This report is a fascinating and scary analysis of Pearson’s ambitious efforts to create a demand for their products around the world and to satisfy that demand while making profits.
It is called “Pearson and PALF. The Mutating Giant,” and it was written by Carolina Jünemann and Stephen Ball. It shines a much needed light on the international ambitions of the privatization movement and the commercializing of education as a consumer good. It is worth your time to read this important report. Arm yourself with knowledge and information.
Education is big business. There are global, national and local businesses all seeking to profit from education and educational services. Increasingly, business, education policy and what it means to be educated are intimately intertwined.
Pearson is the world’s largest edu-business. Over the last 10 years Pearson has been involved in a process of re-invention, leading to its re-branding in 2014 as a ‘learning’ company with a vision, summed up in the strapline ‘always learning’, and with the aim of contributing to “the very highest standards in education around the world.”
This transition has at least two aspects to it. The first relates to Pearson’s repositioning of the brand as a social purpose company, one which portrays itself as having a positive, and measurable, impact on society, that of “help(ing) more people make measurable progress in their lives through learning”. The other relates to Pearson seeking to position itself as an increasingly powerful global policy actor in education – “to playing an active role in helping shape and inform the global debate around education and learning policy” (2012 annual report p. 39). But as Pearson is contributing to the global education policy debate, it is also reconfiguring the education policy problems that will then generate new markets for its products and services in the form of educational ‘solutions’.
In 2012, Michael Barber Pearson’s Chief Education Adviser, previously Head of the UK’s Prime Minister’s Delivery Unit (2001-2005) launched PALF (the Pearson Affordable Learning Fund) as a for-profit venture fund to support and encourage the development and expansion of affordable learning school chains in developing countries.
The creation of PALF is an integral part of the repositioning of Pearson as a global company rather than one focused strongly on European and the US markets. It fits into Pearson’s business strategy of venturing into new markets (geographical) and uncovering new market opportunities, in this case, a new market segment (socio-economic), moving the company away from its traditional position as mid-market and high-end operator in education. PALF has been created to develop an unconventional market niche – the need and ambition of the poor in developing countries to give their children a good education.
The main focus of investment in PALF’s first phase of activity was for-profit Low Fee Private School (LFPS) chains. PALF’s first investment was in Omega Schools, a chain of Low Fee Private Schools operating in Ghana. Another is Affordable Private Education Centres (APEC), a chain of low-cost secondary schools in the Philippines. A third investment within the LFPS chain sector in 2014 is eAdvance, a company that manages the first South African blended learning low fee school chain called Spark schools.
However, PALF’s initial focus on Low Fee Private School chains has been inhibited by the absence of appropriate investment opportunities – sustainable, innovative businesses that could provide the expected financial returns. This has resulted in a recent shift in PALF’s scope to include a more general mix of investments and a broader focus on commercial education ‘solutions’ that, as Pearson explains, “might involve new business models, investing in new technology, or testing innovative partnerships or distribution channels” (Pearson plc, 2014, p. 56).
As part of this change of focus, in March 2014 PALF made an equity investment in Zaya Learning Labs and another in Avanti Learning Centres, a provider of college entrance exam preparation for students of low-income families through a pedagogic approach based on peer-to-peer learning and self-study, both in India. This kind of investment, as those in Ed-tech more generally, also facilitate, and illustrate, the increased used of non-teacher based or blended learning pedagogies.
An important aspect of PALF’s outcomes driven ‘demonstration’ work is related to the role of technology as an enabler of scale through delivery cost savings, that is, by reducing the reliance on qualified teachers as the primary medium of instruction. There are complex and over-lapping profit opportunities in the technology – teaching equation. This has profound implications for the role of teachers. The commitments and functions of the teacher are increasingly narrowed to include only those deemed necessary for enhancing performance and outcomes, at the same time as teachers are residualised and ‘de-professionalised’.