm). OECD’s “head of indicators and analysis,” Andreas Schleicher, will also be on hand to discuss international “measurement” and rankings based on “data”. Thus, the focus will clearly be on forming strategic globalization alliances which will be useful from an OECD point of view. To this end, it is worth taking a closer look at Barber’s own policy directives within the OECD.  This should give a strong indication that the upcoming summit is intended to usher in a new era of global privatization to Ontario and the rest of Canada.

The Organization for Economic and Cooperative Development (OECD) is a global economic think-tank which, though it has not been elected by anyone, uses the combined might of global corporations to heavily influence both economic and social policy throughout the world in favour of creating a more profitable environment for transnational corporations. Often such reforms are counter to the public good, as seen for instance with the privatization of water in some South American countries. The OECD’s impact is nowhere more evident than in its influence over education reform. While the OECD appears to be strictly concerned with “school improvement” all the specific improvements which come from it are geared towards neoliberalism: the free trade of education as a commodity on an open market. Writing for the OECD Observer, some time before 2005, Michael Barber, then chief advisor to Tony Blair, provided a typical justification and roadmap for the kinds of reforms that global education agencies, such as McKinsey’s Global Education Practice, which Barber now heads, find profitable. It is an agenda for privatization, which Barber titles “Teaching for Tomorrow.” (

Now that over five years have passed, it is much easier to see how well aligned North American education systems of “Today” have become with Barber’s vision of “Teaching for Tomorrow”.

Barber begins by invoking the “21st century” myth that because the calendar has clicked over a couple of zeroes, a revolution is in order.

“The 21st century will demand a new kind of teaching and learning. How can we adapt a 20th century system built around industrialisation and the nation state to meet the demands of the knowledge economy?”

Such propaganda has been driven almost entirely by the computer corporations which feel the need to position their own futuristic products at the centre of all reform.

It is typical of neoliberals like Barber to think of education, not in terms of its relationship to democracy or in terms of its role in preserving cultural knowledge, but rather as a servant of global economic forces: “the industrial society and the nation state that prompted [public education systems’] existence have had their day, giving way to the new economy and globalisation.”

Barber’s argument, like those of all neoliberal reformers, is never presented as being pro-privatization. Indeed, it is a matter of silent agreement among most reformers that that the long range goal itself must never be mentioned. In fact, they know the best way to get our defences down is to present themselves as the “defenders” public education. The problem, as can be seen in all neoliberal liberal propaganda dating back to Ronald Regan in 1980s, is just that the public system of education is in an acute crisis. It doesn’t matter which country or when, or what the particular causes of the crisis are, it must always be clear that “today” be presented as being more in need of sweeping changes than ever. As John Snobelen, Ontario’s Minister of Education during the 1990s was infamously quoted, his barely disguised pro-privatization government needed a “useful crisis” in education in order to justify its radical privatization measures.

Thus, Barber creates his crisis from several factors: the world clock ticking past a multiple of 1000, the advent of what he calls the “knowledge economy” and the very “globalization” which his global education consulting business spearheads. “These powerful new forces,” he writes, “could blow public education systems away unless we can develop a clear rationale for their continued existence.” Yet another supposed crisis is that “More and more parents have greater disposable income: might they decide they want to spend that income on their children, buying an education tailored to their view of the world? If they did, how easy would it be to persuade them to continue to pay taxes for the education of everyone else’s offspring? These dilemmas are already acute in some US cities.” Of course, one might have thought that an increase in disposable income could result in a bigger tax base, especially considering that reduced general income (recession) is most often used as a justification for “crisis” to justify privatization reforms—but now the crisis is that taxpayers have too much money! One might also have thought that it wasn’t really a matter of “choice” to pay one’s taxes, but suddenly we must “persuade [parents] to continue to pay taxes for the education of everyone else’s offspring.” Moreover, hasn’t the idea always been that everyone (not just the minority with kids) pays taxes for education since it is so clearly tied to the greater benefit of society as a whole? Now apparently the public system must compete for dollars from this supposedly selfish and voluntary taxpayer who imagines himself the only taxpayer and his child the only beneficiary.

The real problem, then, according to Barber’s logic, must be how are we to keep all the rich parents volunteering to pay taxes towards other people’s offspring?

The answer to Barber is not to defend the publicly owned and operated system by educating taxpayers about the public school’s value to democracy and the greater good of society; it is not to put money back into the system that was taken out during the widespread de-funding of the 1980s and 90s, now that “more parents have greater disposable income.” It is to change the mode of education delivery. More specifically the “crisis” is being used to sell us on the notion that the roles between teacher and student must be completely changed. The need for a radical overhaul in the method of distribution of education is further heightened by what Barber portrays as a sudden “explosion of knowledge about the brain and the nature of learning”. This, coupled with “the growing power of technology” we are told must be used to “transform even the most fundamental unit of education: the interaction of teacher and learner.” Thus, one is left to conclude that the ONLY solution to the problem presented by the crisis in public education and by our new knowledge of learning is going to be technology (a.k.a. the computer giants).

Taking every opportunity to remind us that “The challenge of reforming public education systems is acute” Barber goes on to highlight that the new education system must promise, like No Child Left Behind, that the public school system, in addition to its 20th Century backwardness is also going to have to take the bullet for ALL student failure:

“The rhetoric of “success for all” was often used in the 20th century, but in reality a substantial degree of failure or under-performance was tolerated in most countries’ education systems. The challenge for the 21st century is to make success for all a reality. This demands that educators believe in the possibility of high standards for every student and that policies are designed to deliver this outcome across entire education systems.”

While of course everyone would like to see “success for all” its real value is twofold: to create intense competition over pass rates, and to create a massive need to buy expensive, private sector “solutions” which will now mediate the teacher-student relationship in such a way as force it towards the impossible goal of 100% success rates. In order to do so Barber suggests that a total de-regulation of the school environment will be necessary: “Policymakers have hitherto concentrated on standardising the input end of the education system: the number of school places, qualifications of teachers, the content of the curriculum, class sizes, hours of teaching and provision of books and materials. Not surprisingly, given the diversity of our societies and the varying backgrounds of students, the consequence was that the standards achieved “the output” became the variable. But if the output “high standards for all” is to become the constant, then the inputs must become the variable.”

It is worth noting that every “input” reform mentioned is going to become “variable”, that is, DEREGULATED, and turned into something which, as we will see, will make schools both more transferable to the private sector and more profitable to its new owners and operators. By making such things as “the number of school places” a variable, for instance, Barber is suggesting a de-regulation and re-distribution of school funding, such as would describe both charter and virtual charter school environments. The deregulation of teacher qualifications, class sizes and hours are all presented as a kind of “tailored pedagogy” to help ensure success for all, but, in fact, these changes will open up huge space for profits because labour is the main cost in education; thus, the fine print here is really the privatizer’s age-old campaigns to deprofessionalize and de-tenure teachers, and to increase class sizes and make “hours of teaching” replace security, decent pay and salary. Such changes will undermine unions and bring teachers into alignment with corporate best practices for other disorganized low wage labour.

Once again, the solution to the “crisis” de jour brought on by the OECD’s decision that everyone must pass, as presented here, and in every piece of neoliberal propaganda since, has been the need for greater “customization” to the learner’s “style”. This just in:

“Some students need more time to achieve high standards than others; some need intensive individual tuition; and as they get older some students learn better in the workplace than in school. For these needs to be met, teachers need to tailor their pedagogy.”

What could possibly be the solution to such a challenge? “Modern technology allows an individualisation that was previously unachievable.”

Fortunately, as Barber points out, we need look no further than the business world for the answers. It seems business—in particular computer corporations—has been doing things right all along: “Dell does not sell you a computer off the shelf, it builds precisely the computer you order to your specification. Only with this kind of thinking will education systems become responsive enough to remove the barriers to learning which prevent some young people from achieving high standards.”

Thus, Barber advocates a complete re-configuration of school around the business model, with student as customer, whose individuality must be appeased by an educational establishment which has hitherto been too brittle to save the children, due to teacher mind-sets. In essence it involves their acceptance of 100% responsibility for student failure:

“It means teachers asking not ‘what’s wrong with the student?’ but ‘what do I need to do differently to ensure the student succeeds next time?’”

Such a shift would seem to involve empowering teachers to become their own best abusers. Certainly no one within 500 yards of a real school has ever really allowed themselves to be this perverse in their one-sided assignment of responsibility. Making teachers buy into such a belief system is going to be a full time job for reformers, as Barber acknowledges: “if schools are to meet such individual needs, teaching needs to adapt and that means a wholly new mindset for teachers. For a start, they will have to really believe that all students can achieve high standards. This is a matter of faith as much as hard evidence and no- one should underestimate the difficulty of achieving this shift, day to day, classroom to classroom across a country.”

This massive reformatting of teachers’ belief systems is going to be very profitable. It’s going to bring in a much greater need for “accountability,” if students are never to blame. Second, it’s going to require a dramatic increase in professional development, an industry which has mushroomed under No Child Left Behind in the U.S. “But”, Barber cautions us, “accountability and continuous professional development are only the beginning.” The larger solution to the crisis in education is going to be technology.

“The technological revolution that has transformed so many sectors of the economy will shortly reach critical mass in education systems. Steady investment in hardware in many countries will increasingly be matched by investment in connectivity, system maintenance and teachers’ skills in the use of information and communications technology (ICT). Business investment in educational software is also rapidly growing. Furthermore, in the last two decades, there has been huge growth in our understanding of the human brain and how people learn.

This combination of new technology and new knowledge is the key to individualisation and high standards for all, but will require new teaching methods to make the best use of it. The whole concept of the classroom is changing. Teachers in one school are able to teach pupils in others through broadband and whiteboard technology.

Students are able to pursue investigations into, for example, medical ethics by contacting academic experts in the field directly by email.

Interactive video-conferencing enables students to work collaboratively with their peers in other countries. Computer programmes can provide individual tuition, rapid feedback and positive reinforcement for pupils working alone. Specialist language teaching becomes economical and tests and examinations, increasingly computer-based, can become much more imaginative and provided just in time, rather than only at set times of year.”

Of course, the new machines can only do so much. Barber is mindful of the fact that high stakes testing is going to have to be expanded, and that the focus for international competition should increasingly be on global standards emerging from such organizations as the OECD’s own PISA assessments, which will broaden to include indicators of “education with character”-an area already be exploited by “school climate surveys” and “character education ” companies. This quality assurance for what they call “social competence” is perhaps the most concerning, as it does not arise from moral concerns at all, but rather from the fact that “the 21st century knowledge economy will require all of us to give greater attention to how we measure the performance of pupils, schools and the system as a whole in the area of social competence.” In other words, kids need character be cause “the knowledge economyh will require” it. No doubt such morals will boil down to motivational speakers preaching the need for entrepreneurial virtues to perpetuate the Horation Alger Myth that “anyone” can be rich.
But the final and by far most important aspect of Barber’s reform blueprint to save public education is that it must, to a much greater degree than ever before, be privatized. With so much jacked up accountability for schools to be all things to all customers, “it will simply not be possible for governments to provide all the necessary services for successful education systems in the next few years.”

What a surprise? It looks like only business is going to be able to provide the solutions to a problem like this: “New partnerships beyond the school system will be needed. The business sector, traditionally one of the main “consumers” of the “products” of the education system, will increasingly become a partner as an investor and provider of services in education. The explosion of the Internet and other new technologies demands investment in new software products. Businesses, not governments, will largely make that investment. The rate at which computers become obsolete presents a funding challenge which governments on their own will not be able to solve. Maintaining and developing a stock of school buildings fit for the new century will demand huge capital expenditure. Moreover, in the competitive global market, access to highly educated staff will become ever more crucial. The question will not be whether there is business sector involvement but on what terms.”

Is all education fated to become funded strictly by for-profit and philanthropic venture interests? Barber says not: “These extra sources of funding will not, however, be a substitute for investment by government. Indeed, if all students are to achieve high standards, governments will have to invest more in the future, not less.” Indeed, as we have seen with reforms in the UK,  public funding has gone up, making education a much bigger cash cow than it has ever been, with sky-rocketing amounts of “school improvement” funding being diverted to all manner of profitable services from tutoring agencies, to PD providers, to educational management organizations.  Above all else, dramatically increased public funding will need to be diverted the very computer corporations, which, as Barber optimistically points out, will virtually  take over education with an endless need for upgrading and re-tooling.

It is fitting that Barber concludes where his mentor, Michael Fullan, begins his paradoxical remonstrations about the need for “change” which is “sustainable”. That is, with the notion that these pro-privatization reforms of which he warns, have been part of a single, unified and ubiquitously “correct” movement throughout time, which has, for too long, been thwarted by the bumbling “bureaucracy” of democratically elected governments and teacher resistance. Barber reminds us our false memories,  “The history of education reform is littered with promising initiatives that were abandoned before they had time to have a deep and powerful impact on student performance.” As we can see, all reforms have always been good, it’s just that no one follows through on them.  Thus, it is for the good of humanity (and profits) that we apply what Barber calls “strategy,” because “inadequate implementation is simply no longer acceptable.” It has been decreed. The OECD plans to play a very active role in telling governments what to do, for “Just as schools need to learn from best practice wherever it is to be found, so do governments.”

As for teachers, and in particular, their “representatives” (for some reason he can’t bring himself to say “unions”) they will get their instructions from the OECD too. Because resistance is so very futile, they can choose to sink (ie. stay in the past) or swim by abandoning their traditional collective rights and resistance to privatization:  “The choice facing teachers and their representatives is whether to ride this wave of change or sink beneath it. Much the same challenge faces public education systems as a whole. Their ability to meet it will be crucial for the success of the knowledge-based economy in all our countries.” Thus, while it is absolutely “crucial” for us to ensure “the success of the knowledge-based economy” by conforming to the public-private partnership model in which business extorts an ever larger portion of an ever-fattening tax base,  it’s also, as Barber explains, quite inevitable that the “wave of change” will drown those who try to resist by staying public. All aboard!