Monday 15 September 2014

Misplaced Loyalties: The role of Business in establishing Schools

There's a common call from politicians from all sides that "industry" should have a direct hand in education. Among the arguments presented is that a business-focused curriculum which teaches "real-life" skills (and not useless academic stuff) is better delivered by, or at least organised by, people who are actually involved in business, who can introduce real-world scenarios and inculcate students into the ways of the world at a much younger age than they would otherwise encounter it. University Technical Colleges are but one example of this thinking.

Sounds great, doesn't it! After all, so much academic knowledge - the kind of stuff that appears on GCSE and 'A' level papers - is completely useless. The reductionism of knowledge into the curriculum of 'subjects' doesn't represent the true nature of knowledge as it is lived and breathed in the world. It only really exists like that in education. So, an 'authentic' real-life approach to education seems sensible. As always, the devil is in the detail.

To establish an industry-led educational intervention, the first thing that is needed is: a project! Projects are excellent vehicles for bringing together funders, builders, teachers, industrialists, parents and children. Projects must be managed, so the first thing is to appoint a project manager. Projects have goals, deliverables and milestones, and the role of the project manager is to ensure that these are met. If the project manager doesn't do this, they will be deemed not very good at their job, and probably lose it. Funders have public money to spend: they're job is to ensure that money isn't wasted. If it is, they will be seen to be not doing a very good job and held accountable. Builders want to get money to build buildings. They don't really care if the school itself is successful: they win whichever way it goes. Industrialists may have a social mission to get involved in education, but education is not their main business. Any failure within an education project will not impact on their operations elsewhere, so the project is less critical to them than it is to a project manager. Of course, some industrialists may see business opportunities in engaging in education: these are the most dangerous! Teachers probably already have jobs, and their engagement with a project might be strategic in positioning some kind of career advance, or it might be that they feel that their present position is under threat unless they comply with the project. The point is that there are a wide variety of commitments to any project to create an industry-led school.

Now it gets interesting. The person who stands to lose most if the project fails is the project manager. Let's say a business partner in the project realises the vulnerability of the manager in requiring the business's cooperation. Let's say the business seeks to gain other benefits or advantages from the project manager and their institution and threatens to leave the project if these are not granted (they are, after all, businesses, and this is what business does!) What can the project manager do? Very little, it turns out, because to lose the business would be to lose the trust of the funders, and the project would then fail and the manager would lose their job.

Where are the students and the aims of the school in all this? The project's aspirations to transform education get lost because of the difference in aims and objectives of the stakeholders - particularly the businesses. The lack of shared objectives results in a retreat to a "functionalism" in the project to deliver the basic requirements of the school - curriculum, building, staffing, etc - without any critical questioning about the educational vision at all. Only the teachers will be interested in this, and their voice is drowned by the machinations of business deals in the background. The only goal that unites all the stakeholders is to ensure that the instruments of the project are successfully implemented (this is of particular interest to the developers who build the building!)

The result? A school which is much like any other - there are teachers and children - but where whatever pedagogical transformation was envisaged never materialises because the project functionalism has created an environment of such threat and fear that nobody dares speak out-of-turn. How could it have been different? Only by ensuring that the hearts of the project team were all focused on the realities of education, and the needs of children, not on making money or pursuing other expedient advantages. It would be difficult to make this happen with businesses involved in a powerful position. What appears attractive in theory, in practice results in deeper conservatism than is currently in place within the education sector.

Only the children will have the fearlessness to judge whether the emperor has any clothes on!

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