Varkey Foundation

Global Teacher Prize: wonderful acknowledgement or really bad idea?

You couldn’t miss the announcement of the winner of the Global Teacher Prize recently. The prize money was $1 million, which made it a ‘good news’ story for every major news outlet here in Australia and around the world. A Palestinian teacher, who grew up in a refugee camp, won the prize. We had our own Australian contender, Richard Johnson, making the lead up to the announcement of the winner even more exciting for some Australians. The prize also earned its sponsor, the Varkey Foundation, a great deal of publicity.

I am sure the teacher who won this award, Hanan Al Hroub, is outstanding. She has been working in extraordinary circumstances, teaching students who have experienced violence and terror. Using games and stories, she has been helping students to develop pro-social behaviours, with the hope that these will one day lead to the peace she desires for her people.

I know our own Richard Johnson is a fantastic teacher, too. He’s led an excellent primary science program for several years now. This work was recognised in 2013 with the Prime Minister’s Prize for Excellence in Science Teaching in Primary Schools. This prize came with some serious cash ($50 000), which is shared equally between the teacher and the school, and is to be used to develop innovative programs and professional development in science education.

Both teachers are truly deserving of recognition, and there is much to be gained from sharing their experiences.

However, I wonder if there is a darker side to awards like the Global Teacher Prize. Prizes like this represent a further incursion of business into education that may have negative repercussions for teachers and schools in the future.

The Global Teacher Prize is sponsored by the Varkey Foundation. I’m concerned that an education company with billion dollar for-profit school expansion plans, which allocates one million to its ‘charitable’ arm for a prize to a teacher, is really just engaging in a covert advertising exercise.

The Varkey Foundation is the not-for-profit charitable arm of GEMS Education, a multi-million dollar global for-profit education group. The founder of the Varkey Foundation is Sunny Varkey, who is also the founder of GEMS Education, which is, according to its website, “the largest employer of British and Indian teachers outside their home countries.” GEMS Education announced three years ago it had “plans to invest up to $1 billion” over five years in for-profit school education around the world. This included investing $200 million in India and building seven new schools in the United Arab Emirates.

The prize received massive publicity all around the world. The Pope announced the winner and Prince William and Bill Clinton sent message of congratulations. Founder of the prize, Sunny Varkey, would have been very pleased with the attention.

However, not everyone has been pleased with GEMS Education, as CNCB reported in 2013: GEMS Education has faced criticism in the past for placing profits before its students following sharp increases in annual tuition and closure of unviable schools. It is part of a wider, contentious debate in many countries around the world about the role of for-profit school models.

The firm runs schools with radically varying price points, ranging from just $750 a year to $40,000 for its top institution. Varkey insisted that the quality of education was the same throughout, and that the price disparities came down to facilities.

At the moment, Australian governments do not allow schools to operate for profit in Australia. I hope that never changes; I believe that a high quality education should be accessible to all Australian citizens, not just those who can pay a high price for it.

The emphasis on the individual teacher as solely deserving of such a large prize is also of concern. Teachers do not work alone; schools are busy places with communities of staff that collaborate to achieve great things with and for their students. Is a teacher’s success solely due to their own efforts?

I strongly believe that teaching is a team effort. Quality teachers encourage and coach each other, and mentor those new to the profession. They work together, sharing their best ideas and successes, and help each other when they face challenges. No longer are we lone dictators of our own little classrooms! These days, working effectively within a team is central to being a successful teacher.

Teaching is not competitive; nor need it be. There is more to be achieved through collaboration, than by competition. Outside of our teaching peers, we work with a host of support, including (but not limited to) teacher aides, administrators, coaches, guidance counsellors, speech pathologists, occupational therapists, literacy and numeracy officers and so on. Is it fair to award such a significant prize to a single individual, when so many others in their school communities support their work too?

Attempts to assign value to the individual for what the group achieves ultimately undermines the work of all teachers. The logic of marketisation that underpins the work of education businesses such as GEMS Education encourages rewarding teachers individually for high performance. Even in their philanthropic mode, edu-businesses propagate this individualising market logic. If one thinks that particularly effective teachers are deserving of special awards, one might also endorse such practices as performance based pay, which is currently undermining quality teaching in parts of the US.

And what about all the other wonderful teachers who are doing wonderful things in their classrooms, every day, too?

What do you think? Is the Global Teacher Prize a good way of recognising the efforts of exemplary teachers like Hanan Al Hroub and Richard Johnson? Or is it the barely disguised, self-interested exercise of a profit-seeking company? I’d love to hear what you think.

PEZAROCharlotte Pezaro is a PhD candidate at the University of Queensland (UQ). Her research looks at the role that science classroom argumentation plays in the development of particular cognitive processes, understandings, and values for making decisions. Before beginning her research, Charlotte was a primary school teacher with Education Queensland, teaching in remote, regional and city schools. She shares her experiences and expertise in primary science education in a number of primary education courses at UQ. Charlotte has a Bachelor of Science (Psychology) and a Graduate Bachelor of Education (Primary).