Sugaring the pill of the enterprise culture

9th June 2006 at 01:00
Earlier this year, it was reported that The Hunter Foundation had withdrawn a promise of funding for the development of leadership training because the Scottish Executive was slow in making things happen. More recently, Lord Laidlaw announced that he had decided not to fund the Schools of Ambition initiative.

Both Lord Laidlaw and entrepreneur Sir Tom Hunter will continue to support other educational projects and the Executive stressed that there had been no major fall-outs, merely a difference of view about how best to proceed in these particular cases.

The reasons given for the withdrawals are interesting and raise important questions about the relationship between private benefactors and public institutions. In the case of The Hunter Foundation's decision, the chief executive stated that there was insufficient evidence of change and a lack of commitment to "milestones and targets".

It was also suggested that there were disagreements about the bureaucratic structures through which new forms of training should be delivered.

Lord Laidlaw's reasons were rather different. He had concluded that the Schools of Ambition programme was too cautious and that "private money should be used in more of an experimental nature to pilot projects which may be too risky for the public purse".

The involvement of social entrepreneurs such as Sir Tom Hunter and Lord Laidlaw in educational developments is part of a general trend to encourage a more positive, enterprising and creative outlook in Scottish society.

Their own personal achievements are considerable and they are keen to give back something that will benefit the next generation. But the worlds of business and education are very different in a number of ways and it is not surprising that there should be points of tension.

Business leaders operate in a decision-taking culture, often within a short time-frame, and visible results are expected to be evident quickly. By contrast, the culture of education is often marked by delays in decision-making, sometimes caused by the need to consult widely, and a failure to monitor outcomes closely (as evident, for example, in the recent Audit Scotland report on the impact of the McCrone settlement).

However, the contrast can be expressed in another way, one that should make us careful about simply following the example of the private sector. There is one over-riding concern in business - the bottom line, the profit motive.

Education has a much wider range of objectives, some of an ethical nature and some which take a long time to develop. Values such as respect, fairness, equality, rights and freedom are at the heart of the educational process and, while these are not entirely absent in business, they are secondary to the profit motive.

Many people working in the public sector have chosen to do so because they find aspects of the business world distasteful. I was reminded of this when hearing the negative reactions of some colleagues to the successful television series The Apprentice, in which aspiring executives were put through a series of tests by a panel led by Sir Alan Sugar.

The successful candidate won because she was "very focused, very determined, very organised". These are worthwhile qualities, but a world in which everyone was equally determined to succeed in business would be harsher than the one most teachers would wish to promote.

Many businesses now get involved in the work of schools and communities in ways that are entirely admirable, encouraging "enterprise" in the broadest sense. But there is still a need for greater dialogue so that mutual misunderstandings can be addressed and expectations clarified.

We have much to learn from each other.

Walter Humes is research professor in education at Paisley University.

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