Friday 1 May 2015

Always Learning or Always Earning?

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Pearson AGM

I’ve been campaigning about education for some time now so I’m not always surprised by some of the disreputable practices which come to light, but I’ve never been as shocked as I was by the truth about Pearson’s business practices as revealed at their AGM last week.

At the request of a colleague, I attended the AGM, held on 24th April at the palatial ballroom of 8 Northumberland Avenue in London’s West End. As a shareholder ‘by proxy’ I was entitled to vote (if I wished to do so) and to ask a question to the board of directors.

Pearson is a massive global company whose subsidiaries include the Financial Times, Penguin & Edexcel. Pearson has an $8.2 billion turnover, 60% of which is earned in North America, where the company designs curricula, produces software packages to deliver curricula and then designs and implements the associated standardised online tests.

American parents and teachers have become increasingly concerned about Pearson’s business activities. There are currently two big court cases pending against Pearson in the States: one for ‘spying’ on children, via their social media accounts; done in the name of ‘test security’ and another by Los Angeles School District over the quality of on-line resouces provided by Pearson throughout the region.

As well as legal action, there has been a huge movement in the US against Pearson and their involvement in high stakes testing. In some schools over 50% of parents have refused to allow their children to be tested. One leading financial magazine recently asserted “Standardized testing seems to many to have become the goal of education, rather than a means of implementing it”.

The National Union of Teachers (NUT) and the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) are working closely with the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and Global Justice Now (GJN) to put pressure on Pearson to stop their high stakes testing regime in the global north and to prevent their aggressive expansion further into the Global South. The AFT, ATL, NUT and GJN alliance organised a protest outside the Pearson AGM and also requested that Randi Weingarten (AFT) and Nick Dearden (GJN) be allowed into the AGM and be permitted to ask a question.

I walked past the protestors and into the AGM, I sat behind two rows reserved for Pearson employees; directors of the many various subsidiary companies and departments. We listened for some 40 minutes as we heard from the Pearson Chairman, Glen Moreno and the CEO, John Fallon. They told us of Pearson’s fantastic revenue to share holders and of their growth into India and Asia and that despite a few ‘teething’ problems in America, everything is now working out well; the company is hugely profitable and everyone is happy with the products and services they provide. Then it came to shareholders questions; we were asked to introduce ourselves by name and to state whom we were representing. Glen took a few questions from the floor, none remotely awkward, just corporate shareholders looking for assurances that profits were set to increase. Then Randi was allowed to ask her question on behalf of teachers and parents in the US. She asserted that ‘spying’ on kids is unethical and not what the company claims to stand for. John Fallon expected the question and justified their position as ‘test security was paramount’ (not children’s learning!).

Then Nick Dearden from GJN asked his question and here is the really shocking part:

The Department for International Development (DfID) distributes UK aid money to the developing world; including schemes to increase access to education to some 65 million children who do not receive any form of education.

Sir Michael Barber (former policy adviser to Tony Blair) is Pearson’s Chief Education Advisor AND is still an adviser to the DfID.

So here’s the rub. Pearson are taking British tax-payer £s to provide education to some of the world’s poorest children yet they are setting up low-cost, for-profit private schools which only a few families can afford, and commonly families only have enough money to send one child to school and for this privilege they will have to sacrifice upwards of 30% of their entire family income. Pearson’s justification for their activities in the developing world was very weak and they obviously felt discomfort at the question. John Fallon (Pearson CEO) admitted that he is a proponent of private (for-profit) education. Really John? Even in these circumstances?

Given that North America accounts for 60% of Pearson’s annual global turnover and given the huge backlash against Pearson in America, perhaps it is no surprise that the Global South is where Pearson are now focusing their expansion plans.

I then raised my hand, feeling acutely conscious of the profit-at-all-cost attitude displayed by the shareholders around me. I stood to ask my question:

“When my children’s school was taken over by a private company, the new provider instigated a 6 weekly testing regime as a means of boosting KS2 SATs results (tests supplied by Pearson), my younger child did worse and worse with each test and was becoming more and more stressed about the tests, his distress reached such a level that we had to remove him from the school. I read in the newspaper this week that in Shanghai end of High school tests are causing so much stress and anxiety in the students that one leading Shanghai school has had to install suicide bars on the school balconies and roof because of escalating suicide rates. What assurances can the Board give that such suicide bars will not become a feature of our secondary schools?”

The response of the Board was that they don’t encourage over-testing (!?) and they would like discuss the matter further with me over a complimentary shareholders lunch. Needless to say I declined their offer.



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