“The forum’s global remit offers unparalleled opportunity for ministerial teams from all participating countries to address economic and educational challenges, share experiences and establish a cooperative, future-proof approach to education.”
—Dominic Savage Director General, BESA
Just over three weeks ago, January 19-22, The Education World Forum 2014 took place in London, UK. While this international forum has occurred annually under this name and format since 2011, its origins date back to 2002 when the British governmental organization Becta (British Educational Communications Technology Agency) founded the “Moving Young Minds” event . Although retaining the same general structure, in 2009, the conference took on a new identity as the “Learning and Technology World Forum,” which also involved a shift in thematic focus to the role of technology in educational quality and success for the coming generations. The forum took a turn in becoming what it is today, the “Education World Forum,” in 2010 when government funding to Becta was cut and the contract for the event was privatized becoming the responsibility of the British Educational Suppliers Association (BESA) .
As attendance to this conference has grown over the years to the point that over eighty International Education Ministers gathered in London this year, it has come to be known was “the largest global gathering of education ministers and the internationally recognized ministerial forum for debating future practice in education” . Increasingly, goals for education on a global scale are shifting from simply achieving basic education for all children in the world, to achieving educational equity, focusing on quality and learning, fostering curiosity and innovation, and developing methods for life-long learning . Having a forum in which education stakeholders all over the world can share successes and failures, address challenges, and debate the shape of the future of education is undoubtedly invaluable given the previously mentioned admirable goals for education that we face moving forward.
At the same time, however, it is important to look critically at the actors and stakeholders that are part of this forum and their own interests, as well as certain features of the conference itself which work to not only shape but potentially limit the scope of ideas presented and how they are discussed, and legitimize certain solutions and courses of action over others.
Looking at the position of the British Educational Suppliers Association itself is a very interesting place to start. By definition, BESA is a trade association and works to support UK-based companies that supply equipment, materials, teaching aids, books, and technology hardware and software to members both in the United Kingdom and internationally. They play the role of lobbyists to government on policy issues, and provide information and training to members on the basis of best practices that they, as experts, have identified . The fact that the Education World Form is under the contract of a private entity involved in the national and international provision of educational goods and services, and is also the generator of research and knowledge about educational policies and best practices is not a trivial fact when considering what types of networking and policy prescriptions might be discussed.
Further, the “Platinum Partners” involved in sponsoring the forum are HP, Intel, Microsoft, Promethean, JP-Inspiring Knowledge, and Pearson. The first four of these partners are American multinational companies, and JP-Inspiring Knowledge is a partner company with both Intel and Microsoft. Every single one of these partners expresses an interest in supporting the development of quality education and innovation to the ends of producing a skilled workforce in the global economy, very specifically through the application of education technology and the “return on investment” that these materials and expertise can bring. Additionally, Pearson, a British multinational publishing and education company, self identifies as “the world’s largest learning business” and is the provider of textbooks, courses, and resources for both teachers and students all over the world . The “Silver Partners” for the forum, presumably of less involvement than those previously mentioned, are almost exclusively associated with Oxford or Cambridge Universities, as well as Encyclopedia Britannica, which are all UK based sources of education knowledge and assessment material production .
While those behind the Education World Forum make the claim that the “event brings together minsters representing the majority of the world’s population,” we must critically realize and understand that the Ministers of Education are but one interest group within education policy networks with a certain degree of power in relation to other members of policy networks that are increasingly global in scale.
The forum has taken place every single year in London, which is not an issue by itself, however attendance to the event is by official invitation only . This gives, year after year, the same essential group the power over who is able to engage in the debate over the future of education and the voices that are able to put solutions to challenges on the table. The theme of this year’s conference was “Planning for 2014: Policy-making catalyst for a decade ahead: measurement, reach and enterprise,” and the inclusion of the terms “measurement” and “enterprise” express very specific values from the outset . These values are further reflected no only in the expressed definition of education as “a crucial factor in national and global economic health; a country’s strongest resource for its future economic stability and success lies with its young people,” but also in the utilization of this forum space to discuss the OECD’s most recent PISA League Table and the World Bank’s future education plans .
The Education World Forum created and posted a video that is a collection of interviews with education minsters from around the world. What struck me was that included in this video was a statement by the Minister of Education in Colombia that we must go beyond the academic achievement aspects of education and begin to take a look at education encompassing ideas of citizenship, peaceful democratic behavior, and social skills . This is a stark contrast from the overtly economic emphasis put on the purpose of education in the rhetoric of the Education World Forum, from the legitimization of large scale standardized testing such as PISA, and from the goals of privatization espoused by the World Bank.
By taking a closer look at the actors and agents involved in the Education World Forum, I am by no means questioning the value of engaging in dialogue about educational policies, practices, challenges, and successes. I do, however, strongly put into question the notion that the ideas, needs, and contextual factors of a majority of the world’s population are represented. It seems to me that this event provides a forum to discuss the future of education and all that this entails within a very particular neoliberal framework that may not be conducive for the successful realization of a variety of educational goals. I beg the question of whether there is another way. Will we ever be able to engage in a dialogue about education that is more open, progressive, and less ideologically structured?