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Topic: Should Pearson be influencing our education policy?
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Jerry P. Becker

Posts: 16,576
Registered: 12/3/04
Should Pearson be influencing our education policy?
Posted: Jul 19, 2012 6:29 PM
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From The Guardian [UK], Monday, July 16, 2012.

Should Pearson, a giant multinational, be influencing our education policy?

Pearson, a business that sells education products
and services, seems to be gaining an ever-growing
influence on school life. But whose interests is
the company promoting - students' or its

By Warwick Mansell []

How great an influence over education
policymaking can and should a private
organisation have? That is the question being
asked by some, as a debate growing increasingly
acrimonious in the US seems poised to cross the

Pearson, the giant London-based multinational, is
the world's largest education firm as well as
running Penguin books and the Financial Times.
Attention is now focusing on its seemingly
ever-growing influence on English school life.

Pearson's level of involvement in state education
in the US, particularly through testing, has
become high-profile in recent weeks. Last month,
hundreds of parents reportedly protested outside
the firm's New York offices, unhappy at the
company's $35m (£22m) contract to provide
controversial high-stakes tests for the city's
schools. A statement from the group
ParentVoicesNY said the protest was about "the
excessive power and influence the billion-dollar,
for-profit company, Pearson, has over [New York
City's] education department".

Pearson also reportedly has a five-year contract
worth nearly $500m (£318m) to provide tests for
schools in Texas, and sets tests across other
states including Florida, Kentucky, Arizona,
Virginia and Maryland.

In an article on Pearson in the New York Times
columnist Gail Collins described testing as a
"huge corporate profit-centre", and seemed to
call for a "pushback against education

In the UK, its home country, the company's
influence is less debated, but seems extensive
here, too. Pearson's involvement at the heart of
what goes on in English secondary schools, in
particular, through its ownership of the Edexcel
exam board (purchased in 2003), is widely known.
Edexcel is the largest UK exam body by the volume
of its sales, with a turnover of £317m in the 14
months to February 2011. It remains the only one
of England's big three school boards to be run
for profit.

Pearson's core education publishing business
includes, in this country, the brands of
Heinemann, Longman, BBC Active and the Edexcel
publishing label. All sell textbooks and other
supporting resources to schools, parents and
pupils. Since 2009, Pearson, through Edexcel, has
also had a contract to administer the marking of
Sats tests for England's 11-year-olds, grading
3.8 million of them in 2011.

But it is Pearson's foray into new areas of
policymaking and school improvement that is
provoking questions about its influence, and
about the interaction between the state and the
corporate world.

In the policy field, the company is currently -
with the Royal Society of Arts - running and
funding an inquiry into the success or failure of
the coalition's signature education policy: the
academies scheme.

Pearson has also carried out a probe this year
into whether the English exam system is promoting
"high standards", which raised concerns about
test-driven learning, and which is to be followed
up by a five-year "review of education ambition".
The company's goal in this, it says, is to
"reassert Britain's position as the global leader
in education".

This month, the CBI published its annual survey
of what businesses think of education standards
in the UK, as evidenced by the skills of recent
school leavers. For the first time this year,
this was published jointly with Pearson, with
quotations from the firm in the accompanying
press release, suggesting a high degree of
influence for Pearson in this debate.

Pearson also runs its own "Pearson Think Tank",
headed by Professor Becky Francis of King's
College, London, who is also serving on the
Pearson/RSA academies review. In 2007, it funded
the setting up of Oxford University's centre for
educational assessment.

And in the last nine months, the firm has moved
into the area of school improvement. The "Pearson
school model", which has been trialled in six
secondary schools since September, includes a
computer-based curriculum - "the Always Learning
Gateway", named after Pearson's corporate
strapline - in 11 subject areas. The service is
currently free to participating schools, but
Pearson will be charging a fee when it is sold

The Pearson school model has been led by Anders
Hultin, a Swedish educationist who invited
controversy in 2009 when, in a previous post at
the private education chain Gems, he told
Education Guardian that ministers should allow
state-funded schools to be run for profit.
Hultin, though, is now leaving Pearson to return
to Sweden.

Diane Ravitch, bestselling writer on US education
reform, who has blogged about Pearson's influence
in the US, says of the company's English
activities: "Pearson is overstepping the bounds
of the role of a profit-making business.

"The corporation is acting as a quasi-government
agency in several instances, but it is not a
quasi-government agency: it is a business that
sells products and services. What part of the
field of education does Pearson not manage?

"At what point do conflicts of interest arise? Is
it acting in the best interests of students, of
the nation, or of its own business? These are
questions that must be raised and answered."

Stephen Ball, professor of the sociology of
education at London University's Institute of
Education and an expert on education business,
sees Pearson's school-improvement model,
alongside its policy work, as particularly
interesting. He says: "I think it's related to an
overall strategy: they want to offer products and
services in all areas of school practice:
assessment, pedagogy, curriculum and management,
and they want to create the possibility for that
through policy work.

"They want to have indirect influence in policy
to create opportunities for business expansion.
It's a very well thought-out business strategy. I
think we should be thinking about it, because a
lot of it is going unnoticed."

Alasdair Smith, national secretary of the Anti
Academies Alliance, which is critical of
corporate influence in education, says: "This
stuff frightens the life out of me. My concern is
that business dictates the nature of education,
and especially the aims of education, when it
should be one voice among others."

Ball says private influence does not stop at
Pearson. He mentions McKinsey, the management
consultant that has published two widely cited
international reports on successful education
systems, as evidence of companies' incursion into
policymaking. Sir Michael Barber, Tony Blair's
former education standards guru, was an author of
both McKinsey reports. He now works for Pearson.

Last month, it was reported that ministers want
to "outsource" some policymaking to companies,
consultants and thinktanks in a bid to scale down
the civil service.

Robert Coe, a school exams expert and director of
Durham University's centre for evaluation and
monitoring, who contributed to Pearson's
standards investigation that criticised
exam-driven schooling and raised questions about
GCSEs, says he was impressed by its approach, and
that the company was right to investigate. He
says: "I read this inquiry as saying 'let's take
a look at this and see what we can do to improve
things'. A lot of the things they said [about
problems with the current system] they were right
to say."

Earlier this month, Pearson also announced plans
to invest £10m on running private schools in the
developing world.

Pearson says its involvement in so many areas of
education is part of a strategy, instigated 10
years ago, to move from being mainly a publishing
and media company to one much more involved in

Alice Hunt, director of communications for
Pearson's non-US operations, says: "That created
in us an awareness of education debates around
the world and the need to contribute to them. We
see our contribution to these debates as a really
important part of the overall discussion, which
embraces governments, other policymakers, civil
society groups and so on."

Hunt says Pearson does not run schools for profit
at present and that it is "not something we are
in any way pursuing at the moment".
PHOTO SIDEBAR: Anders Hultin, who in 2009 said
ministers should allow schools to be run for
profit, has been leading Pearson's school
improvement work. Photograph: Frank Baron for the
[NOTE: There are comments at the website, following the article.]
Jerry P. Becker
Dept. of Curriculum & Instruction
Southern Illinois University
625 Wham Drive
Mail Code 4610
Carbondale, IL 62901-4610
Phone: (618) 453-4241 [O]
(618) 457-8903 [H]
Fax: (618) 453-4244

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