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Schools: Institutions or Service Providers?

For the vast majority of children raised in modern Western democracies school attendance up to the age of 16 (or older) is a normal fact of life. Primary (elementary) education and a certain amount of secondary schooling are mandated by legislation. Of course, it wasn't always like this in countries like the US, the UK, and Australia, and an estimated 16 million children in Africa still do not receive a basic schooling.
However, the heritage of compulsory education in most Western countries over the past 100-150 years has led to the sense that schools are institutions within modern society. By institutions I mean they are embedded into the way we think about society - we would find it hard to contemplate any capacity for progress without relying on primary, secondary, and tertiary education.
Over the last decade or so government and societal attitudes towards education have been changing, a fact that not all schools have recognised. The shift has been from seeing schools as social institutions to seeing them as education service providers. As education service providers they are like businesses selling a product (education) and competing against each other for students and funding.
There are a number of factors that have driven this shift. A major factor is competition. In years gone by, only the wealthy could afford private schooling. The vast majority of students went to either state schools or low cost Catholic schools. Today, however, the education landscape looks much different. There is an enormous range of school options from public and low cost church schools, to elitist private schools, and all the way between. Parents can find a school somewhere to meet their budget - and if they live in a major city, they probably won't have to look very far.
Increased competition is a reflection of growing wealth in Western countries, and it provides parents and children with choices unavailable to most people in the past. However, for schools, competition ups the ante. It puts pressure on schools to perform, and losing students to a competitor school can start a vicious spiral - loss of students leads to loss of staff; loss of staff leads to loss of subject choices; loss of subject choices leads to further loss of students.
Going hand-in-hand with competition is the perceived quality of the education that schools provide. In many educational jurisdictions, state-wide testing of students allows schools to be compared according to the 'quality' of their test results. Parents and children often make choices of schools based on schools' overall standardised test performance. Increasingly, this information is freely available online, allowing for easy comparison and increased competition for the 'better' schools. This 'marketing' and self-promotion of schools is further evidence of a competitive, commercial marketplace in the sector.
The commercialisation of the school sector is further driven by the highly specialised and highly selective job market in most Western countries. Increasingly, students select courses based on what they hope to study at university, or on the availability of jobs when they leave school. Schools are not only expected to produce good students, but also good workers who can play their role in paying taxes and sustaining economic growth. As consumers, parents and children covet schools that reliably deliver admissions to the most prestigious university courses or the most sought-after jobs.
The reality of the school sector is that it is increasingly becoming a commodity with a market value. Schools compete for scarce resources - students and funding. Yet many schools seem to be populated by staff with long memories. Many teachers still think they only need to teach their subjects and students just need to learn. They think the responsibility for next year's enrollments lies with the Principal or the school board. It doesn't. It lies with everyone.
Dr Steve Barlow AFAIM is an educator and change management professional. He has worked for over three decades in school and tertiary education, serving in teaching, administrative, management, and leadership roles. In this he gained much experience introducing and managing change at both micro and macro levels. Steve has worked within the correctional system in educative and rehabilitative roles, and has conducted a number of significant research projects within the prison system. He has has been a speaker at various conferences around Australia, and in Ireland. Steve is currently Director at Redequip Pty Ltd, a change management and training company based in Australia.

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