Anna Hogan

Can your canteen make money? Depends where you live

Parent and Citizen Associations are traditionally linked to school fundraising  through cake stalls, fetes and trivia nights. Now their emphasis has shifted to commercial ventures run at scale. That’s led to new tensions, roles, and relationships. Here’s what we found.

The issue of school funding in Australia remains controversial. The Review of Funding for Schooling, known as the Gonski report, found that school funding mechanisms are complex, lack coherence, transparency, and contribute to inequitable student outcomes. The report recommended a sector-blind, needs-based model of school funding to improve student outcomes. The report also suggested that philanthropic giving could be one avenue for improved funding for schools in disadvantaged contexts. This advocacy for philanthropy is often forgotten when discussing the Gonski report, but we think it is timely to consider the role of philanthropy in Australian school funding. 

In the US, philanthropy tends to be dominated by venture capital consortia and billionaires. However, in Australia the common type of philanthropy is more grassroots and centres on the roles of parent groups such as Parent and Citizen Associations (P&Cs). 

P&Cs are school-based organisations that work in partnership with schools and the community to enhance outcomes for students. The fundraising now include running profitable school-based businesses including canteens, uniform shops and Outside Hours School Care services that generate large-scale funding that can be reinvested in essential education services that is not captured in official funding data. 

Re-prioritising P&Cs as philanthropic organisations

This reconfiguration to commercial ventures in Queensland emerges from both the systemic restructuring of Australian education privileging school autonomy, between-school competition, and performative metrics and the struggle to fund core educational services in public schools. The mobilisation, and reconfiguration of philanthropy is a pillar of systemic marketisation, yet it rarely receives as much scrutiny as autonomy, performativity and competition.

Research into philanthropy has tended to focus on either the ideological work of billionaires and venture capital consortia and their ability to influence systemic public school policy and practice (see Scott, 2009) or the strategic alliances between P&Cs and philanthropic donors (see Yoon et al., 2020). This research into philanthropy has tended to focus on North America, and fails to speak to concerns emerging in Australia. 

Tax law regulations in Australia prevent philanthropists from donating directly to state education departments or to public schools, meaning there is less evidence of philanthropic influence over public schooling policy and practice. However, in Queensland alone in the 2021/22 financial year, P&Cs generated more than $83 million in contributions to public schools. Put simply, venture philanthropy appears less significant in Australian schools than in contexts such as the U.S. 

From community building to commercial fundraising

In our paper, we argue that there are new tensions, roles, and relationships emerging in Queensland state school P&Cs as they strive to overcome limited government resourcing. The logics of marketisation have shifted responsibility for discretionary school funding to parent consumers, setting up an equity challenge as not every school has the same community resources, socioeconomic advantages, or economies of scale to leverage this philanthropic behaviour.

We draw three significant conclusions from this research.

First is the differentiated capacity of P&Cs to engage in profitable school services leading to a two-tiered public school system. One P&C representative, from an advantaged metropolitan school, spoke of how low student enrollments had forced them to close their canteen as it was continuing to make significant losses year on year. This evidences a relationship between student enrolment and profitability. Indeed, it is difficult to mount a case that schools with smaller enrolments, in rural and remote locations, or those that service communities with complex needs will generate the same benefits as large, metropolitan schools in leafy green suburbs. 

Second is that makingpublic school communities responsible for funding that governments should provide is not a good idea. We argue that when parents and P&Cs accept responsibility for fundraising to meet the gap in government funding shortfalls, they stop asking or agitating the government to provide adequate resourcing for their school. 

Third is that this shift from community building to resource extraction produces a different set of community relations. While some P&Cs reported that the community and commercial forms of fundraising co-exist, the emphasis continues to shift towards profitable commercial ventures. The argument made by the P&C representatives interviewed is that the financial needs of many public schools is greater than support for excursions or replacing a class set of textbooks. Larger infrastructure projects such as equipping schools with air conditioning or building science labs necessitate more commercially minded fundraising.  

Moreover, P&C representatives reported that many parents no longer had the time or energy to engage in community building. The traditional approach of appealing to parent volunteers to run fetes, cake stalls and trivia nights was falling flat even as the need for fundraising became more urgent. The view of those participants involved with P&Cs was that engaging in commercial fundraising both lightened the load on parents and generated funding at a scale to enable larger projects. Participants reported that, given the scale of what schools needed, bake sales were never going to be enough.

What we have found through this exploratory study is that philanthropy is different in Australia than what we might expect given the international literature. P&Cs can add hundreds of thousands of dollars to a public school’s budget, yet it is unlikely that these same schools are accessing philanthropy from venture capital or billionaires. 

Understanding the work that P&Cs are doing, and their justifications for that work, is important because of what it tells us about public school funding and the challenges that schools are facing.

Anna Hogan is senior research fellow in the School of Teacher Education and Leadership at the Queensland University of Technology. Her research focuses on education privatisation and commercialisation. She currently works on a number of research projects, including investigating philanthropy in Australian public schooling, the privatisation of global school provision, and the intensification of teachers’ work.

Greg Thompson is a professor in the Faculty of Creative Industries, Education & Social Justice at the Queensland University of Technology. His research focuses on the philosophy of education and educational theory. He is also interested in education policy, and the philosophy/sociology of education assessment and measurement with a focus on large-scale testing and learning analytics/big data.

AARE 2022: That’s a wrap for a spectacular conference

It goes without saying that it’s been a difficult few years for in-person conferences. I’m sure many of us had high hopes for AARE 2022 and it certainly delivered spectacularly! From the excellent opening session on Monday morning, through all the presentations I was lucky enough to catch, to the opportunities to connect with colleagues old and new, I couldn’t fault anything (ok maybe too much cake at morning tea but a small price to pay for a lovely few days). As an early career researcher it was encouraging to see many just-graduated PhDs present their research, to audiences containing not only their supervisors, but also the many others who attended their presentations. The sense of community was certainly apparent.

It is challenging for ECRs to step into the realm of national research conferences. It takes a while to figure out whether you’re conferencing in the right way or not. AARE 2022 was the first in-person conference I’ve attended, having completed my entire PhD during COVID-19 lockdowns and travel restrictions. I’d heard about the generative nature of these events but I had to experience it first-hand to see how productive they can be. Everyone I met and talked with over the few days – no matter their role, position or length of time in the industry – was welcoming, encouraging and interested in the future of education research in Australia. If AARE 2022 is anything to go by, the future of our field is looking very strong.

My personal highlights included:

  • The welcome to country by Uncle Mickey: Thank you. We were so welcomed to Kaurna country and the theme of knowledge sharing permeated the days of the conference.
  • Professor Allyson Holbrook’s outgoing presidential address which prompted me to reflect on the uniqueness of a PhD undertaken in the field of education. We are rare indeed. Supporting the progress and career development of our current PhD students, and attracting more people with educational qualifications to pursue research will be an ongoing – but necessary – challenge.
  • The City West Campus of UniSA was a really spectacular location: I didn’t get lost even once! The weather was perfect and the outdoor spaces allowed many serendipitous meetings not possible in online conference format. Huge congratulations and thanks should go to all those who helped organise such an excellent event. 

Finally, the many individual talks interposed by themed symposiums are always the ultimate highlight of an in-person conference. In the following section I’ve drawn together some threads emerging from several different presentations that I observed during the 2022 AARE conference.

The missing link: Considering the agency of parents in the Australian educational landscape

I think it was Emma Rowe who had a beautiful metaphor about pulling the threads of seemingly different phenomena and watching how they unravelled (Day 2, Politics and Policy in Education symposium). In a similar vein I’d like to pull out some threads from multiple presentations in disparate streams and try to capture something missing. 

First the presentations: In the Day 3 Sociology of Education stream, Jung-sook Lee and Meghan Stacey from UNSW spoke about their work looking at perceptions of fairness in relation to educational inequities. The researchers presented a fictional scenario to a sample of almost 2000 Australian adults in which ‘students from high-income and low-income families have achievement gaps due to different quality of education provided to them’ (from the abstract). The scenario identified a situation where better-quality teachers for children from high-income families led to better educational outcomes for these children.

Interestingly people with children either currently in school or soon to attend school were less likely to perceive this scenario as unfair.

Prompted by the concluding questions proposed by the authors, audience discussion turned to the issue of why people – and parents in particular – might hold this oddly contradictory opinion. We pride ourselves in Australia (apparently) on being proudly egalitarian. The Gonski reviews (both the first and the second) were largely positively received in the Australian community. Yes! Of course children should have equitable access to educational resources. #IgiveaGonski. 

So why might the idea of educational equity not apply when considering the educational experiences of our own children? Why would it be ok, in the perceptions of the survey respondents, that some children get a better deal because their families have the capacity to pay for it?

The second presentation in the Schools and Education Systems stream (also Day 3) was that by Melissa Tham, Shuyan Huo and Andrew Wade from Victoria University. The study used data from the Longitudinal Study of Australian Youth (LSAY) and demonstrated that attendance at academically selective schools has apparently no long-term benefits for students attending these schools. The authors looked at a range of outcomes including university participation and completion, whether participants were employed, and life satisfaction at age 19 and again at age 25. None of these differed for students who had attended selective schools versus those who had not. 

The discussion again turned to the question of why parents are invested in sending their kids to academically selective schools if there’s no observable long-term benefit of doing so. [Of course, academically selective schools always top the rankings for the ATAR each year, but this is likely because the kids in these schools are already high-achievers, not because the selective schooling system adds value to their educational experience]. Indeed, there may be considerable medium-term disadvantages for some students in contexts where kids are grouped together in hothouses of ultra-competitiveness. 

A third paper that I wasn’t able to attend on Day 4 in the Social Justice stream touched again on the question of whether a private school education adds any value to educational outcomes (broadly defined). The authors Beatriz Gallo Cordoba, Venesser Fernandes, Simone McDonald and Maria Gindidis, looked at the way differences in Year 9 NAPLAN numeracy scores between public and private schools were related to funding inequities between these contexts, rather than school quality differences. While the abstract argued that ‘the increasing number of parents sending their children to private schools has been a growing trend causing controversy’, I am inclined to think that if equity is not the foremost consideration for parents in their school decision-making, then it’s not a controversy for them. Like all of us, parents want the best for children. It just so happens that they may make different decisions when it’s their own children (real and concrete as they are), rather than other people’s children (in the abstract).

Anecdotally, people are aware that there’s no academic benefit to these kinds of schools – neither the academically selective type nor the financially selective type. Earlier this year in The Conversation we summarized research showing no advantages to sending children to private schools when NAPLAN results are considered as an ‘outcome’. Apart from being roundly criticized once or twice for the apparently obvious findings, the thousands of comments we received on social media channels and on the website largely indicated that parents weren’t thinking of academics when they paid for a private education for their kids. But if not academics then what? And if we ostensibly believe in equity until it’s our kids in the mix then do we really believe it at all?  What is going on with parents’ decision-making that means these kinds of contradictory decisions are being made about their children’s schooling? 

This brings me (finally!) to my point: it felt like the missing thread drawing these disparate research papers together is the influence of parents. After all, which is the largest group of stakeholders in this game after teachers and children themselves? I think we downplay the influence of parents in the education of children at our peril. We can train teachers to be absolute superstars, we can lobby governments for more equitable funding allocations and better conditions for teachers, we can study cognitive development and how children learn in schooling contexts, we can work on inclusion, fairness and tolerance among students in school communities. But I wonder: if the influence of parents is not directly and explicitly confronted in research that examines educational inequities, policy or social justice (whether the influences are positive or negative), do we have a confounding variable problem? And if so, how can this be resolved?

No offence intended to the (possibly multiple) papers at AARE 2022 that did consider the role of parents in the education of their children. In particular among the presentations that I wasn’t able to catch on the final day was an intriguing one in a Politics and Policy symposium entitled ‘The construction of (good) parents (as professionals) in/through learning platforms’ presented by Sigrid Hartong and Jamie Manolev. Secondly, Anna Hogan presented her work in the Philanthropy in Education symposium, examining the changing role of Parents and Citizens (P&C) organisations in public schools. The findings of this work show how ‘parents are now operating as new philanthropists, solving the problem of inadequate state funding through private capital raising’ in public schools (from the abstract). I’m looking forward to papers for both of these studies in the near future! 


These last few years have been challenging times for researchers in many fields, but maybe particularly so for education. Oftentimes it seems as though we move in totally different realms to the governments that make educational policy and the school sites which contain the teachers and students we are interested in supporting. The rise of research agencies external to universities (e.g. the Grattan Institute, the Centre for Independent Studies and AERO) or those subsumed within government departments (e.g. the Centre for Educational Statistics and Evaluation) may mean that our research work is sidelined or ignored, particularly when the findings are not immediately applicable or contradictory to national narratives of educational decline. 

AARE 2022 has reinforced to me the quality and depth of the research that is happening in universities across Australia in many diverse subfields of educational scholarship. I found out so much that I did not know before: and perhaps this in itself is a challenge for us. We know that our work is important and to whom it should apply. We can see the value in each other’s work when we attend conferences and allow the space to connect, discuss and imagine. How then do we ensure this value is recognised not only by the wider community, but also by all the teachers, early childhood educators, policymakers, parents and young people who are both the subjects and potential beneficiaries of our research?

Sally Larsen is a Lecturer in Learning, Teaching and Inclusive Education at the University of New England. Her research is in the area of reading and maths development across the primary and early secondary school years in Australia, including investigating patterns of growth in NAPLAN assessment data. She is interested in educational measurement and quantitative methods in social and educational research. You can find her on Twitter @SallyLars_27

Why is there so much talk about teachers right now? Because we are afraid of them

The federal minister for education Jason Clare convened a roundtable to solve the teacher shortage on the eve of the new government’s Job Summit. Items on the agenda? It wasn’t hard to go past working conditions, status, and a growing, chronic teacher shortage as the impetus for history-making industrial action and considerable media coverage.

Concerns about teachers’ working conditions have themselves arisen out of a context in which teacher quality, figures of the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ teacher, the fear of indoctrinating teachers, have been increasingly constructed as ‘policy problems’ to be addressed. ‘The teacher’, it seems, is becoming one of the most contested figures in contemporary education policy debates.

We have recently edited a Special Issue of the journal Education Policy Analysis Archives in which the collected papers reflect on the current positioning of teachers across a range of international policy contexts. This journal, unlike the majority of academic journals, is run by a university and is entirely open access, which means you can read the full issue. You can also watch a video introduction to the issue. 

Look at Australia, for example

In our introduction to the issue, we use Australia as an example of a country in which responsibility has been placed on teachers to ‘fix’ perceived educational crises, often through policy reform that requires teachers to be ‘better’ trained, more professional, more accountable and more standardised. Here, the past fifteen years of education policy has featured: the introduction of standardised census testing of students via the National Assessment Programme, the results of which are made public via the My School website; the introduction of national teaching standards and accreditation requirements; and repeated inquiries into initial teacher education, with the introduction of program standards and, more recently, mandated teacher performance assessments.

Why are teachers so central to education policy?

Given all this policy change, we think it’s reasonable to claim that teachers are the targets of much political and popular consternation. But what is it about teachers that makes them such a matter of attention and concern, and how does the current political climate contribute to these (often unrealistic) expectations?

According to Wodak, populism has an “appeal to the ‘common man/woman’ as opposed to the elites”. She has argued that in populist regimes, ‘difference’ is denied and the ‘common’ is valorised, creating “a demos which exists above and beyond the divides and diversities of social class and religion, gender and generation”.

We argue that it is possible to view schooling (and teaching) as a logical site of public commentary because of the common experience amongst most populations. Indeed, it is often suggested that everyone knows what it is like to be a teacher because everyone has gone to school. As Lortie put it, there is an ‘apprenticeship of observation’ in school education that means everyone, regardless of whether they become a teacher or not, forms ideas about the work of teaching simply because of their ongoing interactions with teachers throughout a significant portion of their lives. In terms of populist tendencies, this widespread experience and presumed knowledge about how schools should operate, positions teachers as a common ground upon which critique can be aimed.

At the same time, teachers increasingly bear the burden for the economic, social and political wellbeing of the countries within which they teach. As the global economy becomes understood as essentially knowledge-based, the need to track and compare student achievement within and across nation-states has taken on a broad prominence typified by, for instance, the regular Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) tests run by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Indeed, teachers are an increasing point of focus for the OECD, which now also runs the Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS) examining teachers’ work and working conditions. This, we argue, reflects a revived and rearticulated emphasis on the teacher.

The teacher as an object of fear

Yet despite this apparent importance, teaching does not often become an object of respect, but rather of fear, emblematic of growing national and international anxieties around knowledge, success and the moral character of the next generation. This puts the figure of the teacher in an uncomfortable position. Paradoxically, teaching is known to all (“anyone could do it!”), yet also unknowable (as a university-based, complex and contested form of expertise). Teachers’ success is supposedly important for global competition, but teaching is not necessarily viewed as worthy of professional status and fair working conditions. Within this context, ongoing attempts to control, standardise and responsibilise teaching and teachers becomes a rational, even urgent pursuit. So much so that the resulting hyper-focus on teachers-as-solution has created what Wodak calls a “fear ‘market’”, where teachers become the target of an expanding “cottage industry” of commercial products (e.g., professional development materials, data-tracking platforms, etc.).

It’s time to destabilise global narratives of teachers

The papers in our Special Issue explore teachers’ work across contexts including the United States, Europe, and the Asia-Pacific. The journal in which the issue has been published is based at Arizona State University, meaning that the inclusion of studies from places like Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific Islands may make somewhat unfamiliar reading for many subscribers. This was intentional.

In Australia, education policy is often developed and analysed in reference to what Lingard has termed our common ‘reference societies’ of the US and UK. As researchers and authors, we are routinely asked to make our work ‘relevant’ by situating it in relation to such dominant international reform contexts. But what would happen if this demand was reversed? Should research emanating from dominant contexts instead be required to make itself relevant to more diverse, local spaces, and what analytical possibilities might this open up? Possibly, what is needed is to reimagine teachers and schooling in ways that are less limited by the systems and structures that have led us to this point. Perhaps it is time for teachers and those who research them to truly warrant their positioning as an object of fear, by destabilising the taken-for-granted terms under which they work.

From left: Meghan Stacey is senior lecturer in the UNSW School of Education, researching in the fields of the sociology of education and education policy. Taking a particular interest in teachers, her research considers how teachers’ work is framed by policy, as well as the effects of such policy for those who work with, within and against it. Mihajla Gavin is a senior lecturer at UTS Business School. Her PhD, completed in 2019, examined how teacher trade unions have responded to neoliberal education reform. Her current research focuses on the restructuring of teachers’ work and conditions of work, worker voice, and women and employment relations. Jessica Gerrard is an associate professor at the Melbourne Graduate School of Education. Jessica researches the changing formations, and lived experiences, of social inequalities in relation to education, activism, work and unemployment. She works across the disciplines of sociology, history and policy studies with an interest in critical methodologies and theories. Anna Hogan is senior research fellow in the School of Teacher Education and Leadership at the Queensland University of Technology. Her research focuses on education privatisation and commercialisation. She currently works on a number of research projects, including investigating philanthropy in Australian public schooling, the privatisation of global school provision, and the intensification of teachers’ work. Jessica Holloway is senior research and ARC DECRA Fellow at the Australian Catholic University. Her research draws on political theory and policy sociology to investigate: (1) how metrics, data and digital tools produce new conditions, practices and subjectivities, especially as this relates to teachers and schools, and (2) how teachers and schools are positioned to respond to the evolving and emerging needs of their communities.

The creeping commercialisation of public schools

The privatisation of public education is attracting a lot of attention around the world but what is happening within public schooling is falling under the radar. Increases in commercialisation in public schooling, both in Australia and internationally, is attracting less scrutiny. Commercialisation is the creation, marketing and sale of education goods and services to schools by private providers.

With commercialisation private providers work with and within public schools to support schooling processes. They don’t take over the delivery and running of schools in the way privatised school models work, such as low-fee for-profit schools and some Charter schools in the US, Academies in the UK or Free Schools in Sweden.

In the commercialised school, public monies intended for public schooling are being used to fund the operation of commercial businesses. However, the scope of commercial activities in schools remains largely invisible to taxpayers, as commercialisation has crept into schools as a seemingly necessary way to deliver education in the 21st century.

On this point it is worth noting that commercialisation has had a long (and relatively uncontroversial) history in schools, beginning with commercially produced textbooks which have been around since the early 20th century. Similarly, schools have tended to involve the private sector for transportation services, food supply and specialised instruction and facilities. However, since the 1990s many educators have become interested, and concerned, about the scale and scope of commercialisation.

The increasing economy of standardisation

In Australia for example, the creation of a national system of schooling (e.g. the Australian curriculum, NAPLAN, a national funding approach) has helped create an economy of scale that is attractive to businesses who now have the opportunity to become major suppliers to school systems in local education markets. Commercial providers can utilise increasing standardisation to offer ready-made ‘solutions’ to the various education ‘problems’ schools are facing in improving student outcomes at scale – meaning they can develop a product and sell it nationally.

These services complement and supplement basic education facilities often in a context where bureaucratic or central support is being withdrawn. These services include the provision of curriculum content, assessment services, data infrastructures, digital learning, remedial instruction, professional development for staff and school administration support.

It’s not all bad

Not all aspects of schooling have become commercialised. A lot of teachers are doing what they have always done and are going about their business without engaging in commercialisation. However, there are particular services that are considered useful, even necessary for teachers to effectively do their jobs.

Our recent research commissioned by the New South Wales Teachers Federation, the largest teachers’ union in Australia, about the extent of commercialisation in Australian public schooling, surveyed AEU members and found that 40% of the participants suggested resources and curriculum materials that supported their development of innovative learning experiences were important. Indeed, 28% of teachers reported they regularly use commercial lesson plans.

Similarly, many participants argued that ICT and technology solutions including things such as attendance and timetabling software, as well as programs that assist in the recording, summarising and reporting of student assessment were absolutely necessary to purchase from the private sector, particularly because teachers, school leaders and even Education Departments do not have the skills or expertise to develop these services and programs themselves.

But commercial providers should not influence decision-making or de-professionalise our teachers

Those responses that argued for some level of commercialisation in public schools tended to offer a caveat for commercial assistance, suggesting commercial providers should not be able to influence school, state or national decisions about curriculum, pedagogy or assessment.

What teachers and school leaders did express concern about was the idea that increasing commercialisation would lead to an intensification of the de-professionalisation of teaching. For example, some respondents referenced their unease with the outsourcing phenomenon in schools, particularly in Health and Physical Education (HPE). This means that rather than employing a specialist HPE teacher, schools contract an external provider to come in and deliver HPE for them. Often this results in sports coaches rather than teachers delivering these lessons. An associated concern with this shift is that these providers are not 4-year, university trained teachers and far from experts in curriculum, pedagogy and assessment. Ultimately, this jeopardises the academic value placed on subjects like HPE.

Transferring of costs to parents

Others expressed concern about how the costs of commercial programs were being transferred to parents. For example, one participant observed that at their school parents are asked to pay for their child’s subscription to online learning programs, and if they were unwilling or unable to pay, their child would not be able to use the program while all other students could.

Given our research is exploratory we do not know how common this practice is, but it is certainly cause for concern in the public education system that has historically been considered free and based on principles of social democratic equality.

‘Free’ public schooling in jeopardy

Interestingly, it was this traditional, social democratic view of public education that many teachers argued was being jeopardised by the increasing commercialisation of schooling. 72% of respondents had significant concern that schools were being run like businesses and 68% were significantly concerned about the notion that schools will be increasingly privatised and commercialised, following the path of reform in the US or even in Australia’s own VET education sector. Respondents to the open-ended survey question called on governments and Education Departments to learn from these failed models and implement stricter regulations about the role of commercial providers in schools.

We need to learn more and do more about commercialisation in public schooling

It must be stressed that this survey was intended as an exploratory study. As this is the first research of its kind in Australia, it is important to note that all exploratory studies suffer from limitations, which means that it is not advisable to assume causal conclusions as a result. We are only just beginning to map this phenomenon in Australia and we need further research to understand the affordances of commercialisation, because some commercialisation in schools is inevitable. But we also need to consider at which point commercialisation has detrimental effects on the rationale for public schooling.

It is clear we need a strong and informed system to help regulate commercial activities in public schools and ensure that we are putting student interests before profits.


Anna Hogan is a lecturer in the School of Human Movement and Nutrition Sciences at the University of Queensland. Anna has been researching the commercialisation and privatisation of education policy and practice. She is currently working on projects that investigate the commercialisation of Australian public schooling, global for-profit models of schooling, the effects of curriculum outsourcing on teachers’ work and the commercialisation of student health and wellbeing. Anna has recent publications in the Australian Educational Researcher, Journal of Education Policy, Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education, and Critical Studies in Education

Fast policy: when educational research morphs into quick fixes and ‘silver bullets’

Education is increasingly positioned as a problem in need of fixing. Faced with demands for accountability and transparency in public policymaking, governments are constantly looking for solutions that are informed by ‘evidence’, are expedient and cost-effective, and likely to get favourable media coverage.

Educational research that underpins policy has traditionally been the domain of academics and in-house government employees. However, international organisations, aid agencies, philanthropies, think tanks and corporations now offer their own research solutions to these perceived educational problems.

These new ‘actors’ in the field produce and promote usually short, easy-to-read and easy-to-implement glossy reports, which offer simplified evidence and give definitive solutions involving ‘best practice’, and where research knowledge is orchestrated to best influence government policy. Evidence is tailored to the needs of policymakers but also fits within the report generator’s own interests and agendas.

We call this type of report ‘fast policy’; that is, policy shortcuts via readymade examples of ‘what works’, which are often borrowed from other countries (or systems) and cherry picked to meet political needs.

Fast policy reports

We decided to have a closer look at the new genre of ‘fast policy’ reports and its potential impact. To do so, we focused on three different examples: a transnational intergovernmental organisation (the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development’s PISA for Schools report), an international edu-business (Pearson’s The Learning Curve) and an Australian state (the New South Wales Department of Education’s What Works Best).

We did this to show how all three documents promote an overly simplified, decontextualised and ‘one-size-fits-all’ understanding of schooling policy, which often risks overlooking the local needs and requirements of the schools, school systems, educators and students for whom these solutions are being proposed.

The OECD’s PISA for Schools

This is a 2-hour written test that assesses how well 15-year-old students can apply their acquired knowledge in reading, mathematics and science to ‘real-world’ situations, despite being administered as a paper-and-pencil and, more recently, computer-delivered assessment. Significantly, PISA for Schools departs from the triennial main PISA test on which it is based, and where the nation-state is the usual unit of analysis, by instead benchmarking local school performance against the performance of national (and some subnational) schooling systems on main PISA.

This testing positions schools within a global space of measurement and comparison, in order for them to engage with, and learn from, the policy expertise offered by ‘high-performing’ international schooling systems and the OECD itself. To facilitate this policy learning, all PISA for Schools participants receive a 160-page report. This contains not only the analyses of their school-level student performance but also 17 predetermined examples of best practice from high-performing schooling systems, as well as hypertext links to other OECD publications and research.

The Learning Curve (TLC)

This is a website, online data bank and biannual report developed by the world’s largest edu-business, Pearson, and represents a significant component of Pearson’s transformation from a supplier of education products and services towards becoming a global education policy actor. TLC is populated by educational performance data collected by organisations such as the OECD, the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA), the United Nations and the World Bank.

It works largely by presenting Pearson as having expertise in education policy analysis. The website and associated materials function to show how Pearson can have a positive benefit to global policy debates, system reform and improved outcomes for individual learners. Users on the TLC website can view and interact with various data profiles that compare education by countries, through time and by outputs. There is also a range of stories and videos to support the idea that Pearson is out to ‘change the world’.

What Works Best (WWB)

This is a 32-page report produced by the Centre for Educational Statistics and Evaluation (CESE), an organisation within the NSW Department of Education and Communities. The CESE’s raison d’etre is to develop evidence and resources that can support school-level educators in their search for ‘best practice’.

WWB promotes seven indicators of effective classroom practice that can, by extension, improve student performance. These include high expectations, explicit teaching, effective feedback, the use of data to inform teacher pedagogy, classroom management, well-being and collaboration. Interestingly, each of these seven themes is prefaced in the report by a series of ‘Key Points’, reducing otherwise intractable problems into three or four readily implementable dot points that teachers and school leaders can use to improve their practice.

These best practice themes are presented in terms of three underlying questions (Why it matters; What the evidence says and Implications for teachers and schools), which explicitly link certain effective practices – ‘what works’ or ‘silver bullets’ – to improved student performance.

The similarities between these three ‘fast policy reports’

Despite the reports being produced by an intergovernmental organisation, an edu-business and a state government department, there is a clear similarity between them that reflects what we describe as a ‘convergence of policy method’. This is akin to different cookbooks being readily recognisable as cookbooks, even if the recipes (or policies in this instance) contained therein are not necessarily the same.

These three reports are evidence, to us, of a new way of speeding up policymaking. Many other assessments, such as PISA, TIMSS and PIRLS are conducted every three or more years, and are thus seemingly too ‘slow’ for the data-driven policy demands of governments, policymakers, educational systems and (increasingly) the public. Schooling reform is regularly demanded so ‘quick-fix’ solutions are needed.

As such, the desire for fast schooling policy has created a new global market awash with the same reform ideas. In this case, an international organisation, an edu-business and a state government have all adopted similar approaches to schooling reform, notionally to improve student outcomes and drive up standards.

There is a sense that ‘best practice’ in schooling is now the same in every country around the world, and that there is a limited need to account for national, social, or cultural context.

When fast becomes fasting

So while this new policy genre is ‘fast’ in terms of speed, we argue that it also constitutes the notion of ‘fasting’ (that is, to deprive or deny), where the over-simplification of policy into easy to implement solutions constrains the possibilities for reform, and denies local alternatives to be imagined and practised.

We suggest, in spite of the seemingly obvious alignment between fast policies and a fast social world, that good policy might come from slower and more complex processes, where education is not a problem to be fixed but a way to a better future for our particular children in our particular education systems.


Steven Lewis headshotSteven Lewis has just completed a PhD in the School of Education at The University of Queensland addressing the development and effects of the OECD’s PISA for Schools programme. He is now working as a researcher on two Australian Research Council-funded research projects, one focusing on data infrastructures in education (DP150102098: Data in Schools and Systems: An International Study) and the other on educational federalism (DE160100197: National Schooling Reform and the Reshaping of Australian Federalism). Steven has recently published in the British Journal of Sociology of Education, Comparative Education Review, Critical Studies in Education and Journal of Education Policy. He also has chapters in three recent and forthcoming volumes. These are the Handbook of Human and Social Conditions in Assessment (Routledge), The OECD’s Impact on Education Worldwide (Emerald), and the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Education (Oxford University Press).

Anna HoganAnna Hogan is a lecturer in the School of Human Movement and Nutrition Sciences at the University of Queensland. Anna has been researching the role of global edu-business on education policy and practice. She is currently working on projects that investigate the privatisation of Australian public schooling, the effects of curriculum outsourcing on teachers’ work and the commercialisation of student health and wellbeing. Anna has recent publications in the Australian Educational Researcher, Journal of Education Policy and Critical Studies in Education.

Pearson’s insidious plan to profit from poor families in developing countries

Global education business, Pearson, continues to find new ways to make a profit from the education of children around the world. As its influence and profit growth stagnates in many economically developed countries, where it has made billions of dollars from providing standardised testing regimes and associated services, it has turned its attention to economically developing countries.

Pearson is growing its business in counties in Africa, South America and Asia, including India, where nations struggle to provide national systems of schooling. I believe what it is doing in these developing nations is perhaps even more insidious than the way it profited from helping impose a testing mentality to almost every major schooling authority in almost every developed democratic country.

Why Pearson is losing influence in economically developed democracies

Pearson is a big provider of textbooks, learning resources, assessment services, online learning needs and teacher professional development. Providing these services to economically developed countries such as the USA, UK and Australia has proved lucrative for Pearson over the past decade. Just last year it made over $5 billion in global sales and over $1 billion in adjusted operating profit. While these figures are comparatively strong, since 2012, Pearson hasn’t experienced any significant overall growth as a company. In fact, last year Pearson suffered a 40% drop in share price performance and has recently announced the need to cut 10 per cent of its global work force or 4,000 jobs.

This performance can be explained by a number of factors to do with the stabilisation and even reduction in sales in Pearson’s core markets. For example, let’s consider Pearson’s assessment business. At the turn of the 21st century standardised testing could be found at the core of many education systems, and the mandate for annual testing worked to open the space for commercial education providers to prosper.

Against this backdrop, the education market was reinvented around test development and preparation, data analysis and management and the related provision of online curricular and remedial services in an attempt to improve students’ performance outcomes.

Yet, the weight of evidence suggests that standardised testing has failed to improve education outcomes. Instead, standardised testing has been blamed for a narrowing and simplifying of curriculum that has undermined both teaching and learning. Given this, policy has started to change. The passage of the Every Student Succeed Acts (ESSA) in the USA (a reform to the No Child Left Behind policy) has given power to the States to decide how they test their students.

To put this in context in Australia, the USA has effectively scrapped their NAPLAN type tests and allowed their states and territories to decide how, when and what they will assess their students on. This move has obvious consequences for Pearson. Without nationally defined standards many of the large-scale tests developed by Pearson for national use are no longer required. This means that the testing market has been opened up to competition from lower cost alternatives, confirming Pearson no longer has the monopoly it once did.

Pearson’s ‘growth’ plan for developing nations

However, the answer to some of Pearson’s testing woes in economically developed countries has presented itself in economically developing countries.

Pearson’s Affordable Learning Fund (PALF) has made an $80 million investment in low-fee private school chains in Southern Africa, Asia and India. Pearson’s rationale for investing in low-fee private schools is based on the charitable notion that it is delivering an education to students in countries where access to public education is limited or nonexistent.

These low fee private schools are about making a private profit at the expense of poor families and poor economies

While such schools might be low fee, they constitute a high percentage of the disposable income of poor families, often resulting in gender discrimination where boys’ education is given priority over girls’ education in the same family. Moreover, low-fee private schools that will generate profit is economically dependent upon the employment of un- and under-qualified and very lowly paid, non-union organised teachers often using scripted pedagogies. These schools have few physical resources (e.g. computers, science labs, sporting facilities), large class sizes and there is little evidence to support the effectiveness of low-fee private schools.

This business strategy is based on the growth ‘markets’ that exist in countries of the developing world. Pearson says there is a ‘unique opportunity to capitalize on the emerging middle class’of almost 3 billion people who now earn enough money to invest in education to either improve their own or their children’s lives.

The Pearson plan undermines the development of quality public school systems

The outcome of this investment by Pearson challenges the aspiration that a free, high-quality public education for all is central to democracy and a socially just society. Through PALF, Pearson is working to replace or negate the responsibilities of governments to develop a public education system that affords the right of every child to access a free education. Many of these countries do not have strong legislature around for-profit schooling and even welcome the ‘solution’ that low-fee private school chains offer. Thus, Pearson has a new market to flourish in.

As I see it educators need to call out the significance of Pearson’s actions. The social, political and economic fallout for the countries where low-fee private schooling is growing are inevitable and may well have global consequences.


Anna-Hogan4Anna Hogan is a lecturer in the School of Human Movement and Nutrition Sciences at the University of Queensland. Anna has been researching the role of global edu-business on education policy and practice. She is currently working on projects that investigate the privatisation of Australian public schooling, the effects of curriculum outsourcing on teachers’ work and the commercialisation of student health and wellbeing. Anna has recent publications in the Australian Educational Researcher, Journal of Education Policy and Critical Studies in Education.

NAPLAN and edu-business: the commercialisation of schooling in Australia

NAPLAN testing is orchestrating a high-stakes environment in Australian schools where schools, teachers, students and even parents feel the pressure to perform and do well. Edu-businesses are capitalising on this high-stakes environment for commercial advantage.

Schools and governments now purchase products and services that are explicitly tied to test development and preparation, data analysis and management, remedial services and online content. American academic Patricia Burch, claims that the test industry in the USA is worth $48 billion per year. While it is difficult at this stage to put a precise figure on Australia’s test industry, it is increasingly obvious that the NAPLAN market is rapidly growing.

The NAPLAN market

The NAPLAN market includes practice tests, student workbooks, online programs, tutoring, teacher professional development, data analysis services for schools and so on. For example, the Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER) offers a number of progressive achievement tests (PAT) to provide norm-referenced information to teachers about their students. Schools often purchase a PAT test in Mathematics or English at a cost of $7.50 per student, and subsequently utilises this data to identify their student’s strengths and weakness in preparation for NAPLAN. Similarly, there are online resources like ‘StudyLadder’ or ‘Excel Test Zone’ that offer sample style NAPLAN questions to help students prepare for the test. There are also companies that target the insecurities of parents. Services such as ‘NAPLAN tutor’ offer a membership for $79 that will allow parents to access a range of NAPLAN tutorials. Private tutors also offer NAPLAN specific services.

Some edu-businesses now offer professional development and data analysis services to schools and teachers. For example, ‘Mighty Minds’, ‘Seven Steps’ and ‘Count on Numeracy’ all offer NAPLAN specific workshops. Seven Steps displays the following testimonial on its website: ‘Two of our teachers attended your seven steps seminar last year. They used the program in the Grade 3 cohort. Our NAPLAN results in those two grades were outstanding’. Similarly, Mind Matters suggests that its NAPLAN workshop will ‘focus on revising fundamental skills that are essential for students’ school careers and will prepare them for the NAPLAN test’. This type of marketing capitalises on the anxieties of schools and teachers.

Pearsonisation of NAPLAN

Pearson was among the edu-businesses that were contracted by the States and Territories in their delivery of NAPLAN. In 2012 every State contracted the printing and distribution of the NAPLAN tests to Pearson, with the exception of Queensland who contracted Fuji Xerox for this process. The actual testing of students occurs in schools under the direction of school staff and the subsequent marking of the test is a process overseen by most of the relevant educational authorities in the States and Territories. However, in New South Wales, Victoria and the Australian Capital Territory, this process was also contracted to Pearson, and it became responsible for recruiting, training and paying NAPLAN test markers. For example, this contract is worth $41.6 million in NSW. This presents Pearson as a central agent in the NAPLAN policy network, and moreover, suggests it has significant contractual obligations with Commonwealth, State and Territory governments.

Other areas where edu-businesses is at work in Australia

Edu-businesses are at work elsewhere in Australia. They are also contracted by the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) in the development of the test and the analysis and reporting of the results on My School. For example, in 2012, ACARA spent over $4 million contracting ACER, Pearson, Educational Measurement Solutions and Educational Assessment Australia for a range of services. Some of these services included item development ($2,075,717), trialling of the test items ($681,253), equating of the test items ($527,848) and analysis and reporting of the results ($610,247).

These increasing amounts of private business activity have caused concern amongst a number of social commentators who believe that education as a public activity, serving the public interest, should remain within the control of the public domain. Yet, the primary aim of involving edu-businesses seems to be to modernise the public sector and make it more effective. This, of course, is based on the assumption that market-oriented management will lead to greater cost efficiency and improved success for governments

Problems with the growing edu-business activity in Australia

NAPLAN clearly represents the emergence of new ‘business opportunities’ in Australian education policy. Edu-business, from multinational corporations like Pearson to smaller national providers such as ACER now contribute to education policy and practice in various ways. In this environment ‘contractualism’ or partnerships between the public and the private sector have become the new normal. ACARA argues edu-businesses are an important and necessary component of developing NAPLAN and similarly, schools and teachers embed products and services from the private sector across all aspects of teaching and learning, particularly in regards to NAPLAN preparation.

My concern is that edu-businesses are increasingly contributing to policy development and teaching and learning practices in ways that have displaced traditional expertise. For example, according to ACARA, NAPLAN is delivered by ‘experts’ across the field. It seems problematic that experts in this case are not teachers, curriculum developers or even university researchers. Instead, experts are constituted by their ability to offer ‘value-for-money’ on competitive tender applications.

Edu-businesses are now closely associated with the role of policymaking and the state. What groups are becoming excluded from, and included in, processes of public policy?

Another concern I have is that the products and services schools and teachers are engaging with in preparation for NAPLAN are often shaped by ‘generalists’ with little classroom experience or formal research background in education. Many of these products are underpinned by agendas of profit making, not evidence.

Similarly, there are potential conflict of interest issues in which edu-businesses like Pearson are contracted to develop aspects of NAPLAN, but also create revenue through marking the NAPLAN test and the selling of resources to improve student’s NAPLAN results.

What can we do?

Of course, some of the work the private sector does is legitimate and important to how we deliver public education effectively. However, if edu-businesses continue to proliferate like they have in recent years, education has the potential to be monopolised by for-profit agendas. We must move beyond the rhetoric of edu-businesses in their promises to transform education and offer solutions to our problems. Instead, we have a responsibility to engage with the private sector more critically and make sure we protect public education and our expertise as deliverers of it.


Anna-Hogan4Anna Hogan is a lecturer in the School of Human Movement and Nutrition Sciences at the University of Queensland. Anna has been researching the role of global edu-business on education policy and practice. She is currently working on projects that investigate the privatisation of Australian public schooling, the effects of curriculum outsourcing on teachers’ work and the commercialisation of student health and wellbeing. Anna has recent publications in the Australian Educational Researcher, Journal of Education Policy and Critical Studies in Education.


How big business is taking over public schools: is this what we want for Australia?

‘Education will be the biggest growth industry of the 21st century,’ according to Pearson, the world’s largest edu-business, which provides educational content, resources and customisable services, such as online and adaptive learning technologies.

With its $9.5billion in sales last year, it is clear that education is proving quite profitable for Pearson and its shareholders.

In general, edu-businesses – from multinational corporations, to smaller national providers and even individual entrepreneurs – now offer education ‘solutions’ to national governments, school systems, and civil society through an extensive range of increasingly sophisticated products and services. The extent of their activities is such that edu-businesses now appear to be powerful, monolithic entities, taking control of our public education systems with little concern for the rationalities that might stand in their way.

Yet, in the wake of financial crises and much talk of growing inequality, it is now near impossible, for private corporations to avoid the ‘goldfish bowl’ of public scrutiny.

Pearson, in particular, has been the focus of much critique about the increasing privatisation of education. For example, activist blogger, Diane Ravitch, who was the former Assistant Secretary of Education in President George W. Bush’s administration, and now an outspoken opponent to what she calls the ‘Pearsonization’ of American schooling, argues that despite Pearson’s altruistic claims about its mission to improve people’s lives through learning, its activities are unquestionably linked to investor interest.

In response to this context, Pearson has been implementing a new business strategy over recent years, in which it now focuses on its accountability as a socially responsible business. According to Pearson, this goal is achieved through its focus on efficacy, whereby all its products and services will have a proven, measurable impact, on learning outcomes. Indeed, Pearson intends to report on efficacy alongside its financial accounts by 2018. As Pearson summarises, this ‘enables us to put our social impact at the very heart of our business’.

Efficacy for Pearson then, isn’t just about making a sale, but being accountable for the outcomes its products and services promise to deliver. Much like the rationale of the pharmaceutical industry, Pearson’s new focus on efficacy is an attempt to build trust with its customers through recourse to an ‘evidence base’ that legitimises its activities.

There is a sense here that if Pearson wants to position itself as contributing to the public good, it is necessary to be seen as transparent and accountable. To this end, Pearson has embraced accountability as a way to conjure a moral dimension to its ‘mission’, presenting itself as a corporation focused on a double bottom line of profitability and responsibility.

Yet, given Pearson has no democratic constituency (and is only responsible to its shareholders for profit making), can it be truly responsive to the public interest in education? Of course, we would likely claim it cannot. The very accountability mechanisms made available here assume ‘efficacy’ as a driving purpose, thus working to exclude debate about the broader purposes of schooling informed by the views of teachers, parents, students and other publics.

By claiming that Pearson products will guarantee learning outcomes, the complexities of teaching and learning in our incredibly diverse school environments are entirely disregarded. Indeed, there is a huge professional deficit in these developments where teachers are constructed as simply the implementers or enactors of Pearson products, with no legitimate policy development interests.

In some ways, Pearson seeks to openly embrace its responsibility for contributing to learning opportunities and outcomes that would previously have been considered the responsibility of governments, seeking to position the company as a publicly accountable policy actor and its products and services as legitimate alternatives to the public provision of education. Such a strategy is indicative of Pearson’s desire to become a major agent in global education policy processes; it seeks to engage with these accountability processes not simply as an edu-business, but as an actor that is considered to be influential and responsible in ways similar to national governments and international organisations.

It’s important to stress that Pearson has legitimate business interests in education, like being contracted to construct tests or sell textbooks. But certain aspects of public education, including its democratic governance, are worth defending.

The American public has issued us a warning; Pearson has taken over the direction of their public education systems. It’s time for the Australian public to act before we find ourselves in the same position. We need to stand up and fight for what we believe in as a democratic society; free, universal, publicly provided, quality schooling.


Anna HoganDr Anna Hogan is a lecturer in the School of Human Movement and Nutrition Sciences at the University of Queensland. Anna has been researching the role of global edu-business on education policy and practice and has recently completed her PhD with Bob Lingard and Sam Sellar. Anna, Bob and Sam have a number of recent papers that focus on Pearson, and in particular, Pearson’s Efficacy Framework is further analysed in Au and Ferrare’s (2015) edited book, ‘Mapping corporate education reform: Power and policy networks in the neoliberal state’. Anna also has recent publications in the Australian Educational Researcher and Critical Studies in Education


Find Anna Hogan’s book NAPLAN and the role of edu-business: New governance, new privatisations and new partnerships in Australian education policy HERE