The private sector and the public trust

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Nothing divides education opinion quite as much as the role of private business. For some, they are the necessary partners of delivery, picking up where tax dollars and public provision aren’t enough. For others, there can be no place for profit in the education of children, an ideological stance where anyone seeking a commercial advantage is immediately distrusted. And the larger the company, the louder that distrust.

Pearson makes more money than any other company in the education sector, so we receive our fair share of that mistrust. And it is fair - we should be made to work hard for people’s trust. We may make textbooks and digital content and administer tests and manage schools - but ultimately we are in the business of making people’s lives better. When you’re dealing in such a precious product as people, cynicism is not only understandable - it’s essential.

I work for Pearson, but that does not mean I am immune from this cynicism. I’m also a former teacher, a taxpayer, and I care deeply about what kind of world I want us and future generations to live in. When parents and educators rise up and shout “Show us - show us how what you do is helping our children make progress”, I am shouting with them.

When I was the principal of a school in India and parents asked why their child was falling behind, I wanted to know too. Now, having made my home in the U.S., I want to know why it comes a lowly 36th in global education standards, trailing behind the likes of Estonia, New Zealand and Vietnam. I want to know why far too many of our students are dropping out of high school or arriving unprepared in college or the workplace. I want to know, amongst all the great things that happen in our schools and classrooms, what doesn’t work and how we can make it better. And I don’t care where the answers come from - public money, private enterprise, a bit of both… I don’t care. All I care about is achieving better outcomes.

The challenges to delivering better education are many and varied, and we need to increase the number of people helping to find the solutions, not close the gates. That’s why I believe there’s a clear role for private businesses, Pearson included, in increasing choice and competition in education. Learners and customers will rightly demand that this involvement comes with accountability and transparency - as do shareholders. What good is that shining new private school down the road if there’s no evidence it’ll be the right fit for my child? That whizzy new website; get past the sleek design and smooth user experience - will it actually improve my students’ grades? How are you ensuring your products outperform the competition? Different questions, but all part of the same inquisition.

Our products may be traded in dollars, but they are held accountable by data. Collected, analysed, and made public. Without data, we all fall down, scrambling in the dark, banking on hunches, clinging to the “because we’ve always done it this way” mentality. With data, we all move forward - all of us. The teacher, more confident that her students will progress quicker in literacy and numeracy because she’s seen the evidence that the product she’s chosen has done that for others. The student, using tools that don’t just make him more literate and numerate, but also better at solving problems, being a team player, more able to think creatively… because that’s the sort of person the world says it needs. The parent… prouder and happier.

There is no silver bullet that makes all this happen overnight, but efficacy - this total immersion in being led by the data - will help get us there quicker. It’ll make decisions easy. If the data is telling us a product isn’t doing what we intended it to do and we can’t improve it, we won’t sell it anymore. Irrespective of how profitable it might be, it will have no place in our portfolio. Period.

Don’t believe me? Last year Pearson considered a multi-million dollar investment in a school chain in an emerging market. On the surface, it all looked great - months of due diligence and financial analysis said this was going to be a sound commercial investment. But when it went through our efficacy review, it fell short. In the past, that school chain may have become part of Pearson; but today, it is not, because we couldn’t be confident it would deliver for its students. That is what we mean about being accountable.

Last month, we made some of our data available publicly, and we’ll continue to do so until we - you - have the evidence to cover our entire portfolio. We’ll have nowhere to hide. And, that’s exactly how we want it.

We don’t expect our commitment to efficacy to win everyone over. There will always be people who are ideologically opposed to our business, regardless of the alternatives and whether they help people make progress or not. But for many others - who just want to see their child graduate, get that promotion, be prouder of their country - they’ll be able to judge whether we’re the ones who can help them or not. And if it’s not us, we’ll be glad that those that ‘did’ also made their data available so it was an informed choice.

Ultimately, accountability is about more than assigning blame or defending yourself – it’s about making the right decision to get what you want. Education would do well to lose the public vs private tags, and just see us all for what we are - people in search of progress.