Wouldn't it be luverly if business learnt from school the lessons

Business provides useful models for education, but it's not all one-way traffic.
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The Independent Online
In My Fair Lady Professor Higgins sang "Why can't a woman be more like a man?"... "Why can't a school be more like a business?" echoes the government, drafting in thousands of business mentors to help schools overcome the "culture of fatalism and failure" believed to be triggering the exodus from state education.

There are two obvious responses to the first question (if, po-faced, we take it seriously): "but a woman isn't a man and nor is she supposed to be" and "but why can't a man be more like a woman?" The same two responses apply to the second question.

The first: "but a school isn't a business and nor is it supposed to be" is not to say that some schools don't have a great deal to learn from successful businesses. Clear-headedness about aims and values and about strategies for achieving those aims and living up to those values, together with preparedness to monitor progress and re-think if necessary, is as likely to enhance success in a school as in a business. Good schools, of course, already apply these techniques. Such clarity about aims and values, for example, is almost certainly behind the success of church schools and others of a religious foundation. But successful businesses have made such procedures into an art form and provide an excellent model for less successful schools.

There is a danger, however, about too unreflective a use of business techniques in schools (indeed in the public sector generally). What is needed is clarity about aims and values, not the aims and values themselves. Arguably, the aims and values that motivate and guide businesses are quite different from the aims and values that motivate and guide schools. And many of the means of assessing and monitoring success in business are also quite different from those that are appropriate for schools.

The most important difference is that schools must be guided by a conception of humanity at its very best, of human beings as individuals striving for rational, moral and creative excellence. Good businesses, of course, are also driven by a conception of excellence, but there is no requirement that human excellence should be the ultimate goal.

And this key difference leads to another. Schools cannot avoid subjective means of assessment, the use of human sensitivities and intuition as a measure of the sensitivities and feelings of others. Even if there was an objective way of telling that a child is unhappy, for example, or telling a lie, or not putting in enough effort, it is the human concern for the individual pupil that should motivate a teacher to do something, not concern for the achievement of some other end.

If, in our rush to import good practice from business into schools, we unthinkingly adopt the aims and values of business and their methods of assessment as well as their techniques we could do more harm than good. At worst, this could result in our shifting focus from human beings as individuals with unique potential, to human beings as the means for achieving ends outside the fulfilment of their own potential. No school could be truly successful if these were the values guiding it.

The second obvious response to the government's refrain is: "but why shouldn't a business be more like a school?" In a recent speech the Chairman of a FTSE 100 company claimed "depression in high achievers is reaching epidemic proportions". A commentator added "there is no relief from the worries of work, the striving for recognition and the meeting of budgets". At a recent seminar, a group of young business people made it absolutely clear that what they perceived to be missing in their leaders is an element of human concern.

Perhaps we should be sending an army of headteachers to help businesses overcome the culture of workaholism and stress that seems to be triggering an epidemic of depression among employees?

Some businesses, in fact, have a great deal to learn from successful schools. And the things they have to learn are precisely those things that could be under threat from the unthinking use of business aims, values and methods of assessment in schools: how to treat people as people, how to value individual creativity and thought and how to encourage individuals to fulfil their potential. Some businesses, of course, are very good at these things. But levels of stress and depression among employees suggest that many aren't. That similar levels of stress have been dogging teachers recently might even be traceable to the pressure to adopt an inappropriate set of values rather than simply the pressure to do better educationally.

Understanding human nature at its worst, and valuing human nature at its best, successful schools have traditionally been experts at building into their systems and procedures the sort of flexibility and concern for the individual that enables everyone - staff and pupils - to flourish. Really successful schools could teach businesses a great deal about managing their "human resources" so as to minimise the likelihood of unproductive stress and insecurity and increase that of employees achieving their human potential. They provide excellent models indeed for those businesses whose success in creating wealth is paid for in human depression.

So, yes, Prime Minister, schools - some schools - do have a lot to learn from successful businesses. But businesses - some businesses - have a lot to learn from successful schools. What is needed is a proper dialogue, not the simplistic assumption that one (or the other) is automatically superior.

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