In today’s tech-driven world, the presence of private companies and their products and services in schools comes as no surprise. However, the extent of their involvement is raising eyebrows.
Various studies into the influence of big business in schools have been conducted over the years, revealing growing concerns by educators about the notion of one corporation controlling all elements of the curriculum, testing and resourcing.
In July 2017, the NSW Teachers Federation (NSWTF) released a report – titled: Commercialisation in public schooling: An Australian Study – which involved 2,193 educators from across Australia.
The report’s authors said teachers and principals are concerned about the increasing “creep” of commercialism into public schooling.
At the time, these concerns fell on multinational publishing and education company Pearson and its reach into Australian schools.
Responding to the report, Pearson Australia managing director, David Barnett, said it surveyed union members only - which make up about 30% of all teachers and principals.
“The authors concede it's not a fair representation of the views of all Australian educators. Many public school teachers are authors of the resources we publish, or come in to mark the NAPLAN on a casual basis – both of which boosts their income,” Barnett told The Educator.
Now an expert is warning that another corporate behemoth – IBM – is seeking to “march into Australian high school classrooms and potentially dictate what students learn”.
The warning – by Skilling Australia Foundation (SAF) chairman, Frederick Maddern – follows a legal stoush between SAF and IBM, who were working in close concert to expand P-TECH across Australia.
In August, SAF lost the first round of its effort to legally prevent the tech giant from using the P-TECH name in its work with schools.
According to facts presented in last the Federal Court judgment, IBM and SAF collaborated “happily enough” on the P-TECH program until May last year when IBM discovered that Workplace Institute Limited (a company that formerly operated the Skilling Australia Foundation and that was also an applicant in the case) had become the owner of a P-TECH, Pathways in Technology, trademark for education services and vocational training.
‘A beachhead moment’
SAF co-founder, Nick Wyman, said the IBM-SAF dispute represents “a beachhead moment in the future of Australian secondary education”.
“What is potentially at stake here is whether or not corporations can use their chequebook to access the classroom or direct the curriculum,” Wyman told The Educator.
“Obviously, there is a place for programs which transfer knowledge from industry to the classroom, and for aligning or updating curriculum to keep students up-to-date with what they can expect in their career.”
Wyman said it also demonstrates that, once a program is established, the probity safeguards put in place to ensure the educational rigour and integrity of a program can “potentially be swept aside in order to appease a key funder”.
“As a society, as educators, we have to ask ourselves are we comfortable with, or willing to allow big business to use their chequebook to potentially co-opt or have influence over educational programs?” Wyman said.
“Do parents think that it’s ok for companies like IBM to attempt to influence educators through offering inducements such as trips to New York?”
Wyman said SAF’s experience with IBM is an “illustrative example”.
“In our case, the P-TECH program was developed as a collaborative partnership model, with multiple industry and educational partners contributing expertise,” he said.
“Once teething and transitional issues were resolved and the program was operating smoothly, IBM began attempting to publicly claim the successes of the program, influence their way into successful P-TECH Australia partnerships and then push out foundation partners such as SAF in the process.”
The Educator contacted IBM but they declined to comment.