David Archer

Education or Banking?

Reflections in Memory of Paulo Freire

Ten years ago today the world lost one of the greatest educators of the twentieth century: the bearded Brazilian philosopher and activist Paulo Freire. Rather than becoming dated his ideas are more relevant today than ever before.

In May 2007 UK Chancellor Gordon Brown, World Bank President Paul Wolfowitz and European Commissioner Louis Michel convened a high level meeting about “Keeping Our Promises on Education”. The outcome was disappointing. As the Global Campaign for Education observed, “the rich countries bought their note-books but not their cheque-books”. As a result over 77 million children around the world, especially girls, are likely to remain out of school.

But the global crisis in education runs much deeper than this shocking statistic on exclusion. We should be equally scandalised at what happens to tens of millions of children who do get into school. Often crammed into over-crowded classrooms with under-trained and underpaid teachers, they learn very little. They suffer endless hours of boredom, mindlessly chanting or parroting meaningless phrases. The worst forms of teaching by rote are still thriving. Indeed, they are enjoying a revival as governments, under pressure from the IMF and World Bank, recruit non-professional teachers and offer them little or no opportunity for training.

When faced with classrooms of 100 children or more these “teachers” struggle to maintain control without resorting to intimidation or violence. The priority is first to contain the children, to keep them passive, and only then to seek to deposit in them a few facts and figures. With bankers in control perhaps it is no surprise that education becomes little more than a form of banking.

This image of education as a form of banking applies just as well in many of the more salubrious schools across Africa, Asia and Latin America, where rote learning remains widespread. And with league tables and exam pressures, many schools in the West still fall back on these archaic methods – seeking to cram children with facts and figures for them to regurgitate in formulaic ways when the time comes.

Paulo Freire was the most articulate critic of this form of “banking education”. He saw it as “domestication” and argued that this was a political choice. No education is neutral. Education systems and educators can either work to “domesticate” children or to “liberate” them. Freire called for a liberating education based on dialogue between teachers and learners – a learning process that respected people as active and creative subjects rather than treating them as passive objects or receptacles. Rather than seeing the teaching of literacy as a technical transfer of skills, Freire argued that “Learners must see the need for writing one’s life and reading one’s reality”. It is clear that education can either work to close down people’s minds or to open them up.

“Anyone who turns into a sexist, racist, classist or whatever it may be, becomes a transgressor against human cheaper. nature. There is no way I can put forward genetic, sociological, historical or philosophical arguments to explain This cheap option received the superiority of whites over blacks, men over women, employers over workers. All discrimination is immoral and it is a duty to fight against it.” Paulo Freire*

Unfortunately, closing them down is usually easier – and cheaper.

This cheap option received a major boost from the high level meeting in Brussels last week. It was the first time for seven years that leaders with sufficient political weight had been convened to address the promises they made in 2000 to achieve Education for All by 2015. It is estimated that $16 billion a year is needed to really deliver on the promises and thus achieve an historic landmark in human development. That sounds a lot of money but it is only a few days of global spending on weapons. But no serious money was forthcoming. The US and the IMF did not even bother to turn up.

Indeed, the IMF has not been to a single major international meeting on education for years. Nor do they talk with Ministries of Education when they fly in on their short “missions” to developing countries. Yet they have more impact on the financing of education around the world than any other organisation. They have an instrumental role in setting wage bill caps on the public sector – and teachers are the largest group to suffer. Low ceilings are imposed even where school enrolments have risen. In Kenya more than a million children went to school for the first time in 2003 when the government abolished school fees. But the government was not allowed to recruit a single new teacher – because of a cap on teacher numbers fixed in 1997. This sacrifice is seen as necessary by the IMF as it helps to achieve their sacred low inflation targets. The result is large classes and cheap, banking education that violates the rights of children.

Perhaps we should not be surprised that education ends up like banking. After all, once the IMF has squeezed national education budgets across Africa, Asia and Latin America, it is the World Bank that steps in and offers loans to help fill the gaps. The World Bank is now the single largest donor to education – spending $14 billion since 1990 – and its policy documents are by far the most influential. Other donors tend to follow the Bank’s leadership on education. Despite its rhetoric of supporting the national education plans of sovereign governments, in practice the World Bank tends to run its own discrete projects where it can place its flag and stamp its influence. A recent internal evaluation of the World Bank’s investments in education over 15 years concluded that, in their pursuit of numbers and targets, they had done almost nothing to improve learning outcomes. Under the policy leadership of the World Bank, the quality of primary education around the world has been deteriorating. Those who suffer are children.

But it is not just children who suffer. Perhaps the biggest violation of the right to education lies in the billion or more young people or adults who never had a chance to go to school. In 2000 promises were made also to this group – but last week they were not even on the radar of the politicians meeting in Brussels. In the past two decades almost no funding has gone into youth or adult literacy programmes. The World Bank has decided that adult literacy is not a sound economic investment, despite compelling evidence to the contrary that shows adult literacy can play a key role in catalysing development, gender equality and active citizenship.

In most countries young people and adults who missed out on schooling face conditions that are almost unchanged since Freire wrote his seminal book Pedagogy of the Oppressed in 1970. This was a call for action that arose from his work in Recife in the North-East of Brazil. It laid out his vision of education for liberation. It is a text that has endured and that continues to inspire activists and educators around the world.

Paulo Freire had a clear vision that another form of education is possible. To achieve it will require public education systems that are adequately financed and that are truly committed to education for all

– and systems where bankers do not drive the agenda.

* All translations of Freire's quotations are from us.