Category Archives: Education as Business

Schools Are Not Businesses. A Message to Lord Nash.

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Lord Nash, speaking at the Challenge Partnership national conference, titled his talk: ‘what is relevant in business to education?’ According to the TES, he said that:

“…too often teachers have confused their individuality with their professionalism… Being a professional means embracing accountability, standardisation and consistency, although of course we want our teachers to be inspiring.”

He went on to talk about how: ‘using standardised content would allow teachers to focus on delivery and differentiation, and would reduce workload.’

Adding it was impossible to: “run an organisation of any size and any diversity, efficiently and effectively if you haven’t got consistent procedures… The content has to be provided by the MAT based on evidence-based best practice across the group.”

Perhaps it is inevitable with the introduction of MATs that business issues and practices would soon come to the fore. A local school that had its own identity serving the local area would not have had to consider ‘standardisation and consistency’ to any great extent. Games staff would teach games and the physics teacher would teach physics. When you have a MAT the temptation is to have a consistent brand, in which all the teachers teach their subjects in the same ‘branded’ way. It might also be a revenue stream, selling branded curricula, lesson plans, scripts and powerpoint slides to other schools and maybe even provide ‘MOOCs’ for those who home educate or live in places where schools are difficult to access. With a standardised brand consistency might be considered key.

McDonalds, at first glance as standardised a company as you can get, soon realised that the problem with standardisation is it’s lack of adaptability.  They developed a: “…consistent customer experience and branding while still allowing for locally relevant menu and service variations in segments across the globe…”

This tension between standardisation and adaptability is an interesting one. The ‘brand’ thrives if it can sell itself as a consistent experience, when I go for a Costa coffee or buy some Marmite, I am responding to this consistency. I prefer not to take too many risks when spending my cash. And, thankfully, I like Marmite. Imagine what would happen if Marmite tried to change in order to appeal to those who dislike it, they would lose my custom, the very reason that I like Marmite might be the thing they have to change to bring in customers who don’t like the bitter taste. Adaptability can be problematic.

It is interesting that Lord Nash feels standardisation rather than adaptability is the business model that schools should adopt. He suggests standardisation would require staff to be less individualistic and more professional. I question whether this is the dichotomy here. I think the role of teachers would change, but instead of being more professional, their profession changes. They become more like a sales staff. They are provided with the product, the ‘standardised content’, and then they are required to sell this product ‘differentially’ to different consumers. As someone who worked in sales for a period of time one of the adages was that a good salesperson must believe in their product. A period of training (ITT?) would be required to sell the the product to the workforce, to convince them of its efficacy and then train them with the techniques of teaching about and selling the product to the customers, in this case pupils and their parents.

Success rates of staff could be compared, figures shared, and each teacher would then be responsible for making it work, competitively, showing they could ‘sell’ the product through ‘delivery, differentiation and inspiration’ as Nash would have it.

This ‘differentiation’ that Nash talks of is, not ‘adaptability’ of product. The sales-teacher would be expected to deliver in the classroom. The teacher will try to sell marmite to all. Actually that is not quite fair, the ‘product’ will be far more varied than a jar of marmite can ever be, and maybe ‘adaptability’ can be provided by breadth of curriculum and content.

But whether we go to a McDonalds in Beijing, Berlin or Nairobi we still feel the corporate imprint. This standardisation is its strength and its weakness. Lovers of artisanal burgers, home made or made on an organic farm, believe McDonalds is decidedly second rate to the best of these burgers. McDonalds might need to entice you in with the promise of toys for your kids to make up for the mundanity of the product. Imagine the happy meal transposed to the classroom. Happy learning. Free toy with each maths exercise completed.

Are staff working within a standardised business really more professional than those who have more control over what they do? Being paid for doing a task that is imposed upon you is different to one which you have designed for yourself. As Cicero put it:

“vulgar are the means of livelihood of all hired workmen whom we pay for mere manual labour, not for artistic skill; for in their case the very wage they receive is a pledge of their slavery” Cicero: On Obligations

Although it is possible to enjoy your work when you work in this way it is a very different relationship with the school than teachers have been traditionally used to. This might be no bad thing, because if the school staff is made up of those with little artistic skill it is better to replace them with hired hands. Yet, there might be another way to achieve some form of consistency, to be true to the tradition of teaching, be adaptable and envisage teachers to be rather more professional than Nash’s view would seem to be.

When schools deliberately ape businesses, problems can occur. The Business Academy,  Bexley  opened to great fanfare in 2002:

…the concept of openness extends to the physical layout of the school, which is based around flexible, open areas, rather than corridors and classrooms…

Classrooms look more like hi-tech offices, with clusters of flat-screen display computers and lessons taught using touch-screen whiteboards.

…gushed the BBC, reflecting the cargo cult nature of the philosophy behind the school. Get Norman Foster to expensively design a school, which looks and runs like a business then all the positive aspects of business practice will imbue every individual who passes through. This proved to be a fallacious argument.

To many teachers it would have been obvious that problems might occur by doing away with corridors and classrooms. Experienced teachers’ professional expertise might be a useful rejoinder to the inevitable hubris of those who believe they have the right answers and reason on their side and are determined to use a top down model to impose this onto a workforce.

A school is not a business and should not be run as one. This is not to say it should be run badly or operate with a balance sheet in the red, but it should be run along different lines, it should be recognised that schools far from being merely rational places that can be measured with a simple ‘bottom-line’, they can be inconsistent, inefficient and completely devoid of standardisation and yet still be places in which good teaching takes place.

A school is not a business, it is an institution.

An institution, is a place of shared knowledge, grounded in emotions and feelings which then shape reason. This was essential to Edmund Burke’s idea in which we come ‘to love the little platoon we belong to…’ we inherit the wisdom of practices that are passed down to us. Far from being individuals, we are social animals, and rather than responding kindly to being fed from the top down for our manual labour, teaching has always been a collegiate activity within which teachers express their ‘artistry’, within the traditions of their school, subject and society.

A good school has a strong ethos through which all the differences can coexist, giving out a semblance of unity of purpose. Far from being imposed through a time and motion top down management model this comes about through various traditions coalescing in the institution.

A school is not the result of some grand plan or project, made up in some grand thinker’s study or laboratory, a school is a social institution, made stronger by man’s many interactions over the years. If one rides roughshod over all this sui generis history with the imposition of alien practices which have been proven to work in another domain one might lose the very heart of what kept the institution alive in the first place.

The making of a new school is not a soulless act of efficiencies and customer pleasing activities, it is about setting in place the means by which a school can grow into an institution. In this case the need for partnership is more, yes take notice of the ever evolving ideas of how to run a school but don’t base your school on current conventions,  base it on the tried and true ideas of centuries past that is embodied in the expertise of teachers, the history of subject teaching and the great teaching tradition. This could be MAT wide, it could form the basis of ‘product’ but it would be the product of an institutional, organic approach and not the business approach that threatens to de-professionalise the workforce.

Some sort of rights and liberties should be given to teachers to be creative in their classrooms. This is adaptability. But Nash is right about the dangers of individuality, a purely anarchic approach in which every teacher is a lone figure delivering curriculum in their own eccentric style will not help the progress of a child, if from year to year she has to relearn or learn stuff that was not rooted in previous learning or is at odds with it. The teacher is not a Grand Panjandrum but needs to work professionally as part of a team of teachers designing and reviewing their curriculum collectively responding in an agile way to the changing needs of society, represented mostly by the children who attend the school, their subject knowledge and by continually refreshing their professional expertise. They don’t become professional by being denied the need to be curriculum experts.

This relies on the teacher being ‘what they ought to be’, the professional, given the responsibility in which she can grow into that role. Teachers have, for centuries, developed habits, rules, and together have created subject disciplines, various canons, books, ways of teaching, tests, terms, without resorting to imposing a blueprint from above to improve their work. The risk might be that what is imposed from above, might be worse than what they already do. And, being imposed from above, its ability to adapt might be too slow.

Evidence-based practice across a group is an excellent idea but it requires flexibility in approach. A standardised approach does not have flexibility. Adaptability when decreed from the centre can only take its expertise from outside of the group, it devalues the professionals within the group even more by always having to bring in ideas from beyond. Innovation needs to come from within too, therefore anti-fragile adaptability needs to be part of the ethos of a MAT. It can achieve this by realising that schools are not businesses, they are institutions.

Get Kids Cultured

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To be cultured means to nail one’s colours to the mast, and those who fear what’s arbitrary in that (and run to theory for protection) fear culture itself.

Howard Jacobson

The importance of tradition, the great tradition, is not that it is the only possibility but it is the best one that we have. For Jacobson, his tutor at Cambridge, FR Leavis, opened up a world of education to him:

Leavis told a particular story about English literature. It’s not the only one. But we owe it to him to show that, so far, nobody has told a better one, or told it with a braver conviction of why it matters to tell it at all.

Being right isn’t what matters to Jacobson but it is the ‘nailing one’s colours to the mast’ that does. This is ‘being cultured’. The vision for education is important, to be involved in that conversation, to add to it, to argue, to say ‘yes… but…’ but not to dismiss and the involvement in the dialogue is lifelong.

It is telling that in a piece called:

Building 21st-century skills: preparing pupils for the future, that a life ‘after education’ is envisaged:

In an ever-evolving world, how can we ensure that future generations have the skills that will truly prepare them for life after education?

In the past I have called this type of progressive education ‘neo-progressivism’. Instead of being revolutionary it is tied to the interests of global capitalism. Instead of education being an ever-evolving involvement with a lifetime of reading and exploring the rich tapestry of culture, the neo-progresssive sees education as a finite vehicle for the good of global capitalism. In her sponsored piece in the Guardian Jessica Clifton, the marketing manager for Lego Education nails her colours to the mast:

…there is a certain expectation to simply fill students with facts and figures. However, this can actually hinder learning, limiting students’ potential to explore concepts and discover solutions for themselves. What we need to do is, quite literally, put learning into students’ hands.

Which, for Jessica is Lego. And I love lego, but it is not ‘Culture’. It is a great toy, and toys can be used for great art; through their knowledge of Goya, the Chapman Brothers, were driven to create works of ‘vertiginous obscenity’ by melting down toy soldiers, maiming, twisting and painting them. The art created is dystopian and disturbing. This is not the vision Lego Education has when it wants to put learning in students’ hands. The article sees education as far more sterile, it quotes Andy Snape, assistant head of sixth form at Newcastle-under-Lyme College, as saying:

“As a teacher, I want to give students the greatest opportunities to achieve and I have found hands-on, creative lessons to be the most effective. Why? Because this learning style not only enthuses and engages pupils, but gives them the chance to understand the purpose of what they’re learning… we use LEGO® MINDSTORMS® Education EV3 to teach engineering, mathematics and computing, as well as using it for an extracurricular robotics club. Using the central programmable “Intelligent Brick”, students can design and build robotic solutions to different scenarios and problems. This could be anything from a sorting system that organises items into distinct categories based on colour, or a prototype space rover that avoids obstacles and performs basic tasks remotely.”

Education as a means to an end, not a life within culture but one that sees education as having a predetermined purpose, to serve the needs of business. It is the misunderstanding of creativity that irks me most. Let us nail our colours to the mast, creativity is not a ‘learning style’, it can be downright dangerous and dirty, but as a great  education cliche it has become the clinical servant of capital. Lego education, Persil et al, who peddle this version of creativity are anti-education, anti-culture, and paradoxically anti-creativity. Creativity is a life force, central to humanity and not the servant of a utilitarian drive to get people into STEM subjects to prepare them for the jobs that have yet to be invented.

This is the tension between tradition and progress; on the side of tradition we have great art, literature and the humanities and a continual dialogue, a great cultural education. On the side of progress we have Lego, STEM subjects (not the subjects themselves but their adoption as ‘a thing’) and an education that finishes when the world of work has taken over your life, this education is anti-cultural. It is the philistine fear of a truly cultural education that drives much of the verbiage of the neo-progressive movement. For them it is all brands, futurology, and education for utility: ‘Mcdonaldisation’; it is the sort of education that will halt progress in its tracks, for it forgets the importance of facts and figures and the knowledge and richness of the past. For all their trumpeting of creativity the neo-progressives can’t create a better story than the one education has been telling for centuries.

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Remove Managerialism from the Classroom

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Managerialism is the idea that quantifiable administrative approaches are the correct way to run institutions. Efficiency is all and it can sometimes be value free in that what works becomes more important than what’s right. Employees become pawns in the game of delivery and the idea of management as neutral and post-ideological holds sway. The sociologist Max Weber referred to this idea as the iron cage of rationality, where measurable control of goals shape the lives of people and institutions. The use of technology, bureaucracy, and targets ensures all become slaves to the machine with the manager, their flow chart and tick box being the lynchpin around whom all must be busy.

Managerialism is an ideology that pretends not to be one and although a maverick leader might say they are not interested in such things they often put in place people who are wedded to efficient processing as important parts of their leadership teams.

Weber thought the iron cage was the inevitable result of enlightenment thinking that greater wisdom and freedom will result from rationalisation, he wrote that:

For the “last man” (letzten Mensches  of this cultural development, it might well be truly said: “Specialist without spirit, sensualist without heart; this nullity imagines that it has attained a level of humanity (Menschentums) never before achieved”  (1904)

Disempowered individuals become cogs in the machine. In schools these cogs are pupils and staff and, indeed, leaders. The questions to ask are: Is managerialism the main way schools are run? If so, at what cost? Are there any alternatives? What different way could schools be run?

My answers to these questions would be a resounding yes to managerialism being the default mode of school leadership and that this is at a cost to those who work and study in the institutions and also to the qualitative experience of studying itself. Yes, there are alternatives, and that amongst these alternatives is the need for the experience in the classroom to be one where the study of the subject reigns supreme rather than the needs of the bureaucracy. The pursuit of wisdom through the art of learning about the best that has been thought and said should be paramount and any managerialist desire to infect that is a breaking of the spirit of education.

Time to Ditch ‘Those’ 21st Century Skills

 

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We are living in interesting times…

The future is glimpsed through a glass, darkly and, indeed, there may be dark times ahead. A concatenation of unfortunate events are all that is needed for the future to not be as predicted. One minute all is good, the next you are knocked over by the proverbial 48 bus that is running late. Even the most reliable of predictions are destroyed by the discovery of ‘the black swan’.

We must prepare children for the future, they need the skills for living in the 21st century, for a world that looks like… (insert some utopian dreamscape) and suddenly that world looks different, and sometimes, disappointingly similar to the one that already exists. The problem with trying to be ahead of the curve in modernity is that modernity itself is an ephemeral thing that likes to surprise and confound. And often to be ceaselessly boring and familiar.

But picture the leader who has just equipped his school with iPads because they are so 21st century and children need those skills reading this article, in which the author Bob O’Donnell writes:

While some naively predicted that tablets would one day replace PCs, the worldwide tablet market never reached the same level as PCs, and with very few exceptions, tablets never became the general purpose computing device that many envisioned. Instead, worldwide tablet shipments peaked in the fourth quarter of 2013—just two years after PCs did—and have slowly declined ever since.

 If tablets are in decline is it any wonder that marketing to schools might be a useful idea, got to sell them somewhere: “But if we pretend to predict the future and get people to think ‘they are very twenty-first century’…” The various bits of wireless telegraph on the back of the horse picture above were so very twentieth century in 1916, though I’m not sure if someone tried to get every child to use the technology but I’m hoping they did…

It is not technology itself one should castigate, it’s the conceit used to sell it ‘it’s the future’ they say, just as the technology might be consigning itself to the past.

O’Donnell continues:

…the future of computing seems to be about a set of platform and device-independent services. Specifically, voice-based interactions, driven by large installations of cloud-based servers running deep learning-based algorithms are what’s hot these days. This kind of computing model doesn’t necessarily need the kind of local horsepower that traditional computing devices have had.

Of course, he doesn’t know, he is just making a prediction, he goes on to say that for Apple:

…the post- device era is a sort of dystopian nightmare…

Some devices will survive for mundane activities or… well, what do I know? But if you want to really teach kids to be ahead of the curve you would need a crystal ball, there is no certainty and nowadays even crystal balls are looked at as being technology from a bygone age.

The Banality of Character Education

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In her Essay on the Banality of Evil Hannah Arendt wrote that:

The nature of every bureaucracy, is to make functionaries and mere cogs in the administrative machinery out of men, and thus to dehumanize them.

Now, I’m not meaning to imply that bureaucrats are evil, but  looking at this quote, away from its context, is useful for what I wish to say about ‘Character Education’. By trying to make Character Ed a thing that can be taught explicitly, measured, reported on, with data collected and dispersed to all and sundry, it could be said that the very idea of ‘character’ is transmuted from being a collection of difficult to define human traits that might emerge over time, to that of a bureaucrat’s idea of character. They apply, what Theodore Dalrymple calls: ‘a thin veneer of science’ to make character part of the administrative machine: Let’s call something ‘Grit’; let’s define it, measure it, report on it and collect vast amounts of data to show that a child’s ‘grit’ score has increased by 7% over the past year and celebrate this. By doing this we dehumanise the subject.

Character, taken as a whole, can be talked about but in the way that someone might talk about art – what they like about some work and what they don’t, it is through the conversations of people by which we judge ourselves and each other. We change as we respond to our daily habits and our daily tribulations, and how we meet those imposters triumph and defeat, illness and wellness, love and despair, and when we give succour and need it for ourselves. Through all this our character builds, breaks and builds again. Give it a score, a flow chart or a graph and it’s no longer character, it is its opposite – it is the dehumanised picture of what someone with a measuring tape and a calculator thinks character is. It isn’t.

I have long argued that by teaching a rich thought-through curriculum, involving a wealth of experiences and a rich access to the arts and humanities, indeed, a good number of subjects taught by teachers who invest their pupils’ time in the pursuit of wisdom that ‘character’ is developed. Here is a video in which I argue this very thing in a debate at Policy Exchange. So, it was gratifying to read this piece by Paul Tough, author of ‘How Children Succeed’, in which he writes:

No child ever learned curiosity by filling out curiosity worksheets; hearing lectures on perseverance doesn’t seem to have much impact on the extent to which young people persevere… there is growing evidence that even in middle and high school, children’s non-cognitive capacities are primarily a reflection of the environments in which they are embedded, including, centrally, their school environment.

Can we make all schools life-affirming and avoid turning them into banal little offices run by petty bureaucrats?

 

Schools, Business and ‘Providing Intelligence’

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As April is the cruelest month I take a jaunt down by the river and see how things are progressing, so much building is going on, people moving in, putting plant pots on their balconies, and a bike on the nineteenth floor. Down on Greenwich Reach potential purchasers are promised property that combines: “…brilliant architecture, breathtaking views and sophisticated living accommodation, New Capital Quay provides a dynamic fusion of exclusive apartments attracting owner/occupiers, investors and tenants alike.” The glass fronted dynamism faces across the river the taller glass dominated offices of Canary Wharf, this is the brave new world.

The river sweats
Oil and tar
The barges drift
With the turning tide
Red sails
Wide
To leeward, swing on the heavy spar.
The barges wash
Drifting logs
Down Greenwich reach
Past the Isle of Dogs.

The old wasteland is still visible alongside the new one, not so dynamic anymore, the barges offer industrial colour and the red sails take tourists and office parties up and down the river. The Isle of Dogs is to be renamed the Isle of Designer Dogs, the residents are all Cock-a-Poo…

Progress is inevitable, but not inevitably better, we always take the rough with the smooth, the same is true of our brave new world of schooling. The decline into our contemporary educational wasteland might have started when some schools called themselves ‘academies’ but I think the worst sign was when some tried to ditch the idea of schooling entirely by calling themselves ‘learning villages’. Turning schools into villages is the same trick an estate agent uses to make some glass effrontery seem cutesy and community based. How many ‘investors’ are being attracted to London’s property market? Good place to park some money…

It is all about money, right? That Independent schools, used to being in the market place, might be entrepreneurial and look to the well heeled communist and business families of China as sources of income is understandable but an English State school too? Over 40 private schools have campuses in Asia and the Middle East we are told in this piece in the Telegraph  and now “The trust that runs Bohunt Liphook academy in Hampshire will open a new school in Wenzhou in 2018.” Yes, the school that took part in a telly programme to see if Chinese methods of teaching were more effective than ours; that the Chinese ‘won’ that particular game is of no consequence, as an English education as a ‘brand’ is easily sold abroad. Some money raised on the backs of the fee payers in the far east will be ploughed back into the state school academy trust in England. Schools are becoming more like businesses, they might be a good place to park some money for investors looking to see how the markets might be moving.

You would think that businesses would be loving these changes: academies, villages and markets but no they are not happy, according to the TES, the Institute of Directors say that: “In the past, education was about imparting knowledge… today, it is about providing students with the intelligence and skills to navigate an increasingly uncertain and volatile employment market.” ‘Providing intelligence’ as an ‘off the shelf’ alternative to ignorance perhaps? “Buy your intelligence at Bohunt Chinese Academy!” “Shop away your stupidity at our learning village where we offer a dynamic fusion of exclusive skills that will attract employers and investors in your branded persona…”

The IoD go on to say that pupils should be: “imbued with curiosity, open-mindedness and the ability to make connections between seemingly unrelated bits of information…” and that: “with widespread internet access, the labour market no longer rewards workers primarily for what they know but for what they can do with what they know…” They, cheekily, add the idea that schools should not be ‘exam factories’. No, they should be Exam open-plan offices, all clean and computer based, glass fronted everything, and suits not overalls, wraps not sandwiches, prosecco and not beer. You see them all at Canary Wharf, the brave new workers all curious and open-minded… or not, as the case may be, but what lives do these people have when they go home from the glass covered office to their glass covered home in their glass encrusted village? This uncertain world that the Director’s worry about, this volatile employment market… as though these things are out of their control. This ‘real world’ where the business you’re working for wants you to spend all your school years being turned into a clone to satisfy their needs will drop you as quick as a flash if you’re no longer profitable. At least the old factories tried to give you a job for life… And Richard and George Cadbury built a village  for the workers to live in, ah patrician capitalists valued their workers… (sometimes… I remember the industrial strife… okay it wasn’t great but…) but our ‘volatile’ world should not be entirely shaped by the needs of capital, that is what makes it volatile.

Perhaps the Institute of Directors should do less pontificating, schools should not be about churning out workers, they should be about enriching their pupils’ lives. Humanity at heart – people before profits…

Perhaps these directors could start seeing their workers as human beings and start seeing education as something you can’t just conjure up on a screen or that ‘provides’ intelligence. Maybe, it’s more important than that, if they want to do good, they could use some of their acumen to invest philanthropically in their community schools, build theatres, science labs, provide sports fields in their dynamic fusion villages and in other older villages and towns.

Don’t throw away the ‘factory model’ of schools and replace them with the ‘office model’ of schools, instead educate for humanity’s sake, and children will grow to know, to think, connect and communicate beautifully, and instead of employing ‘workers’ employ human beings and shape businesses more to their human needs.