Business doesn't mean best when it comes to schools

12th December 1997 at 00:00
When, in the early years of our marriage, my wife and I looked for private rented accommodation in east London, prospective landladies would ask: "And will you be going to business every day?" In the same spirit, small ads for vacant flats invariably stated (many still do): "Would suit business person".

The point, of course, was to flush out those who were likely to depart from social norms: hippies (very common in the late 1960s, and the cause of mortal fear among east London landladies), artists, actors (thought to be irretrievably homosexual), students, prostitutes, the unemployed and casual labourers. "Business" was a code-word for respectability, sobriety, regular hours and prompt payment of rent. It has acquired something of the same symbolic importance for New Labour. The presence of business is supposed to reassure us that nothing untoward is going on and, in particular, that old Labour and the loony left are being kept in their places.

Thus, when Education Secretary David Blunkett launched his rather vague notion of the Education Action Zone last week, the Department for Education and Employment pamphlet told us that it "will certainly involve a central role for business". So that's all right then. After all, people like me are old enough to remember Educational Priority Areas, those little laboratories of the late 1960s and early 1970s where teachers concluded, to quote A H Halsey's official report, that reading and writing should be "exercised on socially relevant material" while "children, as junior citizens, should be forewarned and forearmed for the struggle". They didn't mean the struggle to make a profit, I can tell you.

Now, I do not want to revive the idea of putting schools in the revolutionary vanguard. Those who want to make revolution should make it, and leave the schools alone. But I am inclined to say the same of those who want to make money: they should attend to their business, allowing others to attend to education.

New Labour seems besotted with business, to a greater extent even than the Tories. But where is the evidence that business people make such a great fist of running things? It is axiomatic among politicians that business people, like generals, are disastrous in politics. So why do they so readily accept that the business community can run other people's affairs?

Business activity, as I understand it, was responsible for covering half of south-east Asia in smog this year, a development for which, if I were a Borneo hill tribesman, I would have zero tolerance. Business took over farming and landed us with a BSE epidemic. Business took on the railways, and now the trains run later than ever. Business invented and marketed cigarettes, Thalidomide, bull bars and thousands of other unnecessary and injurious products. Business, as one Tory minister acknowledged, has helped to wreck family life with its demands for round-the-clock dedication. Business, in the form of Lord Chadlington (track record: Shandwick, Portsmouth and Sunderland Newspapers, Viyella International), ran the Royal Opera House and brought it to its knees. Business surely does quite enough damage in the rest of the world, without bringing it into schools.

Business, furthermore, doesn't like paying tax, preferring to salt its money away in Guernsey, Bermuda and other such places. It is, however, perfectly happy to throw money at political parties, for reasons that people like Tony Blair never seem to ask themselves. Why should business be allowed such influence over schools in preference to the properly-elected local representatives (however imperfect) of ordinary, tax-paying citizens? I shall be more impressed with all the talk of public-private partnerships when business shows itself more willing to pay its fair whack in taxes. I know all this is grossly unfair to the majority of businesses, but you teachers and we journalists are often tarred with the same broad brush, so why not?

In any case, business culture, even at its best, is simply incompatible with educational culture. First, the natural instinct of a business is to expand, to diversify, to take over its rivals. As Lord McAlpine, former Tory party treasurer and director of the McAlpine family firm, has observed, there is no such thing as a perpetual small business; a business that tries to stand still goes to the wall. In schools, almost the opposite applies. A school must, to be sure, keep up with the times and be prepared to innovate. But, if children are to learn effectively, a school must give the highest priority to continuity and stability. A small school may well be valued by parents precisely because it is small.

Second, in business, image is more important than substance - think of the role of brand names and designer labels. As the share markets demonstrate, the value of a company is determined not by what it is worth but by what people think it is worth. Indeed, the point of much modern business is to sell rubbish at a high price. A school's first duty, by contrast, is to give children something of real and lasting value.

Third, the instinct of any successful business person is not to trust other people. An employer in the same line of business probably wants to take over your company or steal your trade secrets. Your senior colleagues are after your job. Your more junior employees try to get away with minimal work for maximum pay. That, at any rate, is how business people tend to see it. Schools, however, are best run on mutual professional trust because effective teaching, in truth, becomes impossible once the teacher loses confidence, authority and autonomy.

To enumerate these points is to see that schools have already gone well down the road of a business culture. We have got so accustomed to the business approach in all walks of life that we think it part of the natural order, like the blueness of the sky or the darkness of the night. We see other approaches as deviations, even perversions. It is the ultimate form of reductionism. Just as extreme Darwinians interpret all human behaviour as responses to the dictates of the selfish gene and its perpetual struggle to replicate itself, so politicians now insist that all organisations (except, of course, Parliament itself) must be run according to the profit motive or to some equivalent, such as the targets set for schools. Our notions of value have been so eroded that the modern mind is all but incapable of imagining an alternative. Far from inventing new ways to involve business in schools, we need urgently to think of alternatives to the business philosophy of life.

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