UOW professor: schools are not businesses

The federal government plan to turn public schools into independent schools is the latest in a series of government ''reforms'' in the English-speaking world aimed at making schools conform better to a business model. 

Beginning in the 1980s, ''local management of schools'' was introduced in Britain and ''school-based management'' was introduced in many states in the US.

These ''autonomous schools'' did not, as Federal Education Minister Christopher Pyne claimed this week, produce better student outcomes.

Often labelled ''devolution'', financial budgeting, day-to-day school administration and responsibility for outcomes were devolved to local schools and their boards or trusts.

Principals manage school funds, personnel and educational processes. But centralised bureaucracies retain firm control of what should be taught. They establish the goals of education, methods of performance evaluation, core curriculums, and resource allocation.

Sharon Beder.

Sharon Beder.

In most cases devolution has been presented as shifting responsibility to local schools and therefore being more decentralised, democratic, and responsive to local communities.

However, the crucial decisions about goals and objectives continue to be made by politicians and technocrats who are far removed from those communities.

The real goal of making schools ''independent'' is not local control and school autonomy, but to allow governments to abdicate responsibility for funding shortfalls. Individual schools are made responsible for turning out highly skilled students despite inadequate resources. More budgetary control does not mean more resources. Yet failure to meet centrally-determined quality objectives is blamed on poor school management and poor quality teaching rather than a lack of resources and funding.

So in Australia we now see a government reluctant to implement Gonski-recommended funding reforms, pushing to make schools independent in the name of giving parents and communities more say in school management. The pledged $70 million in funding for this move is supposed to train principals for their new role as executives in charge of school businesses and ''line managers'', ensuring that education department objectives are carried out and performance targets met.

Principals will have to make the hard decisions about whether to cut teaching positions to fund educational programs or whether to sell school land to finance building maintenance.

Instead of providing educational leadership to teachers, principals will have to become employers. They will have to turn their attention away from educational matters to focus on strategic plans, budgets, personnel issues, and fund-raising. And instead of being able to collaborate with other principals and learn from each other they will now be expected to compete with them.

Such pressures have led to high turnover rates in principals in other parts of the world. In 2007, a study by PricewaterhouseCoopers, commissioned following a decline in the numbers of teachers seeking head teacher positions in Britain, suggested that schools could be headed by non-teachers who were experts in finance, human resources and project management.

Business coalitions have long pushed for a more business-like approach in schools. Craig Barrett, chief executive of the US-based Intel Corporation, claimed: ''We need to provide our public schools with what business brings to the table: our emphasis on setting goals, measuring results, and getting things done.''

Chris Whittle, who founded Edison charter schools in the US, said the ''biggest contribution business can make to education is to make education a business''.

However, there are good reasons to believe that a business model, with its focus on producing outputs in the most cost-effective way, is inappropriate to education. Businesspeople have no deep understanding of how educational processes differ from production processes and why they cannot be judged by the same criteria.

Learning should be about discovery, exploration and curiosity, not just performance and achievement, which is all the business model is concerned with. Learning is not work and teaching is not production. Graduates are not manufactured.

Professor Sharon Beder of the School of Humanities and Social Inquiry at the University of Wollongong is author of This Little Kiddy Went to Market.

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