Hanging out at the International Festival of Business: how is a school a business?

Some time after the Tony Blair’s testosterone fuelled ‘education education education’ mantra started being chanted around UK school playgrounds, I found myself working with a number of schools around Liverpool who were preparing for the tsunami of funding that was heading their way.

Whether this was for kids from rich families or for kids from poor families who were starting with a deficit of life chances before they even stepped through the school gates or the kids in the middle who were neither GandT (Gifted and Talented, aka troubled, awkward and difficult to manage) nor HTR (Hard-to-Teach aka troubled, awkward and difficult to manage) but were still able to attract funding due to their perceived invisibility, the fact was that many schools found themselves awash with cash. Sometimes more than they knew what to do with and sometimes more than was good for them.

This led to many schools to take their fiduciary duties even more seriously and to believe that that they now had to start acting as if they were businesses.

This might involve the appointment of a ‘business manager‘ (sometimes a redeployed bursar who would have struggled in any commercial organisation, never mind one that was pretending to be one); the consideration of students as ‘customers‘ and the teeth grinding proposition that the curriculum was something that students could pick and choose from much like a visit to their favourite sweet shop on a Saturday afternoon.

Now don’t get me wrong: I’m enthusiastic about personalising curriculum where it makes sense and responds to students’ interests in a meaningful and authentic manner: but all too often the personalisation agenda became subsumed within a Disneyfied agenda which threw any critical faculties off the fourth floor of the head teachers executive lounge suite and sold sold sold a morally bankrupted curriculum which valued the individual at all costs: visible in one school I visited which encouraged students to think of themselves as the Me PLC of their generation.

From now on, schools were businesses, students were customers and teaching subjects was something you only did in the privacy of your own home. ‘Subject knowledge’ became a dirty word used between consenting adults and certainly not something you would wax lyrical about in public.

There was of course a lot of resistance to this tendency of talking about schools as business centres; but more often than not, the rhetoric was seductive and many schools accepted their new identity as business start ups with the minimum of squealing.

What the consequences are of that turn of affairs will be explored in future posts – and of course at our next conference, All Our Futures which will be held in Liverpool in June 2014. Further details are here.

Disneyworld as the aspirational role model for schools: just what’s so wrong with that?

Read on Twitter yesterday: Overheard a primary school learner describe a visit to a nearby high school as “this is like Disneyland”. It really was that good…

How tremendous would that be. School as an outpost of Disneyland and all its aspirational urgings: Let the memories begin…Explore the happiest place on earth…Welcome to the magic… all powerful metaphors which are hugely seductive for children, teachers and families.

And what’s so wrong with these metaphors? Why shouldn’t schools be the happiest places on earth? Perhaps there’s far too little magic in schools and a dose of Disneyfi-ed magic would do everyone a power of good? As a place to ‘let the memories begin’, its difficult to contradict the proposition that schools should be just that – places which shape memorable memories, shape our lives and futures and all that is good in the world.

And this is of course exactly the problem with the Disney model of school development and community building. There is no argument against it. It is impossible to critique the desire to be at the happiest place earth, the welcoming force of magic and a place for memory making. The Disneyfication of the school is the full stop at the end of the question which asks what schools are for.

Where is the place for resistance? For criticality? For unreconcilable difference? In short, no-where. There is no room for resistance in Disney. It is, as the Borg constantly remind us, futile. Any and all conflict in Disney is moderated, sanitised and overcome. The hero and heroine will always overcome the forces of the awkward buggers who get in their way. The awkward squad might be entertaining, or seductive in their repulsiveness: but one thing they never become are winners.

The individual- the Disney Hero – will always triumph in the Disney School: this is sometimes presented as being for the benefit of the individual themselves, at other times for the benefit of a wider, grateful community. Whatever else, the individual is central to all of Disney’s concerns. Nothing else matters as much as ensuring the desires of the individual are fulfilled. In that sense, the Disney school is the natural endpoint of the personalised learning agenda.

Which is where the combination of Disney and School in the same sentence becomes a potential nightmare because it generates the demand above all else that the child’s view is paramount. That their desires, interests, fashions and choices are all that matter; that the only function for teachers or other adults is to ensure their voices are heard and their demands met. In the Disneyfi-ed, personalised school, the child is in a 24/7 sweet shop, entranced by the baubles, hypnotised by the bangles, flattered by the flickering lights and fed, up to their back teeth, with the educational equivalents of coca cola, candy floss and Peter Pan.

But school is not a sweetshop. It should of course be magical and memorable and a place for happiness: but we should also welcome the reality that school is – and needs to be – tough, that learning is difficult, challenging and sometimes – dread word – boring. School – education – life – is a struggle, not a sherbet dip.

Placing Students at the Heart of Creative Learning

Placing Students at the Heart of Creative Learning shows teachers of key stages 2 and 3 how to introduce creativity into what is often seen as a prescriptive and stifling curriculum, and addresses the tensions that can exist between the requirement to follow the curriculum and the desire to employ innovative pedagogies. It offers readers a range of practical and realistic ways that curriculum changing ideas can be applied to individual projects, classrooms and even entire schools.

This book tracks the imaginative initiatives undertaken by six schools as they have worked to change their curriculum and teaching in order to put student experiences at the core of the learning process. Stating its observations and suggestions in a refreshingly straightforward and practicable manner, this book explores:

  • Why a new creative curriculum is needed for the 21st century
  • How to encourage teachers and pupils to ‘own’ the curriculum
  • The role that pupil voice plays in a creative curriculum
  • The environment needed to creatively manipulate the curriculum
  • How to introduce innovation to teaching practice
  • What actually works – considering the limits and possibilities of creative pedagogy

Providing case studies and examples of the ways in which teachers have delivered the curriculum in a creative way, Placing Students at the Heart of Creative Learning is an invaluably beneficial guide for all those involved in engaging and teaching young people in key stages 2 and 3.