Tag Archives: corporate sponsors

Master Or Servant?

Calm yourselves, fellowship. What follows is not a paean to Depeche Mode, those purveyors of Basildon bondage channelling their inner Blixa Bargelds through handfuls of tin tacks and an adjustable spanner. (The Man In Black’s version of ‘Personal Jesus’ is, however, a thing of dark beauty.) No, today we will be looking at industrial relations: the sort our begrimed ancestors enjoyed with The Man Who Sent Them Up The Chimneys.

The relationship between business and education flips and flops. When corporate types declare school-leavers unfit for purpose, however that is defined, hands are thrown aloft in Parliament and its second-home outposts in the media. Shortly thereafter come chorused demands, like the howls of the children of the night, that Something Be Done. So far, so masterful: education exists to service the needs of the economy as determined by business interests. If it doesn’t do so, the coalition of the trilling deems it a dud.

Business has often been characterised as the saviour of education. Like Henry Higgins bemoaning the womanliness of women, politicos from assorted points on the ideological spectrum have wondered aloud why head teachers can’t be more like business managers. Which is why successive governments have advocated fast-tracking the latter into school leadership, believing it will ensure that irksome institutions do as they are bid, and more ‘efficiently’. Although the line is a little blurred in this case, the idea that education’s Ygor needs to follow business’ master is still being encouraged.

Performance targets, audits, competitive bids, profits: all now the joists of modern education, installed by principals wielding MBAs in School Management like industrial sledgehammers. MBAs? I know one of this exalted breed, and his ability to map-read a spreadsheet like an educational satnav is astonishing. And about as reliable an indicator of the wisest direction in which to travel: there are holes where once stood walls. Ho hum. Einsturzende Neubaten.

Consider, however, the establishment of new schools. By sponsoring institutions, forging links with industry, embedding enterprising attitudes and skill-sets hitherto lacking in such lily-livered environments, the business world helps to turn around schools where every other intervention has failed. As we’ve been told. Repeatedly. In this respect, it is undoubtedly the servant of education.

Isn’t it?

Which is, presumably, the reason why, in some of the education systems our policy-makers seek to emulate, corporate sponsors ensure that their logos are scattered like garnish over the exercise books they subsidise. Or that their brand names feature prominently in textbook tasks. (“Eloise buys sixteen ROTTLES. Because they are so delicious, she eats three eighths of the ROTTLES on her way home. With how many ROTTLES is Eloise left?”) Not to harness the terrifying forces of pester power, you understand; simply to root otherwise abstract maths problems in the real world. Oh, and – perchance – to develop the next generation’s awareness of its consumer choices. One stone; many birds. And fewer teeth.

Unfortunately, as my unimpeachable example illustrates, these practices sometimes involve products not known for their inclusion on the lists of Good Things. It’s a recurrent theme, this one, if you care to look: schools, already well in the black, serving sub-standard fodder to reduce costs further; packed lunches being banned to force families – including those a mere pfennig above the qualifying threshold for free meals – to buy reconstituted mush from the school canteen. (In one such establishment, staff on lunchtime duty were instructed to relieve students of any food brought from home and fling it in the bin. To their credit, most took, instead, to slipping canteen trays under packed lunches so that they appeared to be school-bought.)

Meanwhile, in some of the same schools, principals take delivery of the finest single malts available. That’s also a bit of theme, if you care to look. Or are allowed to see. A young chap of my acquaintance has just elected to leave an academy where the annual salary bill for the senior team is close to a – self-determined – million pounds, courtesy of a head teacher on £320,000 and six deputy or assistant heads whose average earnings exceed £100,000. Throw in the principal’s wife, promoted to a head of department role on a salary of £80,000, and I think that’s what they call being ‘bang on the money’.

Should you (aspire to) be the type of leader feted by the DfE, feel free to acquaint yourself with other ways of boosting the zeros in your account. Why not set up a nice little earner on school premises, say, making use of its equipment and land? Register yourself as a director and you’ll be chortlng all the way to Coutts. Alternatively, treat the schools in your chain as captive customers for the services provided by your other businesses. Encourage staff and parents to avail themselves of your wares by including discounts in their contracts or home-school agreements. Consultancy, widgets, soft furnishings – the possibilities are endless!

That, of course, presupposes that staff have both the time and the disposable income to shop at your emporia, even with its promised reductions. In many academies, the right to alter terms of employment has resulted in significantly longer school days. Elsewhere, last year’s favours have become this year’s job descriptions, with after-school and holiday teaching now expected/demanded alongside ever-increasing paperwork. Tapping into the zeitgeist, Andre 320,000 has displayed his well-developed sense of humour by instructing teachers to deliver weekend lessons as well. Unpaid. As are all such increases in actual hours. And why replace departing staff, when their workloads can be added to those of the poor sods who have little choice but to stay? With the ultimate sanction of trumped-up dismissal at one’s disposal, the possibilities are doubly endless!!

Some final tips: stuff your school to its groaning seams with statemented children and those receiving free school meals; gratefully receive the extra cash that comes with them; then spend a smidge of it on something vaguely educational, while trousering the rest and fabricating some accounts that show the bairns receiving the benefit. You know it makes business sense because, after all, Everything Counts.

So, whether you see yourself as a master or servant of education, take heed, beloved magnate. We are all seeking Some Great Reward from our philanthropy. But, if you find that you Just Can’t Get Enough, it may be time to rethink your strategies, in order to Get The Balance Right. After all, People Are People, not profits; forget that and you may find that they won’t conveniently Leave In Silence.

Trust me. It’s just A Question of Time.    

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Paying The Piper

Caveat emptor. Many years ago, I bought a jacket edged with contrast piping. A tasteful cream-and-black number, like the Guinness I’d evidently imbibed in large quantities before buying it, it still hangs untouched at the back of a closet.

Perhaps I should give it an airing after all as I was, clearly, ahead of the curve. You see, where I live, pretty much every school has gone for piping in a big way. My garb was an object lesson in the madness of neutrality. The schools favour combinations of a different kind: sober dominant colours (black or grey) and contrasting trims in primary hues. The polysemic potential here is clear. “We mean business,” perhaps, “ but we know how to have fun. Sometimes.” Or “A Community of Individuality”, say. Or, maybe, “Ex Pluribus, Unus”. On which last point, have you any idea how much self-control it took to leave some of those vowels untouched? And yes, I am a poet and I do know it.

The proliferation of piping is one index of the speed at which schools are being taken over by corporate-style organisations, advocating corporate-style apparel and, possibly, corporate-style curricula. My heart sinks a bit when I see the bairns crammed into the chicken shops at 5.30pm – allowed, finally, to clock out of the overdesigned buildings in which voluntary activities are compulsorily timetabled (eh?).

But my heart sinks further when I contemplate photos of staff in the schools’ corporate-style brochures. Vitreous of gaze, they are far too often pictured in the thrall of some educational guru or other, who presides over the assembly with the charisma of a cult leader. I admit freely that I scatter dramatic licence over my posts like a guest chucking brown rice at a macrobiotic wedding; and so, at first glance, the Maharishi-Moon-Koresh parallels seem wide of the mark. However, omit the sex, drugs, weddings and death – ain’t no teacher I know that has time for any of the above – and what you’re left with is, in so many senses, surprisingly close to home.

Allow me, if you will, to elaborate. A colleague, career-shifting from something more glamorous, has been applying for a place on the Schools Direct scheme. An in-school training programme that replaced the late GTP, it’s one that has been embraced keenly by some of the larger chains of schools. Aspiring teachers learn on the job, with their pay and conditions decided by the schools; the middle-layer of oversight and regulation that universities provide for PGCE students is, thus, absent. In many cases, a trainee’s workload and accountability for results are such that they are de facto teachers, rather than students, from the outset.

Thomas, as we shall call my friend, was invited to two Schools Direct assessment days run by academy federations, significant portions of which are devoted to psychometric testing. During one of these days, Thomas was grouped with several other applicants and asked to discuss the merits of several teaching methods demonstrated in filmed lessons. The discussion was observed and analysed by federation assessors – much like the lessons themselves may have been, as they had evidently taken place in a school where classrooms had been fitted with cameras.

One of the practices, in Thomas’ view, had much to recommend it. He explained why with reference to specific details, and defended it against more critical reactions with humour and gusto. When it came to another of the methods, Thomas was as voluble in his criticism as he had been previously in his praise, his defence of his position as rigorously exemplified. He noted, from the corner of his eye, the copious note-taking of the observers, and saw it as proof of the thoroughness with which they were doing their jobs.

Only at the end of the day did Thomas realise that their records documented misgivings about him. He was not offered a training place with the academy chain, whose observers cited his criticisms of – what turned out to be – a favoured teaching style as the reason for terminating their interest. The same fate befell applicants who’d questioned the effectiveness of the other methods. It thus became clear that the candidates had only been exposed to pedagogic practices of which the organisation approved.

With about a decade of experience in academisation, the chain concerned had developed an ethos that had come to span the entire federation. In short, it knew what it liked and was looking for trainees who did the same, were willing to pretend that they did, or could be persuaded easily to do either of the above. Perhaps it is better to spare all concerned the splinters that ensue from trying to ram the wrong-shaped peg into the pre-existing hole – even more so if the peg is made from material with some resistance to being whittled or ground into shape.

However, if there’s one profession, besides the law, in which the ability to observe, critique and construct a cogent argument is essential, it’s education. Proving one’s fitness to belong by parroting party lines simply won’t do. Because, unless we, the practitioners, are critical thinkers – and are encouraged to remain so – how do we teach our students to be the same? What happens to that collective ability to sift out what’s valuable and ask some, possibly awkward, questions about the rest? Students leaving school with armfuls of qualifications, but no greater capacity for interrogative thought, have been failed by the institutions to which their intellectual development has been entrusted. We may as well have stuffed their mitts with sugary snacks: a swift and vertiginous hit, followed by the slumping realisation that the satisfaction is neither genuine nor lasting.

So I return, with circular inevitability, to where I began: uniforms. In institutions that brook no dissent, it would be more honest to expect staff to wear them too; in some that is, indeed, the direction of travel. Where it will lead is both anyone’s guess and scarily predictable. Staff who are prized for compliance, rather than competence. Biddable consumers of rhetoric and more who, in turn, become valuable – but not necessarily valued – customers. And, if we dare to look closely at the portfolios of business interests, schools whose real function is to be customers for services provided by firms in which sponsors and leaders have substantial stakeholdings. All are possible consequences. How sobering a colour is that?

But fear not: none of this is driven by anything other than philanthropy and it’s all in the best interests of the students. Honest. As any tailor can confirm, eye-catching trimmings are always the last element stitched on to the garment. Sartor resartus.