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CORPORATE EDUCATION - Schools in India are undergoing an unexpected transformation

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Devi Kar The Author Is Director, Modern High School For Girls, Calcutta Published 01.12.14, 12:00 AM

When the old and familiar disappear, we feel afraid. I think it is not so much change itself or even the pace of change but its nature that is sometimes so intimidating. But we all know that we must accept change if we want to survive and must embrace the new if we wish to move ahead.

It is true that we have had to adjust and adapt to different kinds of change over the years. But while we expect frequent change in the world of fashion or technology, illogically perhaps, we don’t expect radical change in other areas. But see what has been happening in the classical music world where we expect things to remain the same: the London Symphony Orchestra and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra have been playing videogamemusic in concert halls. Similarly, our schools are undergoing a strange and unexpected transformation. In this case, the make-over is being effected by commercialization and corporatization.

Straightaway, I shall give you two examples to give you an idea of how the times are a-changing in our schools. Read the following excerpt from an email that we received a couple of weeks ago: “Dear Sir... you must be proud of your achievements. We would like to get your efforts noticed and your Institution recognized all over India. Here is your opportunity to profile your Institution through our... Journal. So what are you waiting for? Why don’t you grab this opportunity to create a brand name for your Institution by considering our proposal of publishing a cover story in our upcoming issue?...The tariff for the cover story will be Rs 30,000.” The sender of the email went on to assure us that the front cover would carry the name of our institution and a photograph of the founder/principal.

Now read about my colleague’s recent experience. Our school had been sent an ‘all-expenses paid’ invitation for a teacher to attend a two-day seminar in Singapore. My colleague, who was requested to attend, returned from her visit with an overpowering feeling of alienation. She had realized with a shock that the education world had changed even more drastically than she had supposed. The people who attended the two-day programme were mostly ‘agents’ and ‘education experts’ from India. There were very few educators. (Incidentally, you don’t talk about ‘teachers’ anymore — every other teacher is referred to as an ‘educationist’ just as every other musician is addressed as pandit or ustad.) My colleague said that the conversation among the invitees was dominated by numbers and marketing jargon. The business of attracting students, producing competitive examination scores (Indian board examinations seemed to be passé in most of these schools), positioning one’s institution strategically by booking prominent spaces in dailies, journals and magazines, and putting up stalls in important education fairs — in other words, high visibility and brand building formed the meat of all conversations.

Another topic of discussion was the matter of placing students in reputed colleges and universities abroad. Earlier, schools would boast about students who had got admission to the IITs, medical schools and reputed general colleges in India. Now it is about the students who had been accepted by the ‘top’ colleges abroad, even though — because of sheer numbers — it is tougher to get admission to the top institutions in India. We have also observed that a disproportionate percentage of time and energy is spent on the relatively small number of students who wish to study abroad straight after high school. Ironically, institutions abroad are also going all out to woo our better students and are competing with one another for the educational market share. As someone has remarked, presently, we are witnessing the rise of the ‘imperial’ university with campuses around the globe. Indeed, the transformation that we are witnessing in our schools is the result of schools being increasingly run like a business.

“Schools have a lot to learn from business about how to improve performance”, said Bill Gates in the Wall Street Journal a few years ago. Business magnates who have an interest in education believe that if you run a school like a good business house, it will be financially healthy, and since good business sense demands that you plan strategically for the future, you will reach your targets efficiently. So far so good. The problem arises only if you question the nature of the targets. If the whole purpose of copying the business model had been the efficient delivery of education, the transformation would not have seemed so bewildering. But it is evident that in many cases only the trappings of the business model have been borrowed.

It would be interesting to take a look at some of these trappings. Schools are now hiring different kinds of consultants. Recently, I was invited to visit a new university in north India. Amidst the school-related chatter on the bus journey to the university, I happened to express my consternation over the inadequate and often non-existent development programmes for teachers in our schools. In response, the gentleman sitting in front of me announced that this year his school had invested Rs 25 lakh in teacher training. The gentleman introduced himself as a full-time HR consultant with a school in Karnataka. Apart from head-hunting he was also responsible for training and development of staff. On the same trip, I met a charming woman who had the air of a thorough professional. She turned out to be the careers officer for seven schools in Mumbai. It came home to me that the recruitment pattern had changed in schools across the country. Apart from teachers, personnel usually associated with corporate organizations — such as PR officers, hospitality managers, financial executives and IT experts — were being hired. A former colleague joined a well-known school in Delhi as their estate officer. She hastened to assure me that her work did not comprise looking after the school grounds — she was engaged in miscellaneous administrative activities which included the organization of cultural programmes for students.

An aspect of the corporate style management that is being adopted by schools is evaluating teachers and compensating them monetarily for their performance. I do not think that there is a linear hierarchy in any school yet. Extra or non-teaching responsibilities are distributed among the staff appropriately; hence there has been no jostling for promotion or attempts to catch the eye of the boss. Unfortunately, this new practice of rewarding selected teachers with financial packages is bound to vitiate the school atmosphere. Worse still, is the practice of hooking financial incentives to students’ examination scores. Even teachers who have received such rewards are unhappy about the unpleasant consequences of this policy. Competition among teachers can be very destructive — it leads to self-centredness and a neglect of team-work and broader goals. In fact Microsoft had to abandon its policy of ‘stacked ranking’ (specific percentages of the total employee body had to be classified as top, good, average, below average and poor performers) because it had “effectively crippled Microsoft’s ability to innovate”. The management discovered that employees were far too busy competing with each other to think about the company as a whole. While Microsoft happily discarded the ranking of employees, the schools across the United States of America which had availed of Microsoft funding through the government, were left with the hated system.

A recent trend is that people who have had little to do with school education are being appointed in leadership positions and are interfering in the work of teachers in the classroom and outside. These ‘administrators’ or ‘managers’ are also given the task of assessing teachers. A teacher told me of a rather sinister practice in her school. The manager entered all the mistakes and misdemeanours of the teachers in a log-book that were read out at quarterly meetings. “People are treated like line items on ledger sheets” commented someone cynically.

Image building or brand building is another exercise that schools are immersed in. So the image-maker or publicity person gets going. A college student who was interning as a reporter, told me about her first visit to a school. She was quite taken aback when she was greeted by the public relations officer with flowers and chocolates. Inviting film stars to be chief guests at school functions is also an image-building strategy. On the other side, corporate organizations enhance their image by engaging with schools. Innovative contests and events are regularly organized or sponsored by business corporations. Money prizes are getting bigger and bigger even for very young children. Recently my colleague’s four-year old daughter won a giant trophy, a fat cheque and gifts galore for coming second in a state-level colouring contest.

Outsourcing is yet another growing practice. Earlier, teachers would train their students for various elocution, drama, debating, quizzing and sports contests. Now ‘experts’ and coaches are hired for school shows and for inter-school competitions or tournaments. Event managers, quizmasters, compères, DJs , and games coaches are much in demand. There are so many mega- events in the city round the year that judges for the different contests are difficult to come by, and believe it or not, even judges have started asking for fees. Flowers and ‘thank-you cards’ won’t do anymore.

The move to remodel an educational institution to a market-driven entity has led to a dangerous shift in focus. The main concern in many of these corporate-style schools is not the quality of education that is being imparted but state-of-the-art facilities, name and fame and the bottom line.

So you can see that our beloved world of chalk and board, of classroom tales and staffroom chatter is fast disappearing. I do not know where we are headed. But I do know for sure that my school would never pay a magazine to publish its name on its front cover.

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