By Keith Somerville

In a series of interviews with media such as the BBC’s Hardtalk and the Independent Sir Michael Barber, the chief education adviser for the Pearson global publishing and education giant, has been pushing hard the idea of for-profit schools for the very poorest in Africa. The idea is that, to quote his Hardtalk interview, the poorest will pay 3, 4 or five dollars a month to go to school at primary level and 10 to 12 a month at higher levels of education.

He says the aim is to help achieve the UN target of getting all children into at least primary education by 2015 – a goal which Africa is lagging behind in it attempts to attain. Pearson would invest $15 million in the scheme and would hope to sell out its minority share in each enterprise at a profit in 7 to ten years. Barber said there is huge potential in the vast global education market and that there is an important role for profit in education.

Citing alleged successes in for-profit schooling by Pearson in Delhi and Karachi, he said this showed that schools for the poorest in society that charged a fee could work to improve educational provision while making a profit for Pearson and local majority investors. What he didn’t say was just how poor the families were that used the schools and how many of the poorest just simply couldn’t afford it. The view was that if it worked in India and Pakistan it would work in Africa.

But there are huge questions to be asked and in his interviews he evaded them or wasn’t pressed hard on them (as far as one could see from what was published or broadcast). These questions revolve both around the amount of income the very poor have available to pay for schooling, the problem of making very broad brush comparisons between South Asia and Africa and the likelihood of private investors in Africa being willing to put up sufficient funds over a long enough period to fund schools without endangering the far more extensive and important government-run education sector while having a level of sustainability…

Pearson, through executives like Sir Michael Barber, has been able to gain huge influence over educational policy, notably in Britain, where Barber was Tony Blair’s adviser but then wrote two key education reports for McKinsey, the management consultants, that are widely cited internationally. He then joined Pearson. The potential for conflicts of interest and monpolising school management, textbook supply, exam systems and debate on education are staggering and potentially very dangerous in Europe and North America. The dangers of loss of control for people and governments are even more severe in Africa, where the power of international companies is magnified by the weakness and lack of accountability of governments.

Barber made no secret of the fact, in his interviews, that Pearson would be interested in contracting out entire education systems to the for-profit sector. The dangers for education in Africa are huge and very, very obvious. In Britain, Alasdair Smith, national secretary of the Anti Academies Alliance, which is critical of corporate influence in education, was cited by the Guardian as warning, “This stuff frightens the life out of me. My concern is that business dictates the nature of education, and especially the aims of education”. The danger is all the more extreme for Africa, where business interests can really reign supreme. Read more…