July 27, 2017

Not My Business: Five Reasons Schools Are Not Businesses

After having spent a few years out of Senior Leadership role in a school and now with some experience under my belt helping run a commercial business, I feel like it is time to share.

I do not exaggerate when I say that I have heard in one form or another “…schools are basically businesses. They get money, they have to balance books and produce outcomes.”

No. No, they are not businesses.

I am not saying one is better than the other, but please stop comparing them. Are there some broad similarities? Yes. Are there broad similarities between a house cat and a lion? Yes.

But that is where it ends. Broad similarities.

So, a few important key differences between schools and businesses:

1. For most schools, the large proportion of their budget (revenue) is determined by their roll size. For most businesses, goods and services sold determine revenue.

In the business world, you are deeply and quickly affected by changes in the market. Schools have a certain element control, but realistically they are mandated to at a number of levels. There is both safety and constraint in the schools model. “Extra” money is hard to come by and often not directly linked to (at least not in the short term) better “performance”.

2. Solutions that work for businesses are not necessarily right for schools.

Need I say NovoPay? If you didn’t know, an SME or SMB is a “Small to Medium Enterprise or Business”. While schools are considered small compared to massive corporate headcounts, they are not the same as an SME. Taking a product developed for a business and applying it to education is like taking one piece of clothing and assuming it will fit and be suitable for a different group of people.

More and more we are seeing a culture of replication and appropriation applied to education. Well intentioned private and public organisations are taking an SME model and assuming it will work for a school. The real concern here is that schools will compromise on what they need to achieve by fitting practice around the “solution”. The pattern of work in a high school art department today looks more like a specialised architectural studio in terms of technical requirements, than the office of a large business. As a result of this, any solutions such as hardware, storage and professional development must be tailored to take these needs into consideration.

3. Finance works for outcomes in schools. In business, it’s driven by the bottom line.

As much as it is important in a business to promote culture and personal growth, you must make a profit or people will lose their jobs.  In contrast, restructures, redundancies and remuneration reviews are rarities in New Zealand Schools. If a school’s roll drops, a loss of OPEX and a CAPNA may occur, not always resulting in redundancy of those that may have contributed to the issues. This provides a relatively stable and secure environment for most schools and the people that work in them, bringing its own set of advantages and challenges. In a school environment, there is a low amount of risk to look at new and interesting ways of doing things. However, on the other side, the “risk” may only show improved outcomes after a significant amount of time.

The reality is, businesses go in and out of operation all the time. Schools do not. Schools have the opportunity to think beyond the short term goals of a financial year and make longer term investments, instead of short sighted savings that create long term costs.

4. Businesses can determine their own strategies. Schools’ priorities are largely mandated by central government.

NEG, NAG, NELP – I  challenge you to say it ten times over as fast as you can! The volume of administration and as a result, overall organisational agility is affected when you have mandated requirements. Although these exist in the form of legal obligations in businesses, there are significantly more constraints, reporting requirements and regulations required in schools. The concept of self-governing schools, in reality, is limited in its theoretical actualisation – they are self-governing only to a point.

The key here for schools is to be discerning. Where things are not mandated, take the time and energy to understand the rationale, ask “why?” and ensure that solutions match your school’s self-determined objectives.

5.   School leaders are Educators. The emergence of leadership in businesses is not tied to formal training or qualifications.

Although increasingly becoming more operational, Principals are pedagogical leaders with qualifications and expertise in Leadership, Teaching and Learning. Businesses have no centrally mandated requirement for qualifications and training – i.e. anyone with no experience or qualifications can set up some sort of business. You could argue that making money makes you a good leader in the business world, and we certainly see this tenet touted enough. Leadership in schools, however, goes far beyond this. The reflective practice of many educators, I believe, is very mature. Schools, generally speaking, place great emphasis on the cultural capital of its people. In businesses, this varies massively depending on the leadership style and what is happening with the bottom line.

Don’t run a successful business. Be a successful school.

Frankly, I don’t want schools to become businesses. Do I think that there are lessons for schools to learn from businesses? 100%. Do I think businesses could learn from schools? 100%. But that is a whole other rant. Applying a set of rules, or a cookie cutter approach from one place to another has countless disastrous examples in the past – so why do we keep doing it?

  • Healthcare to businesses
  • Policing to businesses
  • Social Welfare to businesses
  • Education to businesses

Business is not the only viable model for how we should operate in our schools, nor are schools’ practices necessarily a viable model for running a business. Every sector, public and private, has something to offer in terms of the collective wisdom to provide better outcomes – no matter what they are. My advice?

Don’t compromise on the non-negotiables.

Stick to your non-negotiables as a school – what are we not prepared to comprise on for the effective delivery of curriculum and assessment?

Make it work for you.

Technology is the perfect example of this – make it work for you, not the other way around – especially in our schools.

Take the time.

Anything worth doing takes time. You need people you can trust along the way who understand your tensions, especially in schools (that are not businesses!).

Where to next?

Get the right partners alongside who you trust and actually understand what it is your school is trying to achieve while having the expertise in the area you are developing. Be discerning and draw on your networks to qualify the information that is given to you – whether privately or from central agencies. Make a plan and stick to it – In reality, there are a lot of distractions in the school ICT space.

Seem like a lot to negotiate? Not if you understand IT and education – talk to us. We’re here to help.

Tony Gilbert

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