Understanding corporate schools

Ankita Rajasekharan

There’s no doubt that school education has become big business with a variety of corporate actors also running schools. Some of these stem from a clearly articulated philosophy while others use the language of modern education to build their brand. How do these “corporate schools”, differ from the conventional “private school” that is run by an educational trust with no other activities? How does the corporate governance structure impinge on the school’s educational conceptualization, planning and execution? These are big questions, and do not have a single easy answer. In this conversation with Asiya Shervani, Education Consultant, we explore a few of these questions and attempt to forge a tentative understanding.

TP: Let’s start by defining some of the big terms we will be using through our conversation – education, schooling and what we mean by corporate schooling.
AS: Education, I am looking at it as K-12 education for children who are in schools, we are not talking about home schooling and informal education. The boundary between private and corporate schools is sometimes blurred and shaky. When I was young, this idea of a corporate school wasn’t there. I went to a private modern school in Delhi and it was also a money making establishment in some ways. Although I think the language of defining parents as customers, education as a product and children as a return on investment and teacher as an employee wasn’t there at all.

TP: So, should we say corporate schools are those that are heavily leaning on to the profit making aspect and use a very business model influenced terminology?
AS: Yes, let’s put it that way. One of their top three goals is profit making. The teaching methods may not be influenced by it; in fact, teachers may not even be privy to or entirely aware of this goal.

TP: Let’s talk about what schooling has come to mean today; especially in the light of corporatization of schools.
AS: If we want to take our country forward, education should be an equalizer. We should have a similar offering for everybody and education should be inexpensive so that every child has equal access and opportunity. Unfortunately, that is not a reality. So we have government schools and corporate schools and the richer kids go to the latter. Ideally, schooling should mean that every child becomes a responsible citizen, a complete person who has good values, somebody who can make independent decisions, know right from wrong, to understand morality, love, respect. For every category [however], the goal has become – our child should be able to speak English like the upper-class and should get a good job; our child should do better than us. When people say ‘better than us’ they don’t mean it in terms of having a better quality of thinking or being more progressive as compared to them but in terms of a bigger house, better cars. And that’s what reflects in education.

TP: What do you think are the ways to address these emotional and intellectual needs that are not being met in the school space?
AS: I know I have painted a dismal picture but there are a few rays of hope, both in government and corporate schools. In the government schools, we have volunteers and interns from good NGOs like Teach for India trying to integrate programs on life skills into the curriculum. I am on the board of a lovely organization called Learning Curve Life Skills Foundation and they do wonderful things around identity, respect, empathy, gender and compassion and they work with 30-40 low income private schools in Hyderabad. They work with the students as well as teachers.

We need to treat teachers as professionals; we are so quick in blaming them but look at the training we have given them, what kind of respect have we given them? We clearly need to work on their knowledge, skills and attitude and wherever we have done that in a slightly structured and credible manner, the teachers’ response has been very positive and their learning curve has been very steep. Teachers need consistent opportunities to learn, apply what they learn, analyze the response and adjust their efforts accordingly.

In the more corporatized schools, we experimented with integrating a program on Empathy in the school curriculum. We pushed the boundaries and asked very young children difficult questions and included discussions on healthy relationships and boundaries, assertiveness, consent. As an advisor and freelance consultant in the education space, I am working on multiple and diverse programs and strategies in government, private and corporatized schools across India. Every school wants to be ahead of the others in terms of ‘value add’ or ‘return on investment’ and this is where I try to advise them to implement genuine programs, which make an impact rather than mouthing empty phrases like we teach ‘21st century skills’ or we are a ‘global’ or ‘international’ school. I wish more school managements would realize that if they really want to succeed in the long term, they have to work on foundational aspects and not superficial, half-baked concepts.

TP: What has been the impact or consequence of corporatization on the curriculum that these schools are adapting? The general understanding is that they are moving towards a more global curriculum and moving beyond the traditional subjects. What has your observation and experience been?
AS: The IB or International Baccalaureate curriculum is definitely more progressive and creative and based on sound pedagogical principles. However, the teacher is still the key. Any curriculum in the hands of an underdeveloped instructor will be a disaster. CBSE is a great curriculum too if taught by progressive, creative and effective teachers. The National Curriculum Framework is one of the most inspiring philosophy documents I have ever read.

Having said that, there are some curricula that lend themselves more easily to self-learning, independent thinking and applying the learning. The IB is one of them. Children are encouraged to think independently, be original and push boundaries. In addition to building academic and research skills and preparing students vocationally, the goal of education is to develop civic responsibility, civility and personal talents and interests of individual students. Another reason why I am tilting more towards the international curriculum is that it cannot be tampered with by any ruling political leadership. That ‘international’ curricula move you away from traditional subjects is a myth. The IB curriculum mandates that one language other than English be studied. Parents seem to prefer that their children study French or Spanish, but those subjects could well be Hindi or Tamil or Telugu. My biggest concern with international curricula is firstly that they are not accessible to a vast majority of Indians and secondly that I seriously don’t think teachers in India are trained to handle a curriculum where the role of the teacher is facilitative and enquiry is a teaching methodology.

In my opinion corporatized school education will continue to stay mediocre unless the government school education dramatically improves. Currently, private/corporatized schools thrive because they are cosmetically much better and pedagogy-wise slightly better than government schools. We need to acknowledge the fact that by and large our children are getting a fairly substandard education, whether they are in a government, private or corporate school. A combination of excellent government schools and private schools seems more realistic and effective.

TP: Do you think the teachers in corporate schools have a good deal? Do they get better benefits in terms of finance, professional growth and general job
satisfaction?

AS: Well, the data says otherwise. There is a lot of teacher attrition and most of it happens in their first 3 to 5 years of service. Many people get dejected because of too much change that they have to keep up with. However, I think the facilities, recognition, access to technology, clean bathrooms, etc., make the corporate schools more attractive. Thanks to corporatized schools, the salary for a principal in ‘international’ schools falls anywhere in the range of 30 lakhs to 1 crore per annum!

TP: Do you think corporate schools rely a lot more on advertising their infrastructure and amenities provided as their marketing strategy?
AS: Absolutely! Corporate schools will do only what they feel will get them mileage with the parents. When parents come for school tours prior to admission, they check if the classrooms are air-conditioned and how big the swimming pool is! They were shocked when I, as a prospective parent, asked if I could talk to the teachers, know what their qualifications were, what kind of teacher development programs they have undergone and if I could actually see a classroom in progress or read the essays by their top students. Ultimately we get what we deserve. In this case, unfortunately it’s our children who get what their parents deserve.

Parents seriously need to think about what the word ‘education’ means to them. Corporatized schools view parents as their customers. They will respond to what the parent wants. So the next time we criticize corporatized schools, remember that it’s the parents who crave such schools who deserve the real criticism. The corporate schools are only responding to a consumer demand.

TP: Initially the parent is attracted by the infrastructure of the school. After that, what has their response been to the quality of education in these schools? Do they continue to be happy?
AS: No! They are always disgruntled, sometimes for the right reasons and often for the wrong. They have concerns about the marks of the child’s peers and why their child is not on the top. I wish we could work on this with the parents and maybe organizations like Teacher Plus could also focus on parents and give them some critical exposure. If parents start asking about how to help students build healthy identities as learners and contributors as well as individuals with solid values and character, perhaps this is what schools will focus on. But I don’t think parents want that.

TP: How has the RTE played out in these schools?
AS: Caste and class in deeply embedded in our psyche and is instilled in us when we are very young. We are not ready to address our biases and we exclude and otherize on the basis of caste, class, religion, gender or disability. I have noticed that school leaders, teachers, parents and all key stakeholders get very uncomfortable discussing these realities. You may have read Nazia Erum’s book, Mothering a Muslim in which she talks about Islamophobia in top Delhi schools. Her study is about discrimination in schools, mainly primary school, on the grounds of religious associations whereas the socioeconomic class is somewhat the same.

Implementing RTE requires work. More than work, it requires genuine, bold and uncomfortable discussions. It requires us to admit that we have not got rid of the caste-system. It lives within us and pervades our thought and action and it is passed on to our children in all the subtle and not-so subtle actions we take or words we use. Students from the so-called top schools in Hyderabad tell me that their social groups are often formed on the basis of caste or sub-caste. Obviously individual friendships and shared interests often override such groups, however the point I am trying to make is what we as educators can do to make sure that diversity and difference is not seen as something to be tolerated but rather as something to be cherished and desired. Diversity should be the default mode.

TP: In the light of our discussion and the developments that we observe happening in the area of schooling, what do you think is the projected trajectory of the future of schooling in India?
AS: Sadly, I see it go downhill. The problems are big – dearth of teachers, poor quality low-income private schools mushrooming, even the high-income schools are of fairly poor quality. Government schools are performing extremely poorly. I see chaos and mismanagement. But let’s not leave this discussion on such a dismal note. The positives are that we have fairly good data and research to guide our decisions. We know that the answers lie in helping teachers enact theory in practice and supporting them in dealing with the complexities of teaching by learning to analyze teaching and learning, and by sometimes unlearning and relearning.

It would seem therefore that corporate schools are here to stay; owing to many forces at play – demand from parents, perceived expectations of the employment scenario, infrastructure and amenities overpowering the quality and essence of an education experience. The experience of schooling, for the child, teacher and parent, definitely is impacted by the corporatizing of the school, in positive and adverse ways. But, as in all situations, there does lie potential to use this to the benefit of the stakeholders with improved curriculum, better professional development opportunities for the teacher, exposure to multiple working fields and professionals, etc. Asiya puts it beautifully, stating – “I am so keen that social justice oriented people join even the corporate schools because you can make a difference; you will have to work within boundaries. I have seen this happen. They are a small percentage, but they do remarkable stuff and are more aligned with the international/global curriculum which is project-based, inquiry-based and child-centric. It works wonderfully in the hands of a well-informed and highly motivated teacher”; it certainly does percolate, to a great degree, to the teacher because one cannot deny the influence of the interactions between the teacher and the child, wherein education, within a schooling space, could become a beautiful experience or an alienating one.

The interviewer has been working in the field of education as a teacher for four years. She is currently freelancing and working with children on socio- emotional skill development while indulging in making art, spending time in nature and reading leisurely. She can be reached at [email protected].

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