Interview: “The State is giving away its responsibility for delivering education services”

Stephen Ball. Photo: OPECH

Stephen Ball. Photo: OPECH

The English researcher, an expert in education policy, discusses the current tendencies towards privatization in education, which includes the increasing participation od philantropic corporative networks in education policy-making, at a global level.

Ball was interviewed on November, 18 2015, in Santiago de Chile, by Juan González, member of Cooperativa de Trabajo Centro ALERTA and of the Observatorio Chileno de Políticas Educativas (OPECH), and Victoria Parra, from Teachers College at Columbia University, United States. Read the interview below. 

Acceda aquí a la versión en español.

We assume that you have some knowledge about the Chilean situation and the Chilean educational system

A little, yes.

Just for pointing out a few things, we have a highly privatized system, less tan 40% of enrollment is concentrated in public school, which are administered by municipalities, college fees are among the highest in the whole world, according to OCDE it is significant. There’s significant school segregation in the school system, based on race, culture and economic factors, there’s an increase standardization of teachers are learning, we have more agencies regulating education such as the Superintendency and the Quality Education agency. Unquestionably you have seen these elements in other countries’ educational systems. Despite the spread of these elements, what aspects of the Chilean educational system catch your eye that you haven’t seen in other contexts? We would like you to focus on aspects from a critical perspective.

The answer to that is that it is possible to see similar developments, other forms of privatization, in many different parts of the world. These forms of privatization are being moved around the world often in relation to other aspects of education reform like school leadership, assessment, data analytics and information technology based teaching and learning. There is a global ensemble of reform initiatives that work together to change education.

What is unique about Chile is the voucher system, Chile is only country that I’m aware of that has a national voucher system. There have been voucher experiments in other places, in the US and very briefly in England and elsewhere, but no other country has introduced a nation-wide voucher system. And that does a makes a big difference in terms of allowing parents in Chile to make choices outside the public sector that then facilitates and encourages the growth and expansion of private providers, through incentives to participate in the system on a for-profit basis.

In other places the dominant model for privatisation is a contracting-out. That is, a form of management and funding whereby the government retains control of or ownership of schools but through schemes of public/private partnership or other kinds of contracting arrangements, they are run by ‘other’, non-governmental providers. In some systems these other providers can operate on a for-profit basis, as in the US and Sweden, in other systems like England they cannot – or at least not directly. In the US, some Charter schools are run by for-profit organizations, the Edison Corporation is the largest single provider of charter schools in the US, they have over 400 and they are a profit making organization, others are run by philanthropic or social enterprise organisations. But the Charter schools remain a part of the state system. In Sweden they also introduced the possibility of a new kind of school, what they call free schools or independent schools, and again those schools remain part of the state sector. Now around 20% of students in Sweden attend such free schools most of which are run by private providers. There are some other providers as well, community groups and faith groups but they are a small number, most of that 20% is run by for-profit organizations, and the biggest ones run somewhere between 20 and 30 schools each – like Kungskapskolan.

And in England we have a system influenced by and not unlike the US, whereby we now have some schools in the state sector which are run by ‘other’ providers, they are foundations or charities or third sector organizations or social enterprises that are set up specifically to take over the running of state schools. However, in one or two cases, those foundations have actually contracted out the day-to-day management of their schools to private providers. But that’s only on a very small minority.

And there are similar kinds of contracting-out models in New Zealand and Canada and most recently I’ve been looking at some similar developments in Africa and India. India is now taking up this approach and using public private partnerships and contracting out on a very large scale. So most of the larger cities now have some contracted-out schools, and the government is also in the process of offering for tender to ‘other’ providers, 2500 secondary schools.

If I have to interrupt a little bit, but you said that the voucher system in Chile is unique.


What is your in a perspective about this?

What happen in Chile is based on market theory, market economics, neoliberal economics and it creates the freest form of market relations because in the first instance it gives spending power in effect to the parents. So rather than making a choice that are actually able to spend money in the system through the voucher and of course they can spend that outside the public sector, in a private school. They are made consumers. And that then encourages and facilitates the growth of private provision, through income incentives to private providers. There are significant advocacy groups in the US, in England and elsewhere, who would like to move in that direction, but the political conditions have not come about that would allow that to happen – as yet! But the other thing you have in Chile, which is also true in other places, but in a different ways, is the fundamental contradiction of the education market. Inasmuch that, on the one hand, the state is giving away its responsibility for delivering education services, but on the other taking greater responsibilities for the regulation of the system. So the state becomes a market-maker, it enacts laws that enables the creation of a market and then at the same time in relation to that, it creates a system of market regulation. Because while states may see it as politically expedient to give away the education system to other providers, at the same time education is of vital importance to the state. The state has a political interest in education in terms of social cohesion, citizenship, and the maintenance of political authority, and also an economic interest, they want certain sorts of skills and certain sorts of competences for the labour market and for national economy.

So there is a dilemma, there is a contradiction, on the one hand the state is giving away but on the other hand is taking on new forms of control and regulation. So you end up with a structural contradiction in the market because the logic of the market is diversity – that is you have very different kinds of goods and services in the market and the consumer can choose between these. But one of the effects of regulation is standardization, the attempt to ensure that all schools have some basic standards, that all schools achieve specified levels performance, that all schools have certain outcomes required of them by the state. So you’ve got this tension between the idea of a free market within which you have diversity of providers, over and against the standardization which is brought about by state regulation. In one sense this is a very peculiar market but of course there are lots of other markets like that as well – energy, transport, food – where the states iacts as regulator.

Where, on the one hand, the rationale and the rhetoric of market theory suggests that the market will produce social order, as Adam Smith and then more recently Milton Friedman and Friedrich von Hayek argue. In real terms, in practice, markets don’t do that, markets need to be organized and regulated by the intervention of the state. Neoliberalism is highly dependent on the state to expand its spheres of operation.

in your experience, what elements or actions borrowed from England or other countries with educational systems highly privatized are been implemented in Latin-American?

The thing that most obviously comes to mind is in the case of Brazil. In Brazil now there’s a move toward facilitating the participation of new kind of actors in the education policy process. This is something that has been happening for some time in England, in the US and other places. The policy process itself, policy formation, now includes private actors and philanthropic actors. Two years ago there was a survey in the US, 300 educators were asked, who is the most influential person in education policy in the US? The majority of them said Bill Gates. Bill Gates has never stood for election, he has no position in government, he has no mandate – but he is tremendously influential in terms of policy, because he has lots and lots of money and he spends it to achieve his vision of what an educational system should look like. So together with other foundations in the US, like the Broad Foundation, Robertson Foundation, Fisher family Foundation, Walton Foundation – they have collectively changed the landscape of education in cities like New York, Memphis, Los Angeles, and New Orleans. They are massively influential policy players. And organizations like Teach for America and KIPP (The Knowledge is Power Program – a Charter school provider) have also had a tremendous impact on grassroots policy in the US and policy thinking at government level. And the same thing has been happening in the UK. Indeed, now a lot of policy work is actually contracted out to private organizations, they do the work of policy. PriceWaterhouse Coopers, KPMG, Accenture, Ernst and Young do a lot of work for and in government. And many third sector organizations and edu-businesses are now involved in policy conversations with governments around education.

And in Brazil now this kind of participation in policy is very evident, for example, in the Education for All  (Educação para todos) Program, which involves a number of businesses and philanthropic foundations as the prime movers. And they are beginning to bring into place some of the same reform practices as have been developed in US and the UK and Chile – new forms of assessment and testing, school improvement, school leadership, methods for comparing teachers’ performance, introducing performance related pay etc.

What are the aims of these groups? What are there in the policy making?

I think there are two main aims and sometimes there’re separate and sometimes they work together. One is a response to the possibilities of profit to be made from education – in different ways – not simply running schools. In fact running schools is a fairly problematic profit making activity, it is quite difficult to generate significant profits. But there are a lot of other things you can derive profit from in education ranging from writing curriculum materials, to running local or national systems of assessment (as Pearson Education does on a large scale in the United States, and for PISA), to consulting on management processes, inspecting schools and providing adjunct services of various kinds, support work for schools, payroll services, teacher supply and continuing professional development. In England private companies now run some municipalities. And along side all of that, of course, there are non-state educational activities of all kinds, which are sold retail, particularly now, increasingly, mobile education (mEducation as it is called), sold and delivered through mobile technologies.

A second aim of these new providers relates to moral, political and ideological goals. So if you listen to what Bill Gates or Eli Broad have to say about education, they have a fundamental belief that the market is a better way to deliver education than the state, and they put their money and their efforts into bringing about changes which allow for or create more market activities in education. Alongside this there is fairly well developed argument that the market may be better at addressing social disadvantage than is the state. People like Bill Gates argue that states do not have a good track record of dealing with ‘wicked’ problems of social disadvantage and what he call “social capitalism”, market incentives linked to social goals, is better at addressing those problems. So there are two related interests – there’s a moral/ideological interest and a financial interest.

So besides the spread of these ideas, have you observed critical perspectives arising from social movements and academia in these countries as well?

In almost all of the countries in which these trends are apparent there is a body of academic, research-based, criticism; although there are also advocates and policy entrepreneurs in academia who support and encourage privatisations. There’s a considerable amount of research around issues arising from privatization, a huge amount around parental choice, and around issues like social segregation. And if we know anything about the effects of privatization, we know that whatever else it does, it increases social segregation. But for the most part governments don’t want to know that, they’re not interested in that kind of evidence because it’s inconvenient and difficult, it interrupts their existing policy perspectives. So there’s often a mismatch between evidence produced in academic research and the interest of politicians. Alongside this, there are several groups in England who are attempting to articulate critical responses to the ‘destalisation’ of education – like Comprehensive Future, the Anti-Academies Alliance, the Local Schools Network, the Campaign for State Education and some of the education trade unions.

In the US there are some very active organizations which respond to the processes of privatization; for example the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado ( The NEPC responds to ‘research’ which supports charter schools, and there’s a huge machinery of publications from the charter school providers and funders which purports to demonstrate how effective they are. The NEPC publishes re-analyses of these reports and in many cases demonstrates serious flaws in the research or the claims made from it.

Building on the previous question, in the context of Latin America we have seen a lot of demonstration from the students and teachers in the streets, arguing against the co-modifications of education that’s happening only no in Chile but Argentina, Brazil, Mexico and Puerto Rico. Despite that we the unceasing spread of the co modification of education, privatization. Drawing from your work, what actions have you observed in other contexts that allow citizens to struggle against the consequences of the privatization of education? Do you have any examples to share with us? What is the role of citizens in dealing with the commodification of education? maybe talking about the networks of people that are struggling against.

Well again Chile is the exception in many ways. Chile is interesting because it is the only place that I’m aware of where there has been a real political impact achieved by social movements and social criticism. The current government is in many ways doing extraordinary things – the withdraw of choice is almost unthinkable in most settings. The idea that you can unpick a choice system, and move back to having non-selection, and the eradication of profit from private schooling is really unique. There’s nothing like that going on anywhere else in the world. No other body of social criticism has achieved that kind of impact on education policy at government level. So the street demonstrations here, the students, the social movements, have had an effect, which is not replicated in other places.

So, based in your recently work on Foucault Power and Education we would like to hear some key ideas, key tools, some essentials that we need to acknowledge in order to grasp with this concept of privatization, commodification of education, the transformation of the education landscape, so what are the key points that we should be paying attention into your work.

Well the one thing that I would say that is important in terms of how privatization is understood and conceptualized, is that as policy it is part of something bigger. Privatization is obviously a significant policy change in itself but it is actually associated with a set of other changes that together are producing new forms of governance. That is, changes in the forms and modalities of the state, how the state works and how it relates to citizens in terms of how it governs us. In effect the state is dissipating its responsibility and including a whole range of new actors and new sites in processes of governing. And some of these new actors are private actors, they are foundations, social enterprises, philanthropies, and they are taking on part of the responsibility of governing and governance. And the state is changing its role to that of meta-governance – organizing the conditions within which government takes place but not doing the work of governing directly. And privatization is part of that, contracting out and public private partnerships are part of that. This is a shift from hierarchy and bureaucracy toward markets and heterarchies, toward a network form of governance, an elusive, opaque, poly-centric form of governance. And the concomitant of that is that it is more and more difficult to exercise or practice democratic forms of decision-making because governance become increasingly dissipated and less visible and accountable. It is becoming more and more difficult to find out who is making the important decisions, and where, and what access there maybe to those sites, what accountabilities do they have. In a nutshell democracy is being displaced by technical expertise – policymaking itself is being privatized.

Deja aquí tú opinión

Deja un comentario

Tu dirección de correo electrónico no será publicada. Los campos obligatorios están marcados con *