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NAPLAN and the role of edu-business: New governance, new privatisations and new partnerships in Australian education policy

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This paper provides a critical analysis of the edu-businesses currently working in partnership with the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) to deliver the Commonwealth government policy initiative of the National Assessment Program – Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN). These emerging public-private partnerships (PPPs) exemplify new heterarchical governance structures in Australia, where a network of public and private agents now contribute to education policy processes. In analysing the NAPLAN policy network, this account seeks to proffer a critical analysis on the evolving PPPs in Australia and ascertains in whose interests and with what outcomes these PPPs operate. The NAPLAN policy network is analysed in relation to the contemporary state and its changing modus operandi, where I draw on the notions of heterarchies, networks and new governance structures in education to understand these developments. Network ethnography is employed to document the network of PPPs that are associated with NAPLAN and other government initiatives in Australia, where in particular, I reflect on the activities of Pearson and the Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER) to problematise what these policy networks mean. http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs13384-014-0162-z
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Abstract
This paper provides a critical analysis of the edu-businesses currently working in partnership
with the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) to deliver the
Commonwealth government policy initiative of the National Assessment Program Literacy
and Numeracy (NAPLAN). These emerging public-private partnerships (PPPs) exemplify new
heterarchical governance structures in Australia, where a network of public and private agents
now contribute to education policy processes. In analysing the NAPLAN policy network, this
account seeks to proffer a critical analysis on the evolving PPPs in Australia and ascertains in
whose interests and with what outcomes these PPPs operate. The NAPLAN policy network is
analysed in relation to the contemporary state and its changing modus operandi, where I draw
on the notions of heterarchies, networks and new governance structures in education to
understand these developments. Network ethnography is employed to document the network of
PPPs that are associated with NAPLAN and other government initiatives in Australia, where in
particular, I reflect on the activities of Pearson and the Australian Council for Educational
Research (ACER) to problematise what these policy networks mean.
Key words: NAPLAN, edu-business, governance, privatisations, public/private partnerships
NAPLAN and the role of edu-business: New governance, new privatisations and new
partnerships in Australian education policy
Anna Hogan
The University of Queensland
A pervasive neoliberal imaginary has been working to recast education policymaking in
specific ways, where contemporary policy settings now encourage the privatisation of
education as a key means to improve school effectiveness and the quality of student outcomes.
Such an approach to education has challenged the ideology of the traditional state-centred
public provision of schooling, opening it instead to market-based processes of reform. Here not
only does the state adopt neo-liberal policy principles that encourage the discourses of
accountability, competition and choice in education, but the state also works to open public
policy processes to private sector participation. These privatisations are particularly evident in
the Australian context, where the education reform initiatives introduced by the 2007
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Rudd/Gillard Labor government under the pretext of an ‘Education Revolution’ not only
introduced neoliberal performance management mechanisms into education, as evident through
the National Assessment Program Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN) and My School
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, but
these processes have also worked to make the state more amenable to the participation of
private providers in processes of test preparation, testing, data analysis and representation.
This paper provides a critical analysis of NAPLAN as one of Australia’s key policy initiatives
which has worked to open the door to various amounts of privatisation in education. NAPLAN,
like similar standardised test regimes in the United States (US) and United Kingdom (UK), is
intended to improve student achievement and drive up education standards given these are seen
as central to national success in the context of global economic competitiveness (Thompson &
Harbaugh, 2013; Rizvi & Lingard, 2010). As Thompson and Harbaugh (2013, p.300) observe:
‘Tests like NAPLAN represent a shift in the imaginary or logics of education policy, from
government to governance, to practices of auditing’ schools and teachers through the
production of (largely) quantitative data, and to the creation of systems that use data to steer or
manage institutions, individuals and practices often at a distance’. While these particular
effects have been well theorised in the literature (see Lingard, 2011; Lingard & Sellar, 2013),
less so are the ways in which these political shifts are being leveraged by edu-businesses for
commercial advantage. Indeed, Burch (2009) points out that particular segments of the
education market are being reinvented around testing and accountability policies where schools
and governments are now purchasing products and services from the private sector that are tied
to test development and preparation, data analysis and management, and remedial services. She
identifies that this is an industry worth $48 billion per year in the US alone. Given this growth
in edu-business activity is tied to changes in education policy, it is conceivable that NAPLAN
may be similarly representative of new privatisations and increasing ‘business opportunities’
(Ball, 2012) in Australian education policy.
Ball’s (2007) work in particular suggests that there are a range of different privatisations ‘of’,
‘in’ and ‘through’ education and education policy, where edu-businesses are increasingly
important in providing ‘solutions’ to national policy problems (Ball, 2012). On this point Ball
(2012, p.112) notes:
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NAPLAN tests are conducted in May each year for all students across Australia in Years 3, 5, 7, and 9. All
students in the same year level are assessed on the same test items in the assessment domains of Reading, Writing,
Language Conventions (spelling, grammar and punctuation) and Numeracy. The results of NAPLAN for every
Australian school are displayed on the My School website, which allows comparisons to be made between
statistically similar schools.
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In effect, to different extents in different countries, the private sector now
occupies a range of roles and relationships within the state and educational state
in particular, as sponsors and benefactors, as well as working as contractors,
consultants, advisers, researchers, service providers and so on and both
sponsoring innovations (by philanthropic actions) and selling policy solutions
and services to the state, sometimes in related ways.
Indeed, there is a trend in recent literature that discusses the new policy networks that emerge
from these interrelations between government, edu-business and philanthropy over particular
policy processes (Ball, 2012; Ball and Junemann, 2012; Burch, 2009; Picciano and Spring,
2013; Olmedo, 2013; Shiroma, 2013; Reckhow, 2013). From these accounts we can see that
neo-liberal discourses of marketisation and privatisation have taken precedence, where the
traditional hierarchal bureaucratic influence over the public sector has been broken down and
reconfigured in ways that promote a new form of governance, or a ‘polycentric’ state (Ball,
2012). Here, edu-businesses have gained credibility as legitimate contributors to this new
policy landscape and are increasingly utilised in shaping and creating education policy.
NAPLAN exemplifies these shifting governance structures and the mix of public and private
agents at work in education policy today. Understanding these evolving relationships between
government institutions and edu-businesses is an important consideration in critical policy
research. Thus my aim in this paper is to document and analyse the ways in which edu-
businesses are involved in NAPLAN policy processes, and the potential implications that arise
from this transferral of activities from the public to the private sector. In particular, I seek to
understand the motives that the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority
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(ACARA) has for contracting edu-businesses in processes of NAPLAN development,
enactment and analysis. Here I reflect on tensions between public sector motives for the
outsourcing of policy and the for-profit interests of edu-businesses. I argue that NAPLAN
processes are indicative of new privatisations in Australia, where new policy values and new
policy actors are working to redistribute power and responsibility in matters of education
policy.
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ACARA is a Commonwealth statutory body that was established in 2008 by the Rudd/Gillard Labor
government to lead the development of NAPLAN, My School and the Australian Curriculum. Independent
from the Federal government, ACARA is jointly funded by the Commonwealth, State and Territory governments
and receives directions from the associated Ministers for Education through the Standing Council on School
Education and Early Childhood (SCSEEC).
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In what follows I first elaborate on the theoretical frameworks for analysis, which are
important in understanding how new governance structures have underpinned the emergence of
edu-businesses as critical to contemporary education policy processes. Here the work of Ball
and Junemann (2012) on heterarchies works to characterise new networked partnerships
between the public and private sector (Robertson and Dale, 2013), where shifting forms of
public and private authority now mediate policy processes (Cutler, 2008). Next I describe and
analyse the NAPLAN policy network. Utilising the approach of ‘network ethnography’
(Howard, 2002; Ball and Junemann, 2012) I provide an account and analysis of the edu-
businesses currently contributing to education policy in Australia, specifically around
NAPLAN processes. My analysis suggests that edu-businesses like Pearson and the Australian
Council for Educational Research (AECR) are working to construct policy problems which
they can subsequently solve through their commercial activities. I see here the emergence of an
Australian education policy field increasingly populated by edu-business and NAPLAN as a
vector of privatisation.
Theoretical framings: heterarchies, networks and public-private partnerships
A gradual shift in the form and functioning of the state has been occurring over recent years,
where there now exists a genuine need to explore how educational governance is being done
and by whom (Ball, 2012). This uncertainty has arisen as a consequence from the move from
government to governance, perhaps better conceptualised as a move from a traditional,
hierarchical, bureaucratic model of command-and-control procedures to a more informal,
flexible, networked form of practice (Eggers, 2008). While this move has been framed by neo-
liberalism, it represents a move beyond conceptions of New Public Management where the
state adopts more business-like procedures. Rather, it constitutes what Ball terms (2007)
privatisations of multiple kinds, where public policies are now being delivered through a
strategic mix of public and private agents. These new relationships are a central feature of the
contemporary state and its modus operandi.
Here, Ball and Junemann’s (2012, pp.137-140) concept of ‘heterarchy’ is able to articulate the
new ‘latent structures’ and relationships associated with new forms of educational governance.
They define the concept in the following terms:
Heterarchy is an organisational form somewhere between hierarchy and
network that draws upon diverse horizontal and vertical links that permit
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different elements of the policy process to cooperate (and/or compete).
Heterarchies have many of the characteristics of ‘assemblages’ of and for policy
and governance, inasmuch as they contain heterogeneous elements placed in
diverse relations to one another, in latent structures or as social morphology. (p.
138)
As Ball and Junemann observe, heterarchies are dynamic structures that bring together
bureaucratic and network relationships, which function between agencies of the government,
business and civil society and extends these, in the case of contemporary education policy, to a
global scale. The role of the state in these heterarchical structures varies, as Ball and Junemann
(2012, p.139) observe: ‘within heterarchies, public sector organisations are positioned
sometimes as clients, sometimes as contractors, sometimes as partners and sometimes as
competitors of private sector organisations’. Indeed, they suggest that often services are not
removed from public sector control, but rather are performed in partnership or collaboration
with the public sector. Heterarchies are examples of what Kickert et al. (1997; cited in Ball and
Junemann, 2012) refer to as ‘loosely coupled, weakly tied, multi-organisational sets’ – they are
made up of processes and relationships rather than constituting an administrative structure.
These types of partnerships have led to a turn from hierarchy to a more complex, negotiated
system, oriented to international competitiveness, innovation, flexibility and ‘enterprise
culture’ (Jessop, 1998, p.35). According to Jessop (1998), the conditions for successful
heterarchical governance depend on institutionalised negotiations, where actions are
coordinated to secure particular outcomes which are deemed mutually beneficial. Thus, the
state relinquishes part of its capacity for hierarchal, top-down, authoritative decision making in
exchange for the ‘policy solutions’ (Ball, 2012) that can be provided by the likes of edu-
businesses; and edu-businesses forgo some of their autonomy in economic decision making to
gain political influence and consequently, improved system performance. What we seen then in
heterarchical governance is not an absolute change, ‘but rather a shift in the balance or mix
between the different elements of government - bureaucracies, markets and networks’ (Ball
and Junemann, 2012, p.5). Indeed, this hybrid mix of older and newer forms and practices of
the state point to a prevailing policy landscape, where Williams (2012) argues, complex policy
issues cannot be resolved by single agencies acting alone.
In heterarchies then, governments become facilitators and co-creators of policy agendas, policy
texts and their deliveries. This context has important implications for thinking about and
understanding policy analysis. Here, a network imagination has become particularly
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fashionable in conceptualising these complex formations as networks provide a material basis
for new forms of social organisation. By definition, networks are relational, self-organising,
collaborative, non-hierarchal and flexible in nature (Barabasi, 2003). This type of self-
organisation means network actors form around a common goal or function and as such, are
equally subjected to change. As Newman (2001, p.108) observes ‘networks are informal and
fluid, with shifting membership and ambiguous relationships and accountabilities’. Such
flexible organisation represents a solid departure from rigid bureaucratic structures and heralds
what Osborne and Gaebler (1992) have termed a ‘reinventing of government’. Here we see the
emergence of network governance where Koppenjan and Klijn (2004, p.25) observe: ‘In the
world of network governance, government is understood to be located alongside business and
civil society actors in a complex game of public policy formation, decision-making and
implementation’.
This collaboration between public and private sectors is defined by Leitner and Sheppard
(2002, p.499) as an ‘inclusive governance structure’ where information can be exchanged
between firms, the state and civil society. They explain that networks promote innovation and
learning between the public and private sectors in ways that direct economic restructuring in
positive directions and improve labour market information and training between the state and
civil society in ways that deepen political participation. The result of these public/private
partnerships (PPPs) are the creation of ‘relational assets’ (Stroper, 1997), where the dividing
lines between state institutions and institutions of civil society are harder to draw (Amin and
Thrift, 1995). This is an important aspect of network governance; the state still has an
important role to play, but policy networks can ensure that political decision making is flexible,
dynamic and efficient (Martin and Mayntz, 1991). As Wanna (2009, p.266) suggests,
governments are redefining themselves as ‘facilitators’ ‘working through markets rather than
acting as autarkic doers who owned, operated and produced everything themselves’. Williams
(2002, p.103) observes that through this mix of ‘strategic alliances, joint working
arrangements, partnerships and many other forms of collaboration’ public services are being
delivered across sectoral and organisational boundaries.
Yet these PPPs are also reworking notions of ‘public authority’ where market mechanisms are
working to insert private sector interests into the realms of public policy making (Robertson
and Dale, 2013; Robertson et al., 2012). Cutler (2008) refers to this as the rise of ‘private
authority’, where edu-businesses are given significant freedom to shape the ideology of
education policy reform. As Burch (2009) explains, in this environment the state’s role has
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become ‘highly technical’ and ‘organized around the management of contracts and the need for
greater efficiency, while substance is shaped by the contracting private entity’ (p.34). Indeed,
Shiroma (2013) found through her investigation of education policy networks in South
America that private providers were able to apply pressure to the agenda setting and policy
making processes of the state and were able to successfully influence ‘the formulation,
implementation and evaluation of education policies’ (p.19). So while the outsourcing of
public policy may be based on the assumption that market-oriented management will lead to
greater cost efficiency and improved success for governments, there are commensurate
concerns here about the emerging capacity of edu-businesses to shape education policy
problems and determine their solutions in ways that are commercially beneficial to themselves
or their shareholders (Ball, 2012; Robertson and Dale, 2013).
Thus the role of edu-businesses in education policy processes is complex, still emerging and
constantly evolving to take advantage of new opportunities in the education market. In this
sense, there is no straightforward ‘rule of thumb’ that can be evoked to understand the
relationships between edu-businesses, the state and education policy, rather as Ball (2012)
contends, the resulting policy field from these interactions is complex, volatile and difficult to
trace. What is clear through, as Picciano and Spring (2013) have pointed out, is that private
providers are committed to the promotion of their beliefs, ideas, products and services in ways
that further their own goals and objectives; that is, opportunities to profit. Picciano and Spring
also suggest that it is important to remember that this new environment is not made up of one
single entity conspiring to influence education policy, but rather, it is made up of multiple
agents that compete with one another for contracts and sales of goods and services.
What I have been suggesting is this section, by tracing the restructuring of education
governance mechanisms, is that state bureaucracies are now more heterarchical; that is,
networked, horizontal relations cut-across the vertical ones, as well as stretching across regions
and the globe in a complex mix of the public and the private. Clearly, these new
understandings necessitate research methods that are sensitive to these new forms of social
organisation or educational governance. Howard (2002) and Ball and Junemann (2012) have
argued that new kinds of ethnographic methodsnetwork ethnographyenable such tracings.
Methodology: network ethnography
Network ethnography is a methodological technique proposed by Howard (2002) to counter
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the challenges of studying organisational forms built around new media and mobilities. I would
also note that the new governance structures referenced above, and the associated increases in
the opaqueness of education policy, can be productively analysed using a network ethnography
approach. Primarily network ethnography argues that the Internet can be employed as a site for
research, where an increase of Interactive Communication Technologies has provided
qualitative researchers with useful techniques for collecting data on the policy networks
produced through increasingly complex public-private interactions. Indeed, using the work of
Kenway and Bullen (2001), I have promoted the idea of the network ethnographer as
cyberflâneur, who can access the Internet and move through online communities, collecting
information from websites, blogs, Facebook pages and twitter accounts. The cyberflâneur is
able to move seamlessly between these spaces, travelling through what Beaulieu (2004) calls
‘links of association’. The approach to research that can be undertaken by the cyberflâneur
redefines the ways in which researchers can engage with contemporary policy issues and
inspires a remapping of how one is able to trace the flows and mobilities of policy today (see
Hogan, 2014). Importantly, digital methods of this kind go beyond a focus on researching
Internet technologies and online relationships and representations to examine what these
technologies and relationships can tell us about social conditions more broadly (Rogers, 2013).
Indeed, network ethnography has been applied in a small number of studies to convincingly
portray changing educational governance structures in policy production and implementation
(see Ball & Junemann, 2012; Olmedo, 2013; Shiroma, 2013). As Ball and Junemann (2012,
p.6) observe ‘this method constitutes a mapping of the form and content of policy relations’,
where the network diagrams can be deployed as both ‘an analytical technique for looking at the
structure of policy communities and their social relationships’ and a conceptual device that can
be ‘used to represent a set of ‘real’ changes in the forms of governance of education, both
nationally and globally’. Thus network ethnography is able to visually portray changing
educational governance structures and enables recognition of the heterarchical nature of
education policy processes that are produced through vertical and horizontal relations between
public and private actors.
This analysis is informed by the three interrelated activities of network ethnography including:
1) Internet searches; 2) the use of these searches to construct network diagrams; and 3) the use
of these diagrams to identify nodes for further analysis, primarily through semi-structured
interviews. To this end, I present two network diagrams that were constructed using Gephi
software. These networks should be seen as visual explanatory devices, rather than strict
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analytical representations. As such they encompass policy initiatives, policy actors and the
interrelations between these to illustrate the complexity of contemporary policy networks. I
rely upon Internet searches and a Freedom of Information (1982) request submitted to ACARA
to map the policy networks associated with NAPLAN and to generate a network
ethnographical account of the contexts of policy influence and production in Australia. This is
supplemented with interviews conducted during 2013 as part of a broader project, where
included here are three participants from ACARA, ACER and Pearson. These interviews were
conducted over Skype and all names and positions have been de-identified throughout this
paper to ensure participant anonymity.
NAPLAN policy network
As mentioned previously, the development and management of NAPLAN is a responsibility of
ACARA. On this point ACARA (2011) states: ‘To ensure the delivery of a high quality and
robust assessment program ACARA draws on both internal expertise and experts across
Australia, all highly regarded in their relevant professional fields’ (para.1). ACARA mentions
that these experts include the likes of teachers, State and territory education authorities, the
Australian government and other members of the non-government school sector. However,
with no further information available on their website about who these experts are, or the role
they play in the delivery of NAPLAN it is difficult to ascertain exactly how NAPLAN is
developed and managed. Thus through both Internet searches and a Freedom of Information
(1982) request I sought to unveil who these experts are and more specifically, understand
whether edu-businesses in Australia, like those in the US and UK, are now being contracted to
produce policy texts for the state (Ball, 2012).
From this investigation, the NAPLAN contract network (Figure 1) was constructed. This
network diagram displays the contract arrangements that underpin NAPLAN, where both
ACARA and State educational authorities contract edu-businesses in processes of developing,
implementing and reporting on NAPLAN. This network is purposefully simple as it is
designed to illustrate the key edu-businesses involved in this particular policy initiative. It can
be observed from the diagram that there are nine lifecycle stages of NAPLAN which include:
1. Guidelines for test development
2. Item development
3. Consultation of expert advice
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4. Trialling of test items
5. Equating of test items
6. Special printing of the test
7. Testing of students
8. Marking of the tests
9. Analysis and reporting of results
Out of these nine stages, ACARA is responsible for overseeing seven of them, where
excluding the first stage undertaken by ACARA themselves in consultation with the Standing
Council, contractors are used for the provision of all other relevant services. In 2012 the cost of
these contracted services totalled $4,266,341. While ACARA did not disclose the cost of
individual contracts due to concerns for their ability to achieve value for money for future
NAPLAN contracts, they did provide an aggregate dollar figure for a number of the lifecycle
stages. Thus, item development cost $2,075,717; trialling of the test items cost $681,253;
equating of the test items cost $527,848; and the analysis and reporting of results cost
$610,247.
It is clear from the network diagram that there are four significant edu-businesses utilised by
ACARA, which include ACER, Educational Measurement Solutions (EMS), Educational
Assessment Australia (EAA) and Pearson. Also included on the network diagram is the
Department of Education and Communities from the State of New South Wales who were
contracted specifically for the desktop publishing of final papers, trial papers and special
printing of tests for students with disability.
Those stages not overseen by ACARA include the administering and marking of NAPLAN,
which is the responsibility of the States and Territories. The relevant State authority was
contacted to ascertain how these processes were undertaken in their relevant jurisdiction. In
every State the printing and distribution of NAPLAN materials was contracted to Pearson with
the exception of Queensland who contracted Fuji Xerox for this process. The actual testing of
students occurs in schools under the direction of school staff and the subsequent marking of the
test is a process overseen by most of the relevant educational authorities in the States and
Territories. However, in New South Wales, Victoria and the Australian Capital Territory, this
process was also contracted to Pearson where they became responsible for the recruiting,
training and paying of NAPLAN test markers. This presents Pearson as a central agent in the
NAPLAN policy network, where they have significant contractual obligations with
Commonwealth, State and Territory governments.
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Figure 1: NAPLAN contract network
Indeed, this NAPLAN network quite clearly represents the reconstitution of Australian
educational governance, where the state has relinquished its monopoly over education policy
processes in favour of private sector involvement in matters of public service delivery (Ball
2007). This has led to what Osborne and Gaebler (1992) call the ‘reinvention of government’
which has enabled the state to understand that what it does best is the ‘leading’ or ‘steering’ of
the education system through the setting of policy frameworks, not the ‘doing’ or ‘rowing’ of
the system through the provision of services. Davis et al. (1997) argue, that this move from
government to governance has been mirrored by a turn to contractualism, where partnerships
between the public sector and the private sector have become the new normal. In this new
environment, as Patrinos et al. (2009, p.1) observes, ‘government guides policy and provides
financing while the private sector delivers education services’. This has led to the emergence of
the education services industry, where private actors, and edu-businesses in particular, are
contributing to education policy and practice (Ball, 2012). As Robertson and Verger (2012,
p.37) contend: ‘The private sector is now deeply embedded in the heart of the state’s education
services at all levels, from policy and research work to delivering learning in classrooms’.
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These increasing amounts of private activity have caused concern amongst a number of social
commentators who believe that education as a public activity, serving the public interest, must
remain within the control of the public domain. Yet, part of the post-Keynesian shift and the
associated rise of neo-liberalism and New Public Management, means that the increased role of
the private sector is envisioned in the national interest (Ball, 2007). As Christensen and
Laegreid (2007) assert, the primary aim is to modernise the public sector and render it more
effective, which is based on the assumption that market-oriented management will lead to
greater cost efficiency and improved success for governments. The ACARA representative I
interviewed agrees with this sentiment:
In short: No. I don’t think we could operate as a modern organisation if we
didn’t [contract edu-businesses]. We’d become massive in terms of staff, and
then because the nature of the work we do is cyclical particularly in relation to
something like NAPLAN - so you’ll have an intense period where they’re doing
central analysis of data, you’ll have an intense period where they’re developing
tests for a particular year, you’ll have an intense period of equating. They’re
very different skill sets, and so if you actually employed staff it wouldn’t
make much sense. You’d end up paying people to do nothing for long periods
of time… A lot of the bits of work are way too complex I suspect for a loose set
of people to just pull it together. Some things you sort of need the size of an
enterprise in our case with ACER for example, they’re obviously large enough
to handle the complexity of the work, the quality assurance, and the risk
management of the process we require.
Here ACARA clearly articulates that private sector involvement in education policy processes
is a legitimate means of increasing the efficiency and effectiveness of public practice. Indeed,
this government perspective is well theorised in the literature, where many studies have
examined PPPs from this perspective. What is examined to a lesser extent are the perspectives
of edu-businesses on these partnerships. Given this omission in current understanding, I asked
the Australian Pearson representative why they are interested in partnering with public
authorities on public policy initiatives:
No one’s got the answer, the single answer. I think it comes through
collaborative efforts. We have as much to gain by engaging with governments
about, okay, where are you heading with your education systems? What are you
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thinking around assessments? How can we partner with you? Because we want
the same result. We all want a positive outcome for learners… That’s, I think,
where we see ourselves, certainly in the future, is working more in collaboration
with a government perspective, with State and Federal governments around
what their initiatives are for education and where they can see a for-profit
organisation like Pearson fitting in. For-profit doesn’t mean that we appear to
take money away. It’s about how you spend your money more wisely, which is
also a challenge these days for any government.
In this excerpt Pearson suggests that their primary aim is improving student outcomes, that this
cannot be achieved by any one organisation working alone, and that engaging in PPPs will
continue to be an important aspect of their business strategy into the future.
It is worth noting here that Pearson’s increasing engagement with PPPs in the Australian
context is representative of their global transformation that has been occurring over recent
years where they have worked to shift their business strategy from education inputs (e.g.
textbooks) to education outcomes. This is indicative of the increasing business opportunities
that now exist in matters of public education policy (Ball, 2012). Indeed, Pearson (2012, p.39)
argues that as the world’s leading edu-businesses (reporting over four billion pounds in
education sales during 2012), they have a responsibility to support educational improvement
and are ‘committed to playing an active role in helping shape and inform the global debate
around education and learning policy’. Here we see the phenomenon described by Bishop and
Green (2008, p. 177) as ‘philanthrocapitalism’ in which ‘corporate social responsibility is
being driven by the belief that doing good is profitable’. Pearson, across all of its
organisational divisions, demonstrates the character of the ‘new philanthropy,’ whereby
‘organisations involved display a variety of different and changing mixes of charitable, social
enterprising and business identities and commitments’ (Ball, 2012, p.89). This blurring and
hybridisation between education as a social good and education as a profit opportunity might
be seen as another manifestation of what Rose (1999) and Savage (2012) have called the ‘neo-
social’ condition, where there is a distinct elision of the social and the economic.
While the distinction between for-profit and not-for-profit edu-businesses is an issue that has
received relatively little attention in contemporary analyses, Pikkety (2014) has argued that in
the wake of globalisation, neoliberalism, financial crises and the growth of inequality, large
corporations like Pearson are facing increasing criticism from the public about their motives
for public policy delivery. For example, popular and influential education policy actor, Diane
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Ravitch who was the former Assistant Secretary of Education in President George W. Bush’s
administration, is particularly outspoken about what she sees as the ‘Pearsonization’ of
American students and schools. In a recent blog post titled ‘The United States of Pearson’
(2012) she writes:
It is difficult to remember what part of American education has not been
invaded by Pearson’s corporate grasp. It receives billions of dollars to test
millions of students… With the U.S. Department of Education now pressing
schools to test children in second grade, first grade, kindergarten and possibly
earlier … the picture grows clear. Pearson will control every aspect of our
education system.
While the Pearson representative I interviewed described this sort of criticism as a ‘knee jerk
reaction’ it does point to potentially serious implications about the increasing trend of PPPs in
matters of education policy. However, as the ACARA representative points out, this concern is
not linked to the fact that Pearson is a for-profit edu-business, rather this concern emanates
from the risk of the public sector becoming reliant on, or constrained by, a particular private
provider:
I guess technically a profit-making company has members, and it distributes its
proceeds to the members. A not-for-profit one is just churning the money back
into its own organisation, including through wages and so forth. So to some
extent, I’d say we’re cautious of some not-for-profits which we think are
probably taking as much, or a larger margin than commercial bodies. So I guess
it’s really case-by-case. There’s some commercial players that we are a little bit
suss on, because you know, cost cutting, are they just trying to overrun the
marketplace? But there’s also not-for-profits that we’re concerned about
because they charge too much, in the sense of when you’re trying to get value
for money, it doesn’t matter what happens with the margin – whether it’s going
to members of a company or whether it’s going back into research being
undertaken by an organisation if the margin is large, we don’t like it.
From this perspective then it seems too simplistic to judge an edu-business on whether they are
not-for-profit or for-profit, as this is clearly not a distinction of good versus evil, nor is it one
that is likely to influence who government authorities engage in partnerships with. As ACARA
highlights, engaging in PPPs is a decision based on an economic assessment of ‘value-for-
15
money’. Yet, looking at the NAPLAN contract network and the centrality of Pearson and
ACER, is there a concern here that ACARA and other education authorities are becoming
dependant on certain edu-businesses?
Problematising the increasing use of PPPs
Capturing the benefits of competition are often given as key reasons for outsourcing public
services. This argument derives from standard market theory, where Burch (2009) observes
that the outsourcing of public services creates a competitive market for public services,
increases the quality of those services, and reduces costs for taxpayers. However, this
economic efficiency argument is only valid if there is enough competition within the sector to
ensure that the government agency doing the outsourcing is not constrained or captured by one
particular provider. While ACARA believes that their procurement policy encourages
competition in the Australian education market, an analysis of ACER’s broader education work
would suggest that this is not necessarily the case. Indeed, from the network diagram below
(Figure 2) it is obvious that ACER’s contractual obligations transcend the boundaries of
NAPLAN, where in 2012 they were contracted to work on 126 projects for 56 different
agencies. Each of these projects are represented by the yellow nodes in the network, where
their connection to the blue node represents the organisation that contracted ACER for the
project-related work. The green nodes represent the location of these organisations, which
range from the State level, through the Australian national level, to an international level.
Figure 2: ACER’s contract network
16
From this network we can observe State educational authorities like the Victorian Department
of Education and Early Childhood Development (VDEECD), contracted ACER to work on 15
different projects. Also, the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations
(DEEWR), which since 2012 has been replaced by two separate agencies, including the
Australian Government Department of Education and the Australian Government Department
of Employment, contracted ACER to work on 16 of their education projects. Similarly, there
are links to international education projects headed by the likes of the Organisation for
Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the International Association for the
Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA), World Bank and UNICEF. This clearly
highlights that ACARA is far from the only agency that uses edu-businesses in matters of
education policy. Indeed, examination of ACER’s contract network is able to identify that a
vast majority of Australia’s Federal and State education authorities and governmental
institutions are reliant on PPPs.
While this reliance on PPPs is not unexpected given new forms of heterarchical governance,
there are concerns here about the capacity of edu-businesses to shape policy problems and their
solutions in ways beneficial to their organisation. Consider the fact that edu-businesses like
ACER are not only developing and enacting policy processes on a national and State level, but
they are also designing textbooks, practice assessments and school reform services targeted at
the local level. Indeed, ACER suggests that there are two major aspects of their work. The first
is to assist educational decision makers at all levels in their collection, analysis, interpretation
and use of reliable data. The second is to assist educational decision makers at all levels in their
identification and implementation of evidence-based policies and practices. To this end, as one
ACER representative commented:
The products that we produce are largely in response to needs that we become
aware of… So for example… evaluations point to what’s working or not
working with educational programs and resources, but also to resources that
may be needed to support school students.
Thus, ACER is using their policy work to inform the construction of particular education
resources or what may be construed in Ball’s (2012) terms as the identification of policy
‘problems’ to which they can sell policy ‘solutions’.
It is clear that this influence arises from working in partnership with governments, government
institutions and even schools, where ACER is able to identify and respond to policy needs
17
through their work in developing, consulting, evaluating, or making recommendations about
public policies. Given this, these contracts and relationships are a key function for edu-
businesses where ACER identifies that PPPs are:
[P]retty much a key part of the landscape at this particular point in time… and
ACER, because of all the work we do in the evaluation and the collection of
evidence, is in a particularly good situation to then propose or recommend
policy directions, which is ultimately all we can ever do. We can simply
recommend the directions and the shape the policy might take, it is up to the
government to agree.
This notion of the government ‘agreeing’ with policy proposals is interesting. Hogan, Sellar
and Lingard (2014) have previously pointed to the idea that edu-businesses are working to
over-simplify complicated policy issues. According to Verger (2012, p.111), these
simplifications or authoritative programmatic ideals act like ‘cognitive locks’ and work to
‘restrict decision-makers to certain intellectual paths, reduce uncertainty amongst policy-
makers, and constitute broad cognitive constraints on the range of solutions that they perceive
and deem to be useful for solving problems’. Thus there is a potential concern here about the
ways in which edu-businesses might work to shape or influence education policy in specific
ways.
Bessusi (2006, p.18) makes the point that the promise of PPPs and new heterarchical policy
networks and the mode of governance they represent are to ‘produce more effective and
legitimate policies, without resting upon the authority and limitations of a single representative
political body’. Yet if edu-businesses are working to undermine democratic policy processes
for their own commercial advantage it seems that these heterarchical governance structures
could equally contribute to undesirable consequences associated with the increasing
privatisation of education policy processes. Indeed, Rizvi and Lingard (2010, p.6) argue that
the policy cycle can be a messy and contested space where policies are often ‘heteroglossic’ in
nature, which means ‘they often mask whose interest they actually represent’. They make the
point that this means that we must be aware of the ‘discursive work that policies do in
constructing problems in certain ways, perhaps differently from what the best research-based
empirical and theoretical analyses might suggest’ (p.6).
Importantly, I am not suggesting that edu-businesses have taken over policy processes; the
power of the state remains important here. As ACARA points out they set the contracts and
18
select the best applicant for the job. However, what we can observe with the opening up of
public policy processes to private sector participation is a shift in public/private relations, and a
concomitant blurring over ‘who does what’ in matters of education policy. While the state’s
agenda could be interpreted simply as a desire to reform education and improve student
outcomes; there is a question here of whether in their desire for ‘solutions’ to their ‘problems’
they are becoming acquiescent to the policy agendas of edu-businesses?
This is pertinent to consider given these agendas are tied to profit making, and moreover are
largely shaped by ‘generalists’ with little classroom experience or formal research background
in education. Thus edu-businesses are increasingly contributing to policy discussions and
setting policy agendas in ways that have displaced traditional experts. Indeed, edu-businesses
are increasingly seen as a legitimate component of the knowledge-producing community,
which is resulting in new understandings of what counts as education policy research, and is
contributing to new tension around conflicting policy evidence produced by the likes of edu-
businesses and members of the academy.
Conclusion
In this paper I have attempted to map Australia’s changing governance structure and highlight
the mix of public and private agents at work in education policy today. While NAPLAN is
indicative of these new privatisations, it is clear from analysis of ACER’s contract network that
PPPs are widespread and firmly entrenched in Australia. While this is not a surprising
phenomenon given the new heterarchical governance structures and increasing privatisations
that now shape and influence education, what is potentially concerning are the ways in which
these PPPs may work to redistribute power and responsibility in the production and
implementation of education policy. This concern encompasses the potential democratic deficit
in policy production today, where edu-businesses have the capacity to shape policy processes
in ways that they might be able to commercially benefit.
The final issue to raise briefly here about the enhanced role of edu-businesses in policy
processes is the changing notion of ‘expertise’ in education. Here I want to recall ACARA’s
statement that NAPLAN is delivered by ‘experts’ across the field. It seems problematic that
experts in this case are not teachers, curriculum developers or even university researchers.
Instead, experts are constituted by their ability to offer ‘value-for-money’ on competitive
tender applications. There is a problem here about what groups are becoming excluded from,
19
and included in, processes of public policy, where it is increasingly perceptible that edu-
businesses are now closely associated with the role of policymaking and the state. This
development has not only inserted new players and new relationships into education policy
processes but has resulted in new understandings of what counts as effective education
policy. Here we are seeing an intensification of testing and accountability regimes as a logic of
education reform, because I would aver, this is not only a technology of the neo-liberal
education imaginary, but also a means by which edu-businesses can substantially profit as part
of the emergent philanthrocapitalism.
In conclusion, I have demonstrated that Ball’s (2012) argument can be applied to the
Australian context when he observes that ‘the private sector now occupies a range of roles and
relationships with the state and educational state in particular’ (p.112). This growing
involvement of edu-businesses in education policy processes and educational governance is
contributing to a blurring and hybridisation between the ‘public’ and the ‘private’, which is
leading to an increase in the opacity of policymaking. Within the functioning of these new
heterarchical policy networks, Ball (2012, p.8) points out that it is ‘unclear what may have
been said to whom, where, with what effect and in exchange for what’. Herein lies a significant
new issue for education policy research.
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Do private and philanthropic solutions to the problems of education signal the end of state education in its ‘welfare’ form?
Article
Across the U.S., test publishers, software companies, and research firms are swarming to take advantage of the revenues made available by the No Child Left Behind Act. In effect, the education industry has assumed a central place in the day-to-day governance and administration of public schools-a trend that has gone largely unnoticed by policymakers or the press until now. Drawing on analytic tools, Hidden Markets examines specific domains that the education industry has had particular influence on-home schooling, remedial instruction, management consulting, test development, data management, and staff development. Burch's analysis demonstrates that only when we subject the education industry to systematic and in-depth critical analysis can we begin to demand more corporate accountability and organize to halt the slide of education funds into the market.