Blair, Gates and Google: how education was captured

As well as being theory-based, teaching and learning are creative, artistic pursuits. And as debates about Artificial Intelligence (AI) show, art cannot be defined, created or enjoyed without our humanity. That’s perhaps why in New Zealand, the Māori word ako means both teaching and learning: ako is interconnected as simultaneously student and teacher learn and teach together. Similarly, Dr Aseem Malhotra points out how authentic healthcare is an art, founded upon the mutual respect and understanding within the doctor-patient relationship. 

How did humanity lose sight of these arts?

In this article, I explain how the art of teaching and learning has been hijacked by pressures from policies to record, monitor and measure students’ learning under the guise of continuous improvement. Although these policies originally seemed well-intentioned, motives of policymakers were called into question when, alongside perverse incentives, these policies led to distortions of reality. As a result—paradoxically—quality has diminished. Our schools, colleges and universities urgently need to rediscover and revive the art of teaching and learning and reject the corrupt commercial interests that have captured education systems worldwide.


How do we measure teaching and learning?

If we could witness what learning looks like, how could we measure it? Does evidence of learning magically appear within the four walls of a classroom, or in a lecture theatre? Do students always shout out Eureka! in recognition of their ‘light bulb moment’? 

Common sense tells us we cannot often see ‘best practice teaching’ nor when ‘learning happens’ (to use Ofsted ‘Unspeak’). To pretend otherwise is dishonest. Of course, I’m not against ways to promote good quality teaching and learning; far from it. What I object to, after decades of experience in diverse educational environments, is top-down, dehumanising micro-management of teaching and learning that often ignores the nuances of human understanding.

The punitive nature of compliance in an audit culture encourages groupthink in schools, colleges and universities that are forced to ‘game the system’. Does this reduce the value of qualifications and other quality outcomes? Universities can provide some clues. In my experience, many assessments at university level are fundamentally flawed, including exam questions reduced to multiple-choice papers and biased assignments conducted off-site where students can use ChatGPT and other resources to produce plagiarised responses. The often shallow feedback provided and a tick-box approach to assessing knowledge dumbs down teaching and learning and arguably contributes to a culture of complacency amongst staff and students. It also prevents the visibility and success of ‘tall poppies’.

But how did education become so captured by business management, statistics and politics?


New Labour’s ‘Third Way’ for Education

Ten years of Tony Blair’s New Labour (1997–2007) had a significant impact upon our education systems. Blair’s call for modernisation in his party’s “top three priorities” of “Education, Education, Education” was profound. His vision for schools and colleges focused on expanding Margaret Thatcher’s idea of Public Finance Initiatives (PFIs), in the form of public-private partnerships (PPPs), including widening schools’ access to technology.

Investigating this era, we can see the beginning of today’s disturbing policies (as I explain below). New Labour’s promotion of private investment into transforming the public sector created an artificially competitive environment of quasi-markets—within and between educational institutions. Soon, PPPs were widely condemned as deceitful and “a fraud on the people”, hiding government debt, whilst increasing long-term infrastructure costs. And that was only the beginning of the ‘asset heist’.

Despite protests from economists, MPs and Trade Unions, by 2002 over 500 schools had been modernised or completely rebuilt, and universities were ‘investing’ in new campuses for medical and business schools. Cost-efficiency measures and budgets overrode authentic curiosity and the art of teaching and learning. Marketing buzzwords like ‘deliverables’ and ‘Key Performance Indicators’ (KPIs) became the language of teachers’ staff meetings. Financial reporting demanded ‘measurable’ outcomes, so layers of bureaucratic administration were installed for surveillance and audit procedures. Over the past twenty years, these policies have intensified.


New Public Management: Greed and Groupthink

During Blair’s government (and, significantly, for two years, New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern worked within that UK Cabinet Office), privatisation and commercialisation—or, more accurately, ‘neoliberalism’—morphed into New Public Management (NPM). Institutions which were financially vulnerable could be exploited by commercial interests, and understandably, some saw the crisis as an ‘opportunity’. Awareness increased about the negative impact of these quasi-markets including rising inequalities.

Over the decades, academics, teachers and students warned about the risks from NPM policies, but many were silenced. Laws were changed to enable further expansion. NPM seemed to take on a life of its own, becoming universal, globally, in our governments, schools, colleges, universities and other public sectors. (For instance, Hedley Rees explains here for UK Column how NPM impacted on supply chains in Big Pharma).

Those with insider knowledge of the rules and legislation related to PPPs (and therefore the gaps and loopholes) are valuable for these quasi-market organisations and their regulators (now redefined as ‘enablers’). So inevitably, headhunting and the practice of ‘revolving doors’ developed. Large salaries with expenses and bonuses for the main characters of these ‘Partnerships’ grew (for instance, the opaque nature of the Blair fortune was later exposed in the Pandora Papers).

British schools’ ‘successful’ headteachers were helicoptered into so-called ‘inadequate’ schools, to support staff forced to learn the ropes (and tropes) of ‘continuous improvement’. Similar policies were adopted in other sectors and expanded overseas. Poorer nations like India were especially targetted.

In 2006, universities in England introduced student fees (and premium fees for overseas applicants). Inevitably, fees have risen substantially since then. This income (and the associated student debt) created a new commercial market in which students became ‘customers’ with consumers’ rights. Globalisation and freedom of movement encouraged competition with institutions using all kinds of marketing tricks to attract the ‘best’ students and the most ‘valuable’ staff.

Over recent decades, there are various examples of PFIs impacting on our everyday lives, such as hospital car parks being sold to private equity firms to raise funds and the expansion of prisons run by private security firms. And as Brian Gerrish explained back in 2014, the privatisation of the police, from its training colleges to social media. When taxpayers seek accountability, PFIs are obstructive in complex ways, for instance sub/contracting costs may be withheld when deemed ‘commercially sensitive’.

When faced with financial pressures, organisations need assurances. So any perceived ambiguities during times of uncertainty are often ‘cancelled’. This may partly explain why flawed computer modelling is repeatedly promoted as somehow ‘valid’ in various contexts. Managers demand data to support funding requirements, so where measurements are considered ‘problematic’ inevitably we see changes in behaviour. In practice that means replacing ‘uncomfortable knowledge’ with more desirable results—even if these are fake. In education sectors, the return-on-investment KPIs presented particularly thorny questions, like:

  • How can we ‘measure’ what happens in a classroom? How can essential learning activities like storytime, play or self-reflection have a score attached to them?

When there are penalties for certain outcomes, including feelings of shame, and incentives for other outcomes, it’s human nature for staff to find ways to circle around those rules; to overcome challenges. This leads to ‘creative’ (or disingenuous) ways to collect, collate, analyse and present data. A great example of this during the covid era, is provided by Prof. Norman Fenton, who explains the mechanism of statistical illusions. Likewise, for a long time, judgements related to ‘measurements’ of teaching and learning have been subjected to skewed methodologies to fit the relevant narrative.

The Ofsted grading scale used for inspection judgements is one familiar example of this data issue. This model that has been copied in many other countries, including New Zealand. The blunt tool used to make judgements of the ‘quality’ of teaching and learning in schools and colleges is a four-point grading scale. The injustice and harmful practice of Ofsted applying arbitrary grades to the art of teaching and learning in diverse environments has been written about extensively over the years.

But this ‘soul-destroying’ regime continues, including the numerous needless suicides. My book, based on my PhD research, investigated one problematic aspect of these measurements; how Ofsted inspections negatively impacted Further Education teachers’ health and wellbeing.


Profitable Technology in Education

This new type of profitable relationship between students and teachers did more than just undermine the art of teaching and learning. Students-as-customers spawned a BigTech surveillance and audit industry that is now embedded within education - from pre-schools to universities. In parallel, BigTech like Gates and Google offer governments and management with the ‘convenience’ of quantitative analyses from endless data. Ranked results provide additional pressures to present (inter)national ‘league tables’ that encourage ‘teaching to the test’. For example, teachers normalise students’ repetitive practice with past exam papers and exploit grading criteria. NPM policies have, according to some, reduced the depth and breadth of many curricula, harming students’ learning and deprofessionalising staff.

The perceived ‘convenience’ of relying on Big Tech’s version of eLearning has altered our sense of what can and should be measured. It has also forced the application and prioritisation of data collection, as described by UK Column contributor Charles Malet in the context of the police in September 2022:

Drug dealers are monitored via mobile […] activity and the use of ANPR (Automatic Number Plate Recognition) […]. Sexual offences are mostly determined by a combination of data extracted from the mobile[s] of victim and suspect, as well as the surprisingly inexact science of forensic analysis. Solving burglaries—a feat very rarely accomplished these days—is often wholly dependent upon the availability of high-quality CCTV footage. [Hence] the reliance on technology at the expense of utilising all the available evidence [...]

Like the police, education offers a positive spin on Learning Management Software (LMS). Cloud-based environments Moodle, Blackboard, Canvas and other LMS have assisted teachers and management to learn more about their students’ habits, activities and outcomes. That is undeniable. However, to what extent is BigData collection supporting students’ learning? LMS contains valuable personal details of identities and learning journeys. Traditionally LMS have been provided to schools, colleges and universities on a licensing or subscription basis, but potential insights from the harvesting of students’ data becomes clear when we see this model is sometimes reversed—institutions obtain financial advantage from ‘partnering’ with Open Access learning platforms.

Nearly thirty years after his famous ‘education’ speech, Tony Blair still pursues his vision for increased technology in education, but nowadays it’s on an international scale. Enhancing citizenship skills and ‘promoting democracy’ for young people is a common theme in Blair’s numerous current projects. The Tony Blair Institute for Global Change (TBI) is supported and promoted by the World Economic Forum (WEF) and United Nations (UN) and other NGOs and ‘charitable’ entities. The TBI is a wealthy pseudo-philanthropic organisation, with its own ‘free’ online learning platform ‘Generation Global’ that explicitly promotes the ideologies of UNESCO such as the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and claims to deliver:

enhanced connectivity between students and teachers through technology.

And it also provides (emphasis added):

[…] digital resources and expert-produced briefings [that] give teachers the tools for safely connecting students in dialogue on difficult topics like extremism and hate speech.

Unsurprisingly, Blair publicly supported accelerated covid ‘vaccine’ roll outs, mandates and lockdowns. Perhaps because during the covid era, the TBI gained approximately £20m in funding from the Gates Foundation - during which time, conveniently, a new TBI Open Access learning ‘citizenship’ project was launched, connected to Generation Global. Ominously called the “Ultimate Dialogue Adventure” the platform uses overt gamification that targets teenagers, aiming to (emphasis added):

[…] share their perspectives and learn from international peers on a range of global issues, including the Rights of Girls and Women, Climate Change, Social Media and Fake News, Hate Speech Online, Identity and Belonging […]

The project was originally aimed at students in India, Indonesia, Mexico, Ghana and the United Arab Emirates, and has expanded to over thirty countries. A quick scan of the Terms of Use of this platform confirm the extensive opportunity for harvesting personal data. That extends to the TBI Privacy Policy, which includes this vague passage (emphasis added):

[…] using your information will help us serve a particular, valid purpose such as running this Platform in order to allow our users to communicate with young people from all over the world, learn about cultural differences and similarities, and build intercultural connections. We consider whether it is necessary to use certain information about you to deliver our goals and balance that interest against your individual interests, rights and freedoms.

Am I being too sceptical? Overall, is the wide range of learning opportunities available ‘free’ from TBI’s Generation Global and other Open Access learning platforms, harmless? Maybe TBI is a valuable benefit for students, our economies and democracy?

These Open Access platforms provide Massive Open Online Courses or ‘MOOCs’ that may reduce costs through economies of scale—but the teacher-student relationship is missing. Who oversees the course content quality, or addresses any bias? Who moderates the input from students? How are the students’ individual needs ‘assessed’? Frequently self-directed, the student pathways upon completion are unclear. Targetted marketing based on algorithms may fill this gap.

But which organisations profit from that marketing? Another concern is the ‘teacher training’ provided—are ‘teachers’ vetted and qualified? How are teachers directed to prioritise, frame and discuss course content? Who is ‘fact-checking’ content for inaccurate or misleading information? In short, is this indoctrination rather than education? Let’s investigate further.

Here’s one example of the problematic nature of this TBI programme—an extract below is taken from the ‘teachers’ notes’ from a module called ‘Hate Speech’ which has interesting interpretations of ‘Conspiracy Theories’:

Extract from the Blair Institute’s Generation Global: ‘Teachers’ Resource’ for a lesson on ‘Hate Speech’.

Extract from the Blair Institute’s Generation Global: ‘Teachers’ Resource’ for a lesson on ‘Hate Speech’

For a long time, evidence that may question a political narrative has been deliberately censored and labelled ‘conspiracy theory’. This strategy attempts to dismiss contradictory ideas and discredit those who speak truth to power. During the Covid era, the application of the Trusted News Initiative provides just one example of this. In the above extract from the TBI, this unethical strategy is used to manipulate both teachers and students.

This ‘resource’ conflates multiple, highly-complex and independent topics under the same stigmatised ‘conspiracy theory’ label, such as 9/11, antisemitism and the New World Order. Because of this confusion, the TBI unfairly implies a consensus of ‘truth’ and condemns the act of critical thinking. The TBI is therefore not promoting education - to teach the acceptance of views or an ideology uncritically through repetition like this, is the definition of indoctrination

Millions of students, of all ages, in homes, campuses and workplaces worldwide, are enrolled on MOOCs like TBI’s Generation Global. The Khan Academy, for example, offers international programmes for children. EdX and Stanford Online both offer university-level courses. These pseudo-charitable entities all receive funds from the ‘philanthropic’ Gates Foundation. Google Classrooms provides another popular platform to share content, along with Gates’ Microsoft Sharepoint.

Other universities form ‘partnerships’ to offer courses on platforms like Wondrium, Coursera or FutureLearn. Students enrolled across multiple LMS platforms over time leave a ‘footprint’ that provides a potential goldmine of psychological, financial and identity data for marketing and other purposes. Skimming the specific Privacy Policies of FutureLearn, for example, raises concerns about what information students are surrendering. It is no longer science fiction to consider the risks of AI programmes consolidating this personal data with sensitive health information from electronic ‘Vaccine Passports’ and CBDC-ready bank account apps

Global monopolies controlling these ‘learning’ platforms and using AI to manipulate data present hidden risks from abuses of power that are multidimensional. On a practical level, students may engage in a virtual classroom activity in good faith, but ‘peers’ could have fake identities, or even be AI bots, with sinister motives. On a broader level, an illegal cyber-attack could be catastrophic, but the existing and future potential of data-harvesting should also be a concern.

Equipped with recent knowledge of the Nudge Units’ unethical tactics during the covid era, could this data lead to further, targetted psychological exploitation, by Governments and secret agencies? No-one will be surprised to discover academic research undertaken into this issue is strictly controlled and funded by the likes of Blair, Gates and Google. Little wonder then, that as Prof Ramesh Thakur points out, universities are “out of alignment with the dominant values of the society in which they operate”.


Restoring the art of teaching and learning

In conclusion, the boundaries between governments, private, commercial, charitable and public entities have been blurred by decades of expansion of PPPs. Seemingly every sector of society has been impacted by PPPs and powerful advocates have also infiltrated global governments. The original objective for PPPs - modernisation of education - has failed. Levels of basic literacy and numeracy have declined. Inequalities have been exacerbated. Meanwhile, politics and BigTech have provided ample opportunities for unethical objectives to flourish.

Could the pressures of trying to measure the unmeasurable be backfiring? Has NPM now reached its zenith? Schools are short-staffed and many disillusioned teachers continue to leave their vocations. The disadvantages of virtual communication, in terms of lower student engagement and potential health and social problems, have been exposed; we place new value on human contact after the traumatic covid era. My personal experience of recent teaching contracts confirms how more students now favour face-to-face and experiential learning and reject virtual interactions and resources. The global homeschooling movement is growing exponentially, and many universities are making redundancies as inflation rises and enrolments fall.

In short, education is changing. I have written elsewhere about the methods of the ‘Corporate Playbook’ used to censor academics who question the political narrative. Similar strategies are used to silence the many teachers, students, parents/guardians, governors and educational experts who speak out against the increasingly corrupt education systems and indoctrination. Now, awareness is increasing, along with hopes that teacher-education may be at the beginning of a long-overdue reformation. Internationally, memberships of formal groups standing-up for academic freedom in research, teaching and learning are strengthening e.g. in the UK, Australia, Canada and the USA.

It's time to discard the authoritarian auditing and surveillance culture of our captured education systems. The conflicts of interest and financial funding from PPPs has harmed society and needs to end. Recognition is emerging that many aspects of teaching and learning cannot and should not be measured. And in a new paradigm of parallel structures in education settings, it could be helpful to embrace the New Zealand Māori concept of ako so that we can all practise and develop the art of teaching and learning.


Main image: The Children's Room at Washington D.C. Central Library, 1907 | public domain