Strategic ignorance, political elites and the false economy of education privatisation – by Susan L. Robertson

Originally published on 13 September 2017 by United for Quality Education

I often puzzle over how it is that though we know so much about the spectacular failures of privatisation initiatives in the social and education sectors, international agencies and governments, from the UK to the USA and Liberia, are hell-bent on pursuing more, and not less, of this decidedly dodgy product. And this is despite the accumulation of facts: that we, as a public, are worse rather than better off.

Look around, and public services from education, water, transport, health, prisons and other essential services, are being broken up at a rate of knots and outsourced to private business. This is accompanied by the shady promise: that private means ‘more efficiency’ and ‘more equity’.

Proponents of turning public services into market exchanges point out that markets are more efficient because competition generates ‘innovation’. Yet there is evidence that not only have new private sector monopolies been created ─hence, buying up competition generating innovation┬ but these giant conglomerates trade in everything from prisons to education and the repatriation of asylum seekers. There is little evidence of innovation here unless under-investment and asset stripping counts.

On the equity front, they also argue that ‘the market’ does not care about our social class, gender, or indeed the colour of our skin. As a result, the indifference of the market —as opposed to a bureau colonised by middle class interests—regarding these social facts makes it a far superior organiser of social goods and services.

Yet again, the evidence is compelling. That where market ideology has dominated the reorganisation of societies and their social and education sectors, as in the case of countries such as the UK, the United States of America, Australia, and indeed Sweden, the direction of travel is more rather than less social inequality.

A huge number of best sellers in 2014 – from Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century to World Bank economist Branco Milanovic’s  The Haves and the Have Nots– all pointed this out. And yet, still, the pursuit of the marketising and outsourcing of everything has gone from strength to strength rather than the reverse.

Faced with such facts, is this a case of illusion, delusion or what? Surely we are not that stupid to be constantly complicit in being duped?  Or, to be quite concrete; in the face of the evidence, why is it that the Liberian government, as an example from a much longer list of candidates, continues to rush headlong into outsourcing its education sector when the headlines all shout that this is a stupid decision.

Surely governments and corporations have a lot to lose in terms of legitimacy by such a consistent set of evidences on performance. Legitimacy, of course, was something the sociologist, Max Weber, was particularly interested in regarding the state and the conditions for political rule over a population. Governments need to be elected, and a disenchanted electorate could make its vote count in the ballot box. Right?  This is something market enthusiasts also point out.

For corporations, loss of legitimacy as a fair trader and employer can hurt the bottom line, a fact that James Tooley – arch proponent of education markets serviced by large corporations – has also continued to insist on.

But if these two things are true, then why is it that governments have not been voted down, or corporations booted out from holding contracts in service sectors, as their failures mount in spectacular fashion?  Instead the solution is more and more markets, rather than less.

Strategic ignorance
Linsey McGoey, a sociologist at the University of Essex, offers some interesting insights into this puzzle. She coined the concept of ‘strategic ignorance’ to describe the wilful and thus witting ignoring of evidence.  She argues that despite evidence of failure, a climate of social silence emerges on unsettling facts (such as huge losses of money; poor quality services; lower wages; corruption) which then enable such activities to endure. Furthermore, such silences are then harnessed as a means of absolving the offenders from their poor practices and losses, with the promise that they will do better next time.

One example of strategic ignorance is that the rise in social inequalities could have been predicted in terms of how neoliberal theory would work in practice – as competition always has, by definition, winners and losers. Losers are more likely to be, as we have seen from the Brexit and Trump votes, those who for social and economic reasons already start with less in the competition stakes.

Similarly, the Liberian government, in deciding to outsource its education sector to venture capitalist backed Bridge International Academies, currently fighting cases in the Ugandan courts around illegal operations, could be seen as adopting a stance of strategic ignorance.

But there are costs to pay, and the costs are likely to be borne by those who are already less well-off socially. In other words, markets are not some kind of disinterested means of coordinating buying and selling. They place sellers – like large corporations-, into unequal relationship with buyers ,such as poor populations who can be ridden rough shod over, particularly when governments assume a stance of strategic ignorance.

Strategic ignorance helps us to understand the wilfully blinkered, or head in the sand stance, of governments and international agencies around education privatisation. But it seems to me that this strategy is given potency by the way in which private sector investors and factions of the political elite have joined forces. Economist  Julie Froud from the University of Manchester, UK, and colleagues – in a recent article on elites and power after the 2008 financial crisis, point to the ways in which the political elites have deliberately overlooked, or looked elsewhere, regarding the failures of large conglomerates like Atos, Serco and Capita in delivering public services. This close link between private sector investors and political elites, in many cases sharing similar kinds of education biographies and social circles, tells us that Hayek was completely wrong when it comes to a disinterested market and a pervasively interested state.

Rising inequality, a political project
Both are profoundly interested in advancing and protecting their class project, which is to build up an unequal share of economic and other resources.  It is this relationship that Piketty argued was part of the root cause of the rapid increase in social inequalities, especially after the financial crisis of 2008.

If education is now regarded as a sector to be invested in so as to accumulate power and resources, then corporations will–you can be sure about this–pressure the state to cave into demands for limits on the state’s financial (taxes) and regulatory (e.g. competition law/fair wages) duties toward its citizens.A complicit political class, adopting a stance of strategic ignorance toward corporate investors in education, is a dangerous combination which needs to be named and exposed.

We have a great deal to lose when we lose control over one of those social institutions – for all of its problems in making fairer worlds – to investors whose motives are not learning, but profits. Strategic ignorance by the political elites also undermines the conditions for democracy, and offers us an impoverished set of options for making better futures. Let’s take back education from the investors, and put the political elites on notice, that enough is enough.

Editor’s Note: Susan L. Robertson is Professor of Sociology of Education in the Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge. Her research is concerned with the changing nature of education as a result of transformations in the wider global, regional and local economies and societies, and the changing scales on which ideas, power and politics is negotiated. Contact:

As Liberia Privatizes its Schools, An Unforeseen Result: Hungry Students

The Bridge International Academies partnership School in the town of Cinta, Margibi County

In a longer school day, students complain of hunger and drop out

“As you can see, the green plum, everything is finished,” says Sinneh Binda, pointing to a tall mango tree. Towering over the courtyard of the Cinta Public School, about an hour’s drive from Liberia’s capital city of Monrovia, the tree is barren, devoid of the fruit that should be hanging from its branches. “When we get hungry, we can just be eating everything in the tree,” she explains.

Binda is a student at the Cinta Public School, which was taken over by US-based Bridge International Academies this year as a part of a controversial public-private partnership with the Liberian government. Under the pilot phase of the partnership, a mix of for-profit and charity education providers have assumed control of 93 Liberian public schools, including 25 managed by Bridge.

Often described as an “experiment,” a key selling point for the privatization program was the extension of the school day from 12:30pm to 3:30pm. But parents in Cinta say they were misled by Bridge and the Liberian government about an accompanying program to feed students during the longer school day, and that as a result many have dropped out due to the effects of hunger in the classroom.

“A child can not stay in school from seven up to almost four without feeding,” says Moses Flomo, chairperson of the Parent-Teacher Association in Cinta. Flomo claims that when representatives from Bridge presented their plan to take over the local public school, they assured parents they would work with the government and other charity organizations to implement a school lunch program.

But with the school year nearly finished, the program has yet to materialize, and Flomo says both Bridge and the government have been unresponsive to his appeals for them to address the issue.

“I have made requests several times for them to fulfill the promises they made,” he says. “Every time they say we should wait, even now.”

Flomo explains that under the public school system, children typically left school around noon to join their parents on the family farm, where they would share a light lunch of plantains or cassava. Most families in Cinta cook one large meal at night, and don’t have access to containers to pack a lunch for their children to bring to school nor the financial means to afford it. While an extended school day provides more class time for students, Flomo says the absence of the promised feeding program has led to a high rate of dropouts.

Samuel Nyah with his son Benedict, 16, a student at the Bridge-run Cinta Public School

“I’m not satisfied with Bridge partnership,” says Samuel Nyah, who has three children enrolled in the school. “They told us when they launched their program that they would have a feeding program, but they never fulfilled their promise.”

Nelson Gwe, chairperson of Cinta’s school board, concurs, saying the lack of food during the longer day has contributed to the reduction of class sizes in some cases to less than half of the 45 students who initially enrolled.  “Some days you will find only 20, or 15, or 18,” he says.

Binda says that some of her friends left school due to the discomfort of not eating during an eight-hour day. “When we’re on the campus, there’s nothing for us to eat and no safe drinking water,” she says. “And when we become hungry, we can’t pay attention.”

According to Binda, after dropping out of the school, a friend of hers became pregnant. “They said, we can’t stand the punishment, it’s too hard,” she says, explaining why her friends left school. “We can’t be here with hunger. At least when we’re in the town we can hustle and eat.”

Teen pregnancy in rural Liberia is a deeply rooted, complex problem, and the circumstances around a young girl becoming pregnant can’t be ascribed to any one factor. But experts say that girls who do not attend school are far more likely to become pregnant than those who do.

“Girls out of school are at higher risk of pregnancy given the prevalence of poverty and their vulnerability to sexual exploitation,” explains Lakshmi Subramani, acting country director of Action Aid Liberia.

Sinneh Binda, 13, a student at the Bridge-run Cinta Public School

For students in Cinta who drop out of the Bridge-run school, there are limited options. The school is the only one in the town that doesn’t charge a fee, and the nearest public school is ten kilometers down a busy highway. Few parents in Cinta can afford the cost of transportation to send children to that school, and they say that if children leave the Bridge school they tend to join their parents in working on the family farm.

Representatives from the National Teachers Association of Liberia, an umbrella organization that collects dues from members and advocates on behalf of Liberian teachers, say that the problem of hungry students isn’t limited to Cinta, and that similar issues are popping up in most of the newly privatized schools across the country.

Cuts to Kindergarten and First Grade Cause Frustration Among Parents

Both Flomo and Gwe say that despite some reservations, most parents in the town were initially excited about Bridge, mainly due to the company’s use of computers in its lesson plans. But they say patience is now wearing thin. In addition to the lack of a feeding program, they say Bridge cut kindergarten and first grade from the school, causing frustration among parents who now have to supervise their young children during the day, and who are concerned they won’t be prepared to enter second grade.

To address the issue, parents in Cinta have pooled scarce resources and labor to begin construction of a makeshift kindergarten out of bamboo and sticks, although Flomo says the town is struggling to find funds to pay for a zinc roof.

David Paye, a parent in Cinta, posing next to the makeshift annex the town is building to host kindergarten classes that were cut by Bridge.

“We really wanted to reject [Bridge] at the time,” says Gwe, describing the realization among parents that kindergarten was being eliminated from the school. “But by that time the contract was already signed with the government, so we couldn’t say any other thing.”

The Liberian government has signaled its intention to scale the partnership program upwards to as many as 100 additional schools next year, most of which are likely to feature the same extended school day. However, an update on the pilot circulated by the Liberian Ministry of Education in February makes no mention of issues related to school feeding. The report acknowledges the costs of running the schools have been high for providers, saying that “hard decisions will need to be made” regarding the need to keep the schools affordable. There is little to suggest that plans are being designed to feed students during the longer day, nor that the problem will be addressed in a potential expansion.

Multiple requests for comment sent to the Ministry of Education on the issue of feeding programs in partnership schools went unanswered.

“We are not feeling fine,” says David Paye, a parent of three students at the school in Cinta. “But we can’t do anything to them, because they got their agreement with the government. But the way they are functioning is not easy for we the parents.”

(*) Disclaimer: This reporting mission was supported by Education International.

NORRAG (Network for International Policies and Cooperation in Education and Training) is an internationally recognised, multi-stakeholder network which has been seeking to inform, challenge and influence international education and training policies and cooperation for almost 30 years. NORRAG has more than 4,500 registered members worldwide and is free to join. Not a member? Join free here.

Recommended Event – Translanguaging in pedagogy: Multilingual realities in migrant language education – James Simpson, 9 May

Speaker: Dr James Simpson, University of Leeds

Date/Time: Tuesday 9th May 2017 at 2:00-3:30pm

Venue: Room 1.20, Graduate School of Education, University of Bristol, 35 Berkeley Square, BS8 1JA.


Multilingual people in migration contexts typically translanguage as a matter of course, drawing upon a multilingual repertoire as appropriate for a particular situation. The main, or dominant, language of the country is part of that repertoire, but might not always be the most important language needed in social or work life. At the same time, in national policy circles and in educational practice across the post-industrial global north, access to the dominant language is regarded as the sine qua non of integration and little attention is paid to students’ multilingual language resources.

The aim of this session is to explore approaches to (language) education that value the entire range of students’ linguistic and semiotic repertoires. We begin by examining data from a large study of urban multilingualism, the AHRC-funded Translation and Translanguaging (TLang) project, looking at salient aspects of language use and meaning-making in work, social and home settings in Leeds, in the North of England.

In the second part we look at examples of translanguaging in pedagogy from a variety of educational contexts, designed to enable the full range of students’ communicative repertoires to be brought into education as resources for meaning-making, for the expression of identity, and for engendering a sense of belonging. To end we will discuss implications for language education policy practice in contexts with which participants are familiar

About the speaker: Dr James Simpson is Senior Lecturer in Language Education at the University of Leeds, where he leads the Language Education Academic Group.

Relevant Publications

Simpson J and Whiteside A (eds.) Adult Migrant Language Education: Challenging Agendas in Policy and Practice (London: Routledge, 2016)

Simpson J, Bradley J, ‘Communication in the contact zone: The TLANG project and ESOL’, Language Issues: The ESOL Journal, 27.2 (2017), 4-18 Repository URL:

Nam Peri’s work on India’s unofficial cramming-college capital inspires a piece in The Economist

Graduate School of Education’s doctoral student Narasimham Peri has been doing some highly innovative work in the area of knowledge production in traditional industries and livelihood alternatives to post-compulsory education. So much so that his blog post Emerging discontinuities in employment-led education has been picked up by The Economist and used as a basis for a fascinating account of how one of Hyderbad’s neighbourhoods has become an unofficial IT training hub, developing ‘salary-boosting skills at warp speed’. The piece was published on 30th March 2017 and is available online.

We are thrilled to see that Narasimham’s academic work resonates with the general public and is having a real impact both within and outside academia.

Editor’s note: Narasimham (Nam) Peri is a doctoral candidate affiliated with the Research Network Globalisation, Education & Social Futures in the Graduate School of Education, University of Bristol. His research has been supervised by Professor Susan Robertson, Professor Roger Dale and Dr Angeline Mbogo Barrett.

Recommended event – Social Morphogenesis: Five Years of Inquiring Into Social Change – 30 May 2017


Postmodernity. Second modernity. Network Society. Late modernity. Liquid modernity. Such concepts have dominated social thought in recent decades, with a bewildering array of claims about social change and its implications. But what do we mean by ‘social change’? How do we establish that such change is taking place? What does it mean to say that it is intensifying? These are some of the questions which the Social Morphogenesis project has sought to answer in the last five years, through an inquiry orientated around the speculative notion of ‘morphogenic society’.

In this launch event, contributors to the project discuss their work over the last five years and the questions it gas addressed concerning social change. The day begins with an introductory lecture by the convenor of the project, Margaret S. Archer, before a series of thematic panels presenting different stands of the project. It concludes with a closing session in which participants share three issues the project raised for them, as well as a general discussion.

At the end of the day, there will be a wine reception to which all participants are invited. There will also be an opportunity to purchase discounted copies of the books from Springer.

Ismael Al-Amoudi
Margaret S. Archer
Mark Carrigan
Pierpaolo Donati
Emmanuel Lazega
Andrea M. Maccarini
Jamie Morgan
Graham Scambler (Chair)

More speakers to be confirmed.
DATE AND TIME: Tuesday, May 30, 2017, 1:00 PM – 7:00 PM BST

LOCATION: The British Library, 96 Euston Road, London, NW1 2DB

Education Int’l REPORT: Privatisation of Education in Latin America

EI Report LatAm.PNGLatin America, leading the way in the global privatisation of education

This week, Education International (EI) launches a major research report on the privatisation of education in Latin America. The report: Privatisation of Education in Latin America: Mapping policies, trends and trajectories, is the work of researchers Antoni Verger, Mauro Moschetti and Clara Fontdevila, from the Autonomous University of Barcelona. This year, Fontdevila and Verger received an award from the prestigious Comparative International Education Society (CIES) for a similar study on the political economy of worldwide educational reforms.

This new report reveals that in recent decades, Latin America has been the region with the steadiest growth in privatisation of education. The region is notable not only for having the highest rate of enrolment in private primary education in the world, but also for showing the most consistent growth in private provision. This also applies at the secondary school level, for which Latin America is tied with Sub-Saharan Africa for the region with the highest private enrolment.

Despite the magnitude of this phenomenon, there is little relevant information in the literature, and it is difficult to identify an accurate regional overview due to the region’s heterogeneity. This makes the present study especially relevant, with the researchers managing to identify a typology of the different regional trajectories towards the privatisation of education through an exhaustive analysis of the circumstances that have led to the adoption in recent decades of policies that favour the privatisation of education.

Examples include the suppression of fundamental educational rights as a result of the ‘freedom of choice’ characteristic of the privatisation as structural reform observed in Chile, which now has one of the most unequal education systems in the world as a result (OECD, 2014). In Argentina, long-standing public-private partnerships established during 1940–1960 have favoured the deregulation of private schools.

Through these and other examples, the report divulges the nature, constraints, variants, and ultimately the ‘constructed’ attributes inherent to this phenomenon within the political context of each individual country. The great diversity of approaches represented by these trajectories reveal that Latin America is a region uniquely suited to thinking and participating in theoretical and social discourse regarding the political economy of educational reforms.

Fred Van Leeuwen, General Secretary, Education International, remarked, “Education International fully supports the struggle against the commercialisation of education in all its forms and seeks to raise awareness of the transnational agents that promote not only the commercialisation of education, but also the introduction of free-market philosophies to public systems at all levels. The consequences of this can be clearly seen in the case of Chile, which according to the OCDE has the most unequal education system in the world.”

The key findings of the research are as follows:

  • The Latin American and Caribbean (LAC) region has the highest rate of privatisation of primary education in the world, with the most sustained level of growth since the mid-1990s. This is also the case for secondary education, in which Latin America and the Caribbean are again in the lead, tied with Sub-Saharan Africa for the region with the highest levels of privatisation.
  • On a regional level, there is no clear correlation between educational expansion and increased private enrolment. The processes that drive the privatisation of education are more closely linked to the economic policies of each country rather than to periods of increased educational expansion, as is commonly believed.
  • In light of these findings, the study identifies 7 different trajectories of privatised education in Latin America rooted in the political economy shaped by educational reforms. Each of the seven trajectories is exemplified by certain countries, some of which show more than one of these trends:
  1. Privatisation through state-sanctioned structural reforms (Chile)
  2. Privatisation through incremental reforms (Colombia, Brazil)
  3. Privatisation by default and the emergence of ‘low-cost’ private schools (Dominican Republic, Peru, Jamaica)
  4. Long-standing public-private partnerships (Argentina, Dominican Republic)
  5. Privatisation as a result of natural disasters or armed conflicts (Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras, Haiti)
  6. Containment of privatisation (Bolivia)
  7. Latent privatisation (Uruguay)
  • Unique among these trends is the ‘de-privatisation of education’, or containment of privatisation, a scarcely documented phenomenon that has been observed in Bolivia. This apparent reversal of the trend towards privatisation is attributable to a series of normative and/or institutional changes that have occurred as a result of greater investment in education and a reassessment in political and cultural discourse of the importance of public education.
  • The study notes the emergence of new educational actors who advocate pro-market reforms in line with New Public Management. These ‘philanthropic’ corporate networks have grown increasingly strong in countries such as Brazil (Todos Pela Educação), Mexico (Mexicanos Primero) and, more recently, Uruguay (Eduy21). These networks wield growing political influence as a result of their access to government elites, co-operation with civil society organisations, and powerful mass media campaigns.
  • The study also highlights the decisive role of international agencies in promoting privatisation agendas within each of the countries studied, often through pilot programmes whose long-term effects have been shown to negatively impact the quality of education in a given region. This is especially true in Central America due to partnerships between the World Bank, Inter-American Development Bank, and United States Agency for International Development (USAID).

The complete report (in Spanish): Privatisation of education in Latin America: Mapping policies, trends and trajectories. Verger T., Moschetti M. & Fontdevila C. (Autonomous University of Barcelona, 2017) is available for download here.

For media inquiries:

Angelo Gavrielatos –

When crisis for many means opportunity for some: Private profit and the education of Syrian refugees – by Fred van Leeuwen, General Secretary, EI

The war in Syria has been on the front pages of newspapers for six years now. We have witnessed the plight of those who flee, the long winters in refugee camp tents. But little is said about the fate of refugee children when it comes to their education. Do they have schools to go to? Who teaches them?

A new study answers these questions. “Investing in the Crisis: Private Participation in the Education of Syrian Refugees”, conducted by Francine Menashy and Zeena Zakharia from the University of Massachusetts, examines the situation of 900,000 refugee Syrian children who are out of school in their host countries, with enrolment rates ranging from 70 percent in Jordan to 40 percent in Lebanon and 39 percent in Turkey.

Clearly, there is a deficit in access to education for refugee children – and private providers are actively engaging in that space. Naomi Klein, who coined the term ‘disaster capitalism’, outlined how the private sector is quick to respond whenever a crisis or natural disaster strikes. However, in the case of education in such emergencies, little has been known about the scope and aims of private engagement.

This report highlights a surge in private actor involvement in the Middle East since 2015, with 144 non-state actors currently engaged in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. This includes 46 businesses and 15 private foundations, the majority of which have their headquarters in the global north, and 61 percent of which do not have education as their primary mandate.

What other drivers apart from education pull private investment into the region?

In their study, Menashy and Zakharia explore the nature of private sector involvement in the education of Syrian refugees. The study raises questions about the profit motive driving these actors which may be at odds with what is best for refugee children, including their right to quality education. Furthermore, part of the new trend of ‘philanthrocapitalism’, which is increasingly influencing education policies and programmes, is the involvement of private companies in the education of Syrian refugees which may contribute to undermining democratic governance and accountability in education that was once inextricably linked to social dialogue and legislative processes.

While the intervention of private actors may be unavoidable in certain crisis contexts, the study unveils clear areas of concern. Private actors on the ground seem to be insufficiently coordinated, leading to imbalances and duplication of services – a situation which is worsened through inadequate communication between the private actors and the state.

The authors also highlight that private stakeholders often overemphasise the role and presence of technology in education. This emphasis on ICT is questionable given the scarcity of resources, with schools often lacking the most basic infrastructure and tools. Do children need tablets when they have no benches to sit on, no toilets to go to at school? In this regard, governments are well advised to seek and consider the expert voice of teachers and their unions – a vital part of a humanitarian response in education – to ensure that interventions are contextualised and appropriate for the reality in the classroom.

Lastly, the engagement of private actors in Syrian refugee education is translating into political influence, where numerous businesses are becoming key decision-makers in refugee education policymaking. This influence can and will promote an increase in the private provision of education and non-formal education environments. This is deeply problematic due to the overall lack of accountability in terms of educational quality and equity, as previous studies commissioned by Education International have shown.

This report lays bare the undeniable obligation of all governments to ensure that the rights of all children, including refugee children, are met. This includes the provision of free inclusive and equitable quality public education. Beyond this, governments are also required to regulate the involvement of private actors within clear legal frameworks addressing the commercialisation of education in fragile settings. We must challenge the exploitation of those in need. Seeking to profit from those in need cannot be labelled as anything but unethical.

EI’s research report Investing in the crisis: Private participation in the education of Syrian refugees can be downloaded here

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Key findings

  1. A surge of private involvement in Syrian refugee education
    • With 900, 000 Syrian refugee children out-of-school there has been a surge in corporate actors engaged in their education.
    • 144 non-state actors are now involved in the education of Syrian refugees in Jordan, Tukey and Lebanon, of which 61 are businesses and private foundations, the majority based in the Global North.
  2. Investing in the crisis
    • While some corporate actors say they have humanitarian motivations, many also say they have profit-oriented goals for involvement in the education of Syrian refugees:
      1. High profile humanitarian activities can improve a business’ brand image both externally and internally.
      2. Crisis allows companies to experiment with new ideas and innovative products, creating a potential future market after the crisis has passed.
    • Profiting from crisis has been coined as ‘disaster capitalism’ by Naomi Klein.
  3. Inadequate, uncoordinated interventions
    • Many private actors with different aims and priorities results in a fragmented response. Their coordination is insufficient, and produces duplicated, disorganised or imbalanced interventions.
    • Some businesses have rushed their involvement, possibly due to a ‘bandwagon’ effect. Several businesses eager to elevate their own brand images arrived on the scene without adequate planning and coordination with those already involved.
    • Corporate actors are also not coordinating sufficiently with public actors. Without consulting local stakeholders, including Ministries of Education, teachers or teacher unions, private actors lack an adequate awareness of the issues at play for successful implementation of initiatives at a classroom level.
  4. Overemphasis on technology
    • The interventions made by the private sector have an overemphasis on technology.
    • Nearly half of private actors involved in Syrian refugee education are supporting some form of educational technology. But this is often decontextualized from the reality on the ground, in terms of content, form, delivery, and needs, and for instance where electricity is not always available.
  5. Private actors bring undemocratic decision-making into the sphere of education
    • There is the potential for a rise in private schools at the expense of public provision.
    • The involvement of private actors in the education of refugees goes beyond the provision of resources, infrastructure and training. ‘Philanthrocapitalists’ are now becoming key decision-makers for policy as well as providers of funding.
    • This is problematic not only because these private actors are unelected, making their decision-making power undemocratic, but also because they have little accountability.
  6. Recommendations
    • States must fulfil their obligations with respect to the rights of Syrian refugee children including the provision of free quality public education.
    • The limitations of the capacity of the private sector to understand and work within rapidly evolving humanitarian contexts needs to be acknowledged.
    • All interventions made must be well coordinated and contextualised, with a focus on equity and grounded within a commitment to refugee educational rights.
    • Ethical tensions between humanitarian and profit motivations of businesses to invest in the crisis suggest the need for the state and international community to regulate their involvement by establishing legal frameworks for private actor engagement.

In Liberia, a town struggles to adjust to its new charter school – by Ashoka Mukpo

Originally published on 12 April 2017 by World Education Blog, Global Education Monitoring Report.


When the community of Kollita Wolah built their schoolhouse in 1989, it was a proud moment. Located a few kilometers to the north of Gbarnga, a bustling hub city in central Liberia, residents of the town had long struggled to send their children to school. It was a long walk to the closest school– over thirty minutes – and for younger children the journey wasn’t safe. So town leaders pooled money they’d saved from a collectively managed rice farm, building a concrete school in the heart of Kollita Wolah.

Now, the school is under the management of Bridge International Academies, an American company that took over under the Liberian government’s pilot experiment with foreign-run charter schools. But residents of the town say they were misled about what to expect from the new system, and that the handover left many children without access to education due to Bridge’s restrictions on class sizes.

“[Last year] there were more than 75 students in each class,” says Moses Barror, the Youth Chairman of Kollita Wolah. “But when [Bridge] came in, they said they would only accept 45. So it made most of the children left out. And it was the community that built the school. So the community members, most of them got angry.”

Limiting the size of classes is a key goal of the charter school pilot program. Under the program, private companies and non-profit organizations have assumed control of 93 primary schools across the country. Described as a ‘public-private partnership,’ it’s an ambitious plan that’s attracted attention – and criticism – far beyond Liberia’s borders.

Reducing class sizes in Liberian schools is described as a key step in ensuring that teachers are able to focus on individual students, keeping the numbers manageable so that lesson plans can be more effectively delivered.


But the speed with which the charter school pilot program was implemented in the country appears to have led to some children being left on the sidelines, as companies like Bridge limit the class sizes of schools they take over without an adequate plan to support students who can no longer attend the school.

Barror explains that last summer, representatives from the Ministry of Education came to Kollita Wolah and told parents that Bridge would be taking over the local school. At first, residents of the town were excited about the prospect of additional resources being devoted to the school, but when registration closed, a large number of children from the town didn’t make the cut.


The parents of those children – whose ages Barror says ranged from nursery to high school – were told that government schools in the nearby city of Gbarnga would accept those who couldn’t attend the school in Kollita Wolah. But parents whose children were too young to safely make the 30-minute walk along the busy commercial road were faced with a difficult dilemma: either find relatives in Gbarnga who the children could stay with, pay the expensive daily transportation fees, or keep the children at home.

Many say they had no choice but to pull their children out of school.

Barror says that parents in Kollita Wolah were furious over the exclusion of children from the community school, at one point sending the ‘country devil’ – a traditional figure who wears a fearsome mask – into the town as an act of protest. According to Barror, the County Education Officer asked Bridge to accept the students who were left out in response to the community’s protests, but was told it wasn’t possible.


For Betty Flomo, the arrival of Bridge forced a painful decision. Flomo has four children of her own, along with one who she cares for. All five attended the school in Kollita Wolah prior its conversion to a charter school. This year, only one was able to register.

“They said we must pay [the children’s] way to Gbarnga, but we don’t have the money,” she says.

Flomo only had enough funds to pay for transport for two of the four children who were left out to attend school in Gbarnga. She chose her two sons, Collinus, 9, and Ama, 12. Her two daughters, Rota, 8, and Sarah, 7, have not attended classes since Bridge assumed control of the school in Kollita Wolah. Flomo’s story raises the concerning prospect that young girls may be at higher risk of losing access to education in cases where the new charter schools aren’t able to take all of the previous students.

“If it was left to me, Bridge would go,” says Flomo.

Advocates for the charter school pilot program in Liberia say that stories like Flomo’s are rare, and that there have been few instances where private school management has led to students being left out. But there have been reports of similar incidents to the one that took place in Kollita Wolah from schools in other areas.

Few observers of the Liberian education system are likely to object to efforts to reduce class sizes or extend the school day. However, the case of Kollita Wolah highlights the unintended consequences of a pilot program that the Liberian government describes in project documents as having been implemented in an “aggressive and ambitious timeframe.”

As the Liberian Ministry of Education proposes scaling up the pilot program to cover as many as 100 additional schools across the country, it’s unclear whether efforts have been made to ensure that children who are unable to attend the next wave of charter schools will be given adequate support in finding other schools to attend. An update on the pilot circulated by the government in February makes no mention of children being left out of any schools during its first year of implementation.


Commenting on the unfolding of the pilot program in Kollita Woleh, Angelo Gavrielatos, Project Director for Education International, says, “Students being denied access to their local school as a consequence of outsourcing its schools to private operators represents a serious policy failure on the part of the Liberian government, and it illustrates what can occur when private interests take charge of education.”

This reporting mission was supported by Education International

‘May’ days in March: Bridge International Academies asked to account by UK Parliament – by Susan Robertson

Originally published on 5 April 2017 by

It is not often a US-based private education contractor for the delivery of services gets asked to appear as a witness to give evidence to a UK Government International Development Committee hearing in the House of Commons, London.

But just one week ago, on Tuesday 28th March, 2017, co-founder of Bridge International Academies, Dr. Shannon May, faced a barrage of questions from the Committee members on the activities of Bridge, and the nature of its relationship to the UK’s aid agency, the Department for International Development (DfID).

The Committee Chair, Stephen Twigg began with his first question for May:  “According to your website, Bridge’s investors are mainly venture capital firms, philanthropists and development finance institutions. My understanding is that to date DfID is the only donor agency to have invested directly in Bridge. Is that correct?”

The answer from May took some time to emerge: “We have been working under a contract with DfID specifically in Lagos State to improve our learning outcomes for marginalised children”. For DfID, this relationship with Bridge is particularly controversial. This is UK aid money going directly into a profit-making venture by Bridge and its venture capital backers.

Yet with the count-down to the delivery of Brexit less than 24 hours away, DfID’s relationship to this for-profit company did not get the public airing in the press that it deserved. For the following day was no ordinary day either.  Rather, another May – in this case UK Prime Minister, Theresa May, was to deliver a fateful message to its European cousins; a letter triggering the exit of the UK from the European Union.

Buoyed by bravado and not fact, ambition and not measured evidence, Mrs May’s account of the future for the UK was a heady mix of massaged meanings into post-facts and post-truth. This was a day that veered between the multiple meanings of ‘may day’ – from a signal of distress to rowdy celebration.

So how did the other Dr. May fare on this mad March day?  An analysis of the video and transcript of the hearing is revealing. What were the facts of this relationship between Bridge and DfID?  And why should we care?  The fact of the matter is that Bridge International Academies has not only caught the attention of the global educational community with its breath-taking ambition – to roll out a for-profit model of education to reach more than 10 million children across a dozen countries, but it has been mired in controversy over its model of development and operations.

Who, then, are Bridge International Academies? Briefly it is a US-headquartered international education chain founded in 2007 by Shannon May and Jay Kimmelman. It has the backing of venture capitalists, such as Facebook’s Zuckerberg, the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation who lend to the private sector, and corporate philanthropists like Gates. It promotes itself as a ‘low-cost’ fee-based, network of for-profit primary schools aimed at families living in low-income countries on US$1.25 per capita per day.

Its rapid expansion since 2009 has been remarkable. The company has set a target of 3,337 schools by 2018, enrolling close to 2.5 million students. Bridge operated in Uganda (until its schools were closed in August 2016 for failing to meet government standards). It continues to operate in Nigeria, and has according to Action Aid’s David Archer, a lucrative $US8 million contract to operate publicly-funded private schools in Liberia (with Bridge one of 8 providers in the initiative called Partnership Schools for Liberia) which began September 2016. Yet as Archer points out, if the total budget for Liberia’s education is around $41 million to service 3,000 schools, and Bridge gets around 1/5 of this to run 24 schools, the thorny matter of profiting from already cash-strapped governments aside, the question of what’s left for the rest over the long term is a particularly relevant one.

Why do we care? Well at its simplest, this seems to be a case of Liberia seeking to outsource education, and in doing so, outsourcing its responsibilities as a government to educate the next generation.

But there is more. Bridge deploys a unique business model: economies of scale, and the use of new technologies. The parallels here with the rise of Taylorism just over a century ago cannot be overlooked, where the complex tasks of workers were driven by the logic of efficiency, with workers (in this case teachers) losing control over the nature of their work. And whilst this model is represented as an education innovation by Dr May in her account to the Committee, (which it surely is), it is not the case that all innovations are by definition socially desirable. Indeed Taylor – in his presentation in 1912 to the US House of Representatives – was to describe his principles of scientific management the new ‘alchemy’; a technique able to convert the management of work into bigger profits.

In her description of Bridge to the International Development Committee, Dr. May described Bridge as a ‘mission-driven social enterprise’. Quizzed by Committee member, Pauline Latham, around this unusual use of the term ‘social enterprise’, Latham pointed out that we normally view a social enterprise as a not-for-profit organization. Dr. May responded: “Perhaps it could be just a difference in interpretation of terms”.  Earlier on in the hearing, Dr. May described a social enterprise as meaning: “we have been structured to ensure that we are able to serve families at a fairly minimal fee level. These are families that are earning $1.25 per day per capita”.

This response echoes of massaged meanings, post-fact and post-truth. Perhaps we might say that rather than Bridge being a social enterprise, it is Bridge’s owners who have been particularly socially-enterprising, recognizing an opportunity to make a profit from the very poor with the promise of an education to radically transform their future. Alchemy indeed. Taylor would be cheering from the side-lines, but his disenfranchised workers would not.

And then there is the question of evidence. Does it work? Is a tablet driven learning environment effective? What is the role of the teacher in this learning relationship?  In her evidence to the International Development Committee, Dr. May described a tablet driven education as interactive. Again this is a strange twist in the meaning of interactive. Typically we mean the teacher interacts with the students, and not Headquarters. Which leads us to conclude that the teacher is just a cypher for learning and managing decisions made in the head office of a distant country thousands of miles away.

But let’s return to the issue of evidence. In Dr. May’s words, Bridge is “scientifically-driven and evidence-based”.  In her evidence to the Committee, she pointed to Liberia, stating that a small evaluation study has shown that in comparing 6 publicly-funded Liberian schools working with Bridge, with 6 schools not working with Bridge, Bridge were able to generate “radical” learning gains after just 15 weeks. Alchemy again! Without wanting to be too cynical about things, perhaps we ought to be aware of the basis on which claims to science and rigor are made. Are each of the schools the same? Do they receive the same funds? Are the class sizes the same? Is the effect size of simply being in an innovation being discounted or included? World experts on assessments and statistics, like the University of Bristol’s Professor Harvey Goldstein, have questioned Bridge’s loose understanding of evidence and rigour in their Kenya Report to learning gains.

The spectre of post-truth and post-facts also casts its dark shadow even further. Asked by the Chair of the Committee about “allegations of the Bridge staff exhibiting threatening behavior toward independent researchers” in Uganda, May’s response was: “…this gentleman…was misrepresenting his identity stating he was someone who worked for Bridge. Parents and teachers recognized he did not work for Bridge. They called in to our Bridge customer service line, and in some cases called their local police station, which many parents in the UK would also do if there was a stranger who was impersonating an employee of the school”.

The ‘gentleman’ here is Curtis Riep, a Canadian independent researcher examining Bridge’s operations in Uganda. Riep was cleared by the police of all charges and especially accusations of him misrepresenting his identity.  What has Bridge to hide, or lose, with this kind of threatening behavior? Lots of course, including the promise of profits into the future. Losing its right to operate in Uganda because of sub-standard provision, with questions about its operations in Kenya still to be resolved, its relationship with DfID being scrutinized, there is a lot at stake.  Which is why its recent contract in Liberia is both important to them, for losing this, and its investors, who are likely to get edgy.

Profit and education is a bad mix. It is not the new alchemy, nor the magic money making machine that will deliver to the poor whilst exploiting the poor. How can it. The sums don’t add up. Well, not really, unless we are all seduced by post-truth and post-fact.  Which is why close scrutiny, and hard questions in search of hard answers, are all the more important, especially when education is increasingly seen by the 21st Century entrepreneurs and investors as ripe for easy profits.

Editor’s Note: Susan L. Robertson is Professor of Sociology of Education in the Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge. Her research is concerned with the changing nature of education as a result of transformations in the wider global, regional and local economies and societies, and the changing scales on which ideas, power and politics is negotiated. Contact:

FreshEd – Year in Review – with Susan Robertson and Roger Dale

Susan Robertson and Roger Dale, co-editors of the journal Globalisation, Societies, and Education, speak to Will Brehm to reflect on the year in research and point to future directions.

In their conversation, they discuss a range of issues facing education, including: the limitations of mobility studies, the increase of migration worldwide, the rise of populism and anti-globalization movements, the role of trade deals in education, and the Hayekian world in which we find ourselves where individuals — not societies or governments — are at the centre of social imaginaries and how this relates to educational privatisation, private debt, and the discourse of choice.

Susan Robertson is Professor of Sociology of Education at the University of Cambridge (Contact:; and Roger Dale is Professor of Education at the University of Bristol (Contact: Both Susan and Roger are members of the research network Globalisation, Education and Social Futures.

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