by Richard Hatcher
Running schools is not the only way to make profits out of schools. The other way is to turn teaching into an online commodity. Not just changing the structure and governance of the school system so that in future state-funded schools can be run for profit, but changing its labour process.
The transformation of schooling in England into a profitable market through online teaching and learning is also the ambition of other global players, including Pearson, the largest education company in the world, and Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation.
Murdoch has embarked on what he calls a "revolutionary and profitable" move by his media companies into online education. In 2010, News Corporation paid $360 million for a 90 percent stake in Wireless Generation, a company based in Brooklyn that specialises in education software, data systems and assessment tools. Also in 2010 he hired Joel Klein, New York City schools chancellor, as an executive vice president at News Corporation to oversee the company’s new online educational ventures. Klein’s policy for New York schools focused on academy-style charter schools and developing a uniform citywide curriculum, both ideal preparation for entry into Gove’s school system. Gove of course would be a key figure in any attempt to penetrate the British schools market. The Leveson inquiry revealed that Gove meets Murdoch frequently (Gove used to be a leader writer on the Times) and is an enthusiastic backer of the ideas of Joel Klein.
In January 2011 Joel Klein visited the UK as the guest of the DfE. In June 2011 Murdoch and Klein both spoke at ‘The Times CEO summit’. Klein called for all pupils to be provided with tablet computers, adding that he would be "thrilled" if 10 per cent of News Corp's revenues came from education in the next five years. The Times (June 22 2011) reported the meeting under the headline ‘Education must join the digital age, says Murdoch’. It reported that ‘Rupert Murdoch signalled a digital revolution in education yesterday, saying that News Corporation would help to lead the change in how children are taught by becoming one of the world’s largest providers of educational material in the next five years.’
On 26 June 2011 Gove was at yet another dinner with Murdoch. Three days later he gave the most explicit endorsement to date of News Corp's education project in an address to the Royal Society entitled Technology in the Classroom. He said: "We need to change curricula, tests and teaching to keep up with technology … Whitehall must enable these innovations but not seek to micromanage them. The new environment of teaching schools will be a fertile ecosystem for experimenting and spreading successful ideas rapidly through the system." (29 June 2011)
At the beginning of 2013 Rachel Wolf, who had been appointed by Gove as director of the New Schools Network, whose function was to help set up free schools, took up a new job in New York with News Corp's newly launched education division Amplify, whose chief executive is Joel Klein.
The direction of travel is clear. But transforming the pedagogy of the English school system, its labour process, into - at least in part - online education that can make profits - and not just profits but a higher rate of profit than big international companies can make by investing elsewhere - is a massive and uncertain task. The foundations, the preconditions, have to be put into place. And under Gove they already are.
The biggest cost is salaries of teachers. For schools to be able to afford to buy online teaching they would need to significantly reduce the number of qualified teachers. But online-based education doesn’t need qualified teachers. Gove has opened the door by allowing free schools to employ unqualified staff. The Observer reported on 10 March 2013 that one in ten free school teachers are unqualified.
Secondly, online education is a transmission model of teaching with a standardised curriculum (even if progress through it is individualised). This model is well suited to Gove’s so-called knowledge-based curriculum, drawing on the model of US educationist E D Hirsch. Thirdly, the power of the teachers’ unions to resist these changes has to be broken, so academies aren’t bound by national pay and conditions, and government is in the process of scrapping these for all schools. And finally teacher training has to produce new teachers with the right culture, and the best place for that is schools already operating with that culture, into which trainee teachers can be assimilated, not university departments where dominant ideologies can be questioned.
Of course, transforming the labour process of teaching into an online commodity for profit is a massive challenge. There is a huge weight of inertia in the system, and there is the risk of both professional and public opposition and resistance. But it is also the case that online teaching can be a powerful resource for teachers and pupils, and it can be developed without the need for profit-hungry private companies.