Editorial: Pipe down, business. You might learn something

27th February 2015 at 00:00

Business knows best - that's what most politicians would have you believe. I'm not so sure.

Yes, what business achieves can sometimes be astonishing - the transformation of Apple under Steve Jobs and the record-breaking profits that followed, for example. But sometimes it isn't - Tesco, RBS, HSBC and the rest spring to mind. Business people might have some decent advice to give school leaders about appointing creative accountants, but the rest of the time? Not really.

At this point it would be easy to segue into an attack on shadow education secretary Tristram Hunt, for the section of his speech on Monday in which he explained why British industry should work with school leaders, coaching them to get the best out of their schools. Instead, I'll simply refer him to our lead comment piece, in which leadership expert and entrepreneur Jo Owen explains why it's not schools that should learn from business but the other way round.

Owen argues (correctly) that there are comfortably as many examples of outstanding leaders in education as there are in other sectors. More often than not, headteachers understand the raw material they work with perfectly - how to mould it, teach it and inspire it. His point is that, unlike most businesses, schools have minimal control over the external variables that influence their outcomes. And yet they still get results.

Headteachers don't have levers comparable to those available to a Starbucks manager, such as reducing the biscuit order, taking syrup off the menu or cutting staff by 50 per cent. They can't do much to influence the cohort of students who walk through their gates every September. And, as the recruitment crisis bites, choice over the personnel in their staffroom is increasingly limited.

To be more brutal still, if a Starbucks isn't selling enough Frappuccinos then it will simply be closed down. The same isn't the case for nearby schools.

And yet many of them are succeeding. The schools are still in Bradford; the cotton mills are not. In fact, in that very city there are examples of schools - academies and otherwise - working together to drive up standards, to enhance the area, to improve the Starbucks-buying futures of their pupils.

Business leaders, of course, have a right in a democratic country to opine on the subject of education. They should be encouraged to get involved in discussions about curriculum and exams. Indeed, the CBI's John Cridland is to be congratulated for his recent enlightened comments on soft skills and employability.

But on how to actually run a school? How to lead teachers? How to get the best out of the toughest of pupils? That's another matter altogether.

The next couple of days are big for TES. Tonight we celebrate our FE Awards; tomorrow we drag our sore heads to what promises to be a brilliant London Festival of Education. Both events champion schooling at its best. Both involve teachers, leaders and educationalists sharing best practice while also giving themselves a deserved pat on the back.

They don't need business to help. Although it is nice when it joins in with the applause.



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