Would the 99% please stand up against ‘free’ schools! What has become of education as a human right – instead of a middle class playing ground that ultimately cements social inequalities?

Occupy Protest, Berlin. Photo: Stefan Boness

Occupy Protest, Berlin. Photo: Stefan Boness

Some words suggest states of affairs that it is hard to be ‘against’ as the linguistic term used to describe them evokes undisputed goods. One such term in recent policy debates in the United Kingdom are the so-called ‘free’ schools that suggest children are best educated as far away from state control as possible. ‘Free’ schools are usually run either by faith-based organisations or by civic-minded groups of parents in conjunction with teachers and charities. Ideologically grounded think-tanks on both sides of the political spectrum provide evidence that they either have largely failed (‘left-leaning’ think-tanks), or indeed have turned around many failing schools and improved pupils’ performance indicators (‘right-leaning’ think-tanks). Whether these performance indicators are in fact an adequate way to judge ‘education’ is a different debate that shall not concern us here. Let’s also leave aside the debate whether faith is not best left as a private issue and has no place in state education – but can be pursued outside the public education system.

It is high time to move away from this functionalist approach to education and remind us about the essence of education beyond performance in narrowly defined tasks or the angst of middle-class parents or rather mothers, who are in fact mostly the wives of rich husbands, with no need to work and thus the time to set up ‘free’ schools to make sure their children learn exactly what it takes to get into a coveted university.

Education policy whether at national or international level commonly has objectives beyond the area of education, comprising a combination of political, social, economic and pedagogic concerns. These objectives include to educate children into citizenship – whatever that may mean in concrete, make them understand they are part of a specific community with rights and obligations, but also with opportunities that do not rest on their class, race, faith, wealth or other symbols of status, but on rightful entitlements that arise from their status as citizens. It is certainly the case that formal education can always be the site of what Bourdieu calls symbolic violence, the arena where dominant norms and hegemonic cultural parameters are being sought to become internalized and valued as legitimate. But at the same time education can equally serve as a tool for personal liberation, what Brazilian educator Paolo Freire has called ‘that specifically human act of intervening in the world’ in order to promote change, or what Bourdieu calls a ‘strategy-generating institution’.

At international level the ‘right to education’ discourse has gained strength in recent years, and education has more broadly been regarded as a vehicle to reduce social inequalities at various levels and to advance people’s personal and communal aspirations. Some international initiatives, partly driven by special-interest groups like Oxfam (the type of charity promoting ‘free’ schools rather than state-impositions), have promoted initiatives such as the Education for All movement and the subsequent inclusion of its agenda into the Millennium Development Goals that have in reality shifted the focus away from rights in themselves towards measurable goals and targets. There is an inherent danger in this shift of watering down the objectives behind education as a human right.

This has been aptly observed by the late Katarina Tomaševski who from 1998 to 2004 served as the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the right to education. She wrote in 2003 that in addition to being all-encompassing and non-discriminatory, the core content of the right to education included ‘to prevent abuse of education by defining what education is for’. The latter strongly relates to what Arjun Appadurai calls the ‘capacity to aspire’ and refers to the fact that education entails the potential to enable participants to aspire for and act meaningfully to pursue goals they might not even have envisaged previously. That suggests that while it might seem ambitious or even utopian to insist on the right to education in the sense advocated by Tomaševski, to gain access to any kind of education can lay the foundations for struggles that ultimately challenge existing orthodoxy and advance social justice.

Ironically, it is far more likely for education to promote social justice and a less unequal global order when it is grounded in a system that aims at universality, not a system driven by particularistic interests and biases. To call the products of a move away from such a system ‘free’ schools is in fact a misnomer and distortion. It is a step towards the cementation of the type of society where ‘we’ as ‘the 99%’ who might have become an important political slogan for movements like Occupy are being kept in ‘our’ place, and not empowered to raise up and challenge a contemporary order based on vast (and increasing) inequalities.

Background source:
A more in-depth discussion of the wider argument advanced here can be found in my article:’Human Resource Development versus the Right to Education: Reflections on the Paradoxes of Education Policy Making’, Journal of International Development (2011), 23, 253-261, http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/jid.1768/pdf

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