Identifying School Values in a Value for Money Environment

I notice a recent news item phenomenon where individuals from the world of business and politics are invited onto the stock exchange floor to ring the bell, thus indicating the start of a day’s trading.

Once the bell is rung, the frantic activity of buying and selling shares and stocks begins. The world’s other stock exchanges tune in to look at emerging economic and financial trends in order to consider any relevant positive or negative impact for their own market. It is a case of one stock exchange watching the other stock exchanges in order to try and map a financial direction for the day. All of this is carried out with multiple phone lines, a multitude of computer screens, and a mass of different colour jackets worn by a myriad of traders.

The ringing of that bell starts the day’s activities and it is a symbol of importance to be invited to ring that bell: a place where the world awaits the bell ringing, a place where the bell and the bell ringer determine the start of economic activity.

The school staff room is also place where the ringing of a bell signals the start of the day’s activities. It is a bell of a different sound to that of the stock exchange.  It is a bell which indicates that formal learning begins, where students know it is time to settle down to the business of learning, and one where teachers  arrive in classrooms to begin the formal work of the day.

Across the world, school bells ring, all indicating that it’s time for the learning to begin. Unlike the stock exchange, no important outsider is invited to ring the school bell: the bell ringer is usually a teacher or principal.

In these examples, the bell has a common purpose of indicating the start of the day, though for two very different activities: one for economic activity and one for the beginning of the formal student learning process. The bells are similar in ringtone but aimed at different practices. In recent times I note that the echoes of the stock exchange bell are beginning to influence how we look at success in our schools. The economic language of the stock exchange bell is beginning to seep into our everyday language when considering how schools are progressing with their work. Words such as value for money, data driven analysis, outputs, business plans, and viability, may sit naturally on the stock exchange floor where one is measuring economic and financial activity.

However, in a school where one is working with children, these aforementioned business terms often ignore the importance of factoring in the developmental stages of the child. In the world of neo-liberalism, where everything is consumable and quantifiable, it is easy to look at schools in simple measurement terms. When the performance of the school is measured in a similar manner to that of the DOW, FTSE or NIKKEI, it is time to look at how a society can allow and encourage the language and vocabulary of marketisation of schooling to take place: time to say no to the echoes of the stock exchange becoming the language measuring schools.

The school and the economy have two entirely different sets of values. For a school, the values of inclusiveness, community, working with the disadvantaged and weak, are at the heart of all formal and informal student activities. I cannot see the world of business embracing all of these school values, but I can clearly see  how the values of profit, value for money, individualism, data, and privatisation, sit very comfortably on the stock exchange floor.

The difficulty arises where one set of values is perceived as weak, as not contributing directly to short term economic growth.  More importantly, the difficulty becomes more pronounced when one set of values is perceived as better that the other. Yet, that is how school values are perceived by the neo liberal agenda. Unless they measure up to the standards set in a privatised medium they are perceived as holding little economic value for the State.  The value for money barcode has to ‘beep’ before a project can be sanctioned for schools. But, the barcode ‘beep’ belongs elsewhere amid a different set of values.

So the next time the bell rings in the staff room ask yourself what are the values that you as a teacher stand for? What are the values of your school? What are the values which aid and support your students? What are the dominant values that try to quantify and measure all school activities? These are important questions for any school and society to ask about its education system.

Yes, we must provide an education service where there is transparency and value for money, but in every value for money service there has to be values that are core: schools need to identify their core values and not lose sight of them. School values need to create their own barcode which ‘beep’ for student inclusion, motivation, identity, and learning. The school bell needs to beep a little louder about its core values in order to be heard in society: the school bell needs to ring on the stock exchange floor.

Paul Fields is Director of Kilkenny Education Centre

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