Institution or organization? Unraveling the structure of school

Simran Luthra

The character of schools in India remained unchanged for many years. It was common for elder siblings to hand down their books, uniforms and even question papers to younger siblings studying in the same school. Parents would try to continue the legacy of association with their own schools by ensuring their children went to the same. A few generations could even boast of having been taught by the same teachers. This was pretty much the reality for the middle classes in India till the early 2000s.

The conversations have changed over the last two decades however. Parents these days are spoilt for choice. There are too many kinds of schools to choose from. And the choices have been on the rise since the economic liberalization of the country in 1991. This is when India opened its doors to foreign investment and moved towards increased privatization. Amidst all of this has emerged a new way of operating for nearly all sectors whether it be telecommunications, banking or even education – the corporate way of being – the hallmark of which is efficiency.

It took a while for the term to gain currency among schools, but sure enough the term ‘corporate school’ has become a part of the lexicon of quite a few. Though the term continues to remain quite obscure and even unknown to many people, it is increasingly gaining currency. What is a ‘corporate school’ exactly, you may be asking at this point. Interestingly, there also seems to be some confusion about what the term exactly refers to. ‘Corporate school’ is actually an umbrella term that could refer to schools opened by existing corporate organizations catering to children of their employees, or run as part of CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) programs. It could even refer to the style of functioning of this vast array of new, private schools, in which case a corporation is set up in order to run the schools.

Usually this latter type of school is not a standalone one, but a group or chain of schools. Not to be confused with international schools, which may or may not identify with the term or run on a full-fledged corporate model, the term ‘corporate school’ is at times also a label that schools are trying to give to themselves in order to gain an affiliation with the positives they perceive the corporate model to have.

Schools are fascinating entities! They are at once social and political spaces that reflect more about society than they may think they do. Schools also have unique identities crafted by those who decide on their vision and mission. Schools may thus choose to identify themselves either as institutions or as organizations. As an institution a school would view itself as an indispensable part of a larger society or community; while as an organization it would look at itself as a systematically organized collection of individuals with a common goal, much more self-contained. While all institutions are organizations first, not all organizations behave like institutions. And while schools may want to be institutions, the increasing pressures that privatization has placed on schools has also led to them ensuring that they remain highly functional spaces (and more often than not profitable spaces as well). A lot that goes on in schools is a matter of planning, monitoring, management and execution and this does not refer to the teaching-learning element. Time-tabling, scheduling of school bus timings, ensuring proper security, getting the facility cleaned, managing the payroll, managing the staff are just a few examples of the kinds of managerial-heavy tasks that running a school involve. Perhaps this is where the corporate model came to be a ready fit for schools.

If one were to explore how this came to happen, and the reason why schools may have gravitated towards this model particularly post liberalization, one reason is that many existing business owners running businesses in other domains (such as real estate, media or other industries) decided to start schools (the fact that schools are not allowed to be run as profit-making entities by law is something we will not engage with for the purpose of this article). There hence took place a transfer of the modus operandi of the most efficient way of doing things known, applied to the school context.

As mentioned earlier, the term began gaining currency as more and more schools began using it with a sense of pride. A ‘corporate’ school meant one which worked like a well-oiled machine, distinct from non-corporate schools that were inefficient and characterized by slow and bureaucratic ways of functioning. Many schools also began to emulate the organizational structure of corporations with the three levels of shareholders, board of directors and operating officers in place. The designation of the COO or Chief Operating Officer is a particularly valuable one, since this is the person who would be in charge of operational and logistical aspects. The setting up of human resource departments in schools, which is now commonplace, is also an inheritance from the corporate style of functioning. The principal, who in traditional schools was regarded as the whole and soul and key decision-maker in schools has also come to become less powerful and usually reports directly to the managing directors and trustees. But whether this is a pro or a con is again a matter of speculation.

To reiterate, a defining trait of the corporate school is its focus on efficiency. There has been a serious and scathing critique of the place of the private in education and rightly so. However, the purpose of this article is not that. It is an exercise in trying to see what is of value or at least potential value in this model of functioning. While one can theorize about this, what would lend greater insight would be to actually speak to those who work in the field and try and understand their perceptions on what they think works in favour of corporate schools.

With this end in view, I reached out to a few teachers and people associated with schools of different kinds to find out what they thought were some positives of corporate schools.

Anindita, who quit her job at a corporate school in Bangalore two years ago and is now working in the field of educational assessments shared that one distinction between traditional and corporate schools is that owing to the fees, the students mostly belong to urban middle or upper middle classes, and most significantly are second or third generation school-goers. This stood out for her since she had also experienced teaching at a church-school and a family-run school in Bareilly for more than a decade before her experience with a corporate school and was aware of how challenging it was to teach first-generation learners.

Pooja, who works as a coordinator in a school that identifies itself as a corporate school in Hyderabad, shared that the infrastructure provided in such schools was one of the key attractions for the parents. Jayashree who runs a school in Mumbai for students from a low-income group community which is non-corporate in nature, emphasized that the infrastructure in such schools is usually state-ofthe-art. Anindita corroborated this, saying that the overall infrastructure in such schools was definitely better than simpler, non-corporate schools, and one major distinguisher was the technology aspect. But, she was quick to add, that this also meant that the expectation from how teachers use technology to drive learning was also higher.

Furthering this thought Vamsee Krishna, the CEO of Yardstick Educational Initiatives shared from his experience of running a programme on experiential learning in schools that it is this category of corporate schools that is most highly motivated in making investments in programmes, whether technology-oriented or otherwise in student learning and learning outcomes. Jayashree explained it thus: “With globalization there is an increasing awareness of the standards of excellence in school education across the world. Achievement of such standards need deeper investments of finance, time, human resource and infrastructure all of which can be easily handled by the corporate team of officials with their specialized trainings.”

Clearly then, corporate schools ensure that they are up-to-date with advances in technology and pedagogy since the impetus is high to have distinguishers that set them apart in the school ‘market’. To quote Jayashree again, it is the “high achievement standards set by corporate schools that are making them the ideal choice for parents and students.”

Anindita also noted that such schools are found especially comfortable by NRI students from a cultural point of view as they have a more globalized feel. The Indian students who attend these schools also belong to the upper classes and “are quite conscious of the amount of fees that is paid and are therefore very conscious of getting customer satisfaction and getting their money’s worth. Things like air-conditioning, good quality furniture, facilities and extra-curriculuar activities are hence taken for granted,” she added. Extra-curricular activities is again an area of focus for corporate schools and range from horse-riding, foreign languages, swimming to robotics, drama, music, dance; in fact a pretty long list of activities to choose from. Most such schools hire teachers specializing in each of these. This again makes parents feel that sending their wards to such schools ensures all-rounded personality development and not a narrow focus on academics.

That is not to say that academics aren’t a focus for corporate schools. In fact, marks and ranks are often approached in typical corporate style and meetings are held with teachers to brainstorm on how teachers plan to ensure better results for students. Teacher identity in the corporate school also undergoes a shift. In Anindita’s words, the teacher is expected to ‘facilitate’ and be a ‘classroom manager’; someone who is responsible for all aspects relating to her classroom and students. Corporate schools also try to ensure the professional development of teachers through a variety of workshops and trainings which again make such schools attractive for teachers. The parent-as-client/teacher-as-service-provider relationship is also one that gets established in the corporate school, with teachers becoming ‘accountable’ for student learning and their own appraisals getting linked to it. Owing to this new formulation of the client – service-provider relationship, there is also greater accountability towards the parents. ‘Customer satisfaction’ is the prime focus for the teachers as well as the management. This is different from traditional schools where a distance is maintained between teachers and parents, with the effect that parents often find themselves alienated and find teachers or school authorities inaccessible.

While this article aimed at examining the pros of corporate schools, there’s a lot to be said and asked about what can be better about them. That however, is the subject of another piece. As of now, given that India has an extremely stratified education system, it is important to examine the pros and cons of each system and ensure that learning takes place between these different categories. An example of this is a recent report that the MHRD has brought out called ‘Implementations in Private Schools – India’ from the Department of School Education and Literacy focusing on ICT in schools and studying how private schools have successfully implemented ICT. Corporate schools also have a strong network among themselves in the form of seminars, conferences, workshops as well as networks of school heads where a lot of best practice sharing and networking take place. This again is something that ideally needs to take place for schools of all categories in India. What is a fact as of now is the increasing corporatization of schools in India, to which greater attention needs to be paid by all stakeholders involved.

The author is based in Pune and is currently pursuing her PhD. in Education from TISS, Mumbai. She has completed her Masters in English from Jadavpur University and Masters in Education (Elementary) from TISS, Mumbai, and taught Hindi at Stanford University, California while on a Fulbright fellowship. She is passionate about language, social studies education, human rights, gender and teacher education in particular. She can be reached at simranluthra@gmail.com.

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