Factors that drive schools

Sushama Yermal

Schools as formal centres of learning for youngsters have established typical form and function in the last couple of centuries. They have developed distinctly identifiable qualities across nationalities. School, today, is a place where learners grouped by either age or level of learning regularly meet teachers who are responsible for facilitating their progress in chosen areas of study to accomplish understanding and mastery up to a predetermined stage within a limited duration. This setup has grown into a vast enterprise taking on many shapes and sizes, providing sufficient variety, allowing one to look for common themes and core characteristics from multiple angles. This article delves into three major types of forces that drive schools to operate and prosper.

Schools require several components of the educational machinery to smoothly work together in order to efficiently carry out their routine activities and achieve optimum results. These include the physical (and/or virtual/online) space, appropriate facilities and personnel to provide the right kinds of learning experiences, skilled and enthusiastic teachers, a strong vision of long-term outcomes, mutually enriching interactions with many other societal enterprises and so on. Each of these components require constant investment in terms of monetary as well as moral support from a number of quarters, as described below.

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  1. Societal expectations
    Human society is collectively responsible for nurturing and preparing the future generation/s of citizens. Various divisions of the societal structure see this task from diverse perspectives. While the end goal remains the same, their approach to education of children and their expectations from schools differ in interesting ways. These viewpoints significantly determine how schools are run on a day-to-day basis as well as in the long term.

Parents/Guardians: As primary custodians of the school going students, parents or guardians are focused on what children need to know, how to make them learn the same quickly and become independent, responsible, productive, and contented adults. They take into consideration the infrastructure, academic ambience, amenities, and convenience of travel, reputation of the school management as well as the teachers, and the future prospects of students enrolled, to name a few of the main concerns. When they can choose between different types of schools, it is safe to say that they vote with their feet and fees!

Governments: National as well as local governments are concerned with what content and form of learning is beneficial for a stable, peaceful and progressive future society, how to structure the system of education to cater to the whole populace (democratically in most cases!), how to regulate the funding and monitor the diverse ideologies equitably, how to integrate schools into related domains of the social fabric such as providing basic amenities, creation and distribution of wealth, appropriate utilization of human resources, etc. From these concerns arise the frameworks of educational policy, curricular outlines, pedagogical guidelines, ways to assess and augment learning, etc. An elaborate network of officials in the form of the department of education and a dedicated annual budget earmarked for the educational endeavours signify the importance with which governments consider the system of education. As an example, in India efforts by successive governments, irrespective of their political leanings, have ensured that primary schools are established within a kilometre from some of the remotest human settlements. (RTE, 2009)1

A fruitful amalgamation of intentions of parents as well as the government can be seen in the recent success of the Finnish system of education. Quoting from a document released by the World Bank in 2006,2 “In terms of education policy, the change in direction of the Agrarian Party (now the Centre Party) in the 1960s was just as important as the rise of the left. The youth wing concluded that the party could no longer survive with only the support of rural constituents, and saw educational policies becoming a major instrument in regional politics. The left-wing parties had traditionally emphasized the importance of social and economic equality. The Agrarian Party now injected the demand for regional equality into the political debate. A united front of workers and peasants began gaining momentum. Among its major goals: restructuring the education system. In 1966, the majority government, forged from a coalition of the Social Democrats, the Agrarian Party, and the Finnish People’s Democratic Party, incorporated comprehensive school reform in its political agenda (…) The influence of restructuring and reform was profound and immediate. Eager to improve their children’s economic and social opportunities, Finnish families turned to the education system. In 1955-56, the nation’s grammar schools enrolled approximately 34,000 pupils. Five years later, enrolment had swelled to 215,000 and continued to soar, hitting 270,000 in 1965 and 324,000 in 1970. Finland’s old system could barely hold together as parents demanded an improved and more comprehensive basic education for their children in the hope of securing them better lives.” Policy reforms and parental choices thus spearheaded a massive transformation of the system of education, resulting in internationally acclaimed improvement in the schooling of the youth. It may be delusional to anticipate the same factors to drive schools in a country like India with a much larger and heterogenous population, but some key elements may be of use at different levels of governmental structure.

Founders of schools: While government schools form majority of the education system, at smaller scales, many kinds of non-government agencies including religious bodies have successfully established and maintained schools for basic education. In such cases, ideologies and attitudes of the founder’s drive, or at least affect, the manner in which their schools function. For example, some faiths limit schooling by leaving out a few areas of knowledge or by practicing gender-based discrimination; some others may emphasize strict regulations on who are hired as teachers. When the funding for running the schools is also provided by the said founders, their schools are driven by principles and targets that may be different from the mainstream schools.

Employers in various career paths: One of the fundamental goals of education is to prepare the youth to join the work force and earn their living in gainful employment. Students that successfully complete school education and/or gain degrees of higher education are highly sought after as employees in all walks of adult life. The pressures from the job market on schools and colleges are apparent in the evident preference for certain professions over others in society. The orientation of learners along with the rest of the system is shaped by areas of learning that can bring more benefits in the long run.

Some employers get actively involved in driving the schools by providing lucrative incentives, collaborations, and opportunities to students and schools on whom they can set hopes of retrieving readily employable individuals at the required numbers.

  1. Aspirations of the actors
    Within each individual school, three sets of human actors are involved in deciding what drives the school.

Teachers: Education in the traditional sense takes place when learners are facilitated by skilled experts in content and pedagogy of a given field of study. The facilitators are usually specially trained teachers who maintain contact with a given set of students for the required duration of learning. Their quality of engagement and professionalism make a huge difference in how well schools run and what factors drive them, since the latter can mostly be determined by interests and personalities of groups of individuals on the ground. It usually works in everyone’s favour when teachers have independence and get required support.

As professionals, teachers wish to improve their expertise in practice, and this aspiration in turn fuels their growth in a multitude of directions. Some of these are necessarily influenced by and in turn become critical for which factors drive their schools to what extent. Along with school leaders, teachers are also pivotal points interfacing with many societal factors like parents, curricula, and educational policies.

In special cases like single-teacher schools, the entire set-up comes to a standstill if the teacher is absent. A recent state of the education report for India by UNESCO documents the importance of the presence of teachers in Indian schools (No teacher no class, 2021).3

Learners: Most systems of education are striving towards achieving learner-centered pedagogy. As they are the focus of the entire endeavour of schooling, what is possible for learners to do and what goals they are set to reach make all the difference in the direction and momentum that drives schools. Youngsters are often unaware of hurdles that grown-ups perceive, allowing them to press ahead and progress in novel ways in either constant or changing environments, sometimes resulting in new and better paths and results. They also have a high majority in numbers compared to any other human factor in the schooling system, hence it surely makes much sense that schools are driven keeping in mind the benefits learners can gain.

Officials: School leaders, teacher educators, and bureaucrats of the departments of education are key links between societal factors and the actual running of schools. An efficient and motivated school leader is often the major factor in how well a school functions and grows. They are also the main contact points for parents, management, funding agencies and the school’s immediate neighbourhood. By default, they are required to take any blame or credit for everything regarding the school be it the status of infrastructure or student performance. As decisions of school leaders are influenced by many factors and in turn affect all aspects of their school, the role of the head teacher or principal can never be undermined. Hence it is necessary to select and train the right kind of individuals for this responsible position. When the society at large appraises schools only by examination scores of students, all other tracks of school improvement envisioned by the leaders unfortunately take a back seat.

  1. Global circumstances
    Most of the foregoing discussion pertains to times of peace. In widespread tumultuous situations many of the above forces are unable to operate as they normally do; as a result, schools tend to be affected in varied ways.

In areas hit by natural disasters, safe relocation of people and damage control take priority over educational concerns. In and around war zones, needs of the military demand sacrifice of many of the ordinary civic affairs, including requirement for training decreasing age groups of youth as soldiers instead of being students in regular schools. As witnessed presently, acute health issues like the pandemic can bring every human activity to a standstill. Large scale revolutions disrupt the social fabric as we know it and leave their mark on many aspects of how we live, including how schools are driven.

All of the above major factors exert significant influences on the educational enterprise as a whole, with a subset of these factors affecting the overall daily operation of a given school at a given time to varying degrees. How good the management and teachers are, how many parents and students opt to choose the school, what curricula and founding principles the schools follow, how much funding is available and what amount of fees is collected, what are the board exam results and placement credentials in recent years are but a few considerations that determine how well a school runs and what factors drive it forward.


  1. The Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education (RTE) Act, GOI, 2009
  2. Policy Development and Reform Principles of Basic and Secondary Education in Finland since 1968, The World Bank, 2006
  3. “No Teacher, No Class” State of the Education Report for India, UNESCO New Delhi Cluster Office, 2021

The author has been a researcher in biology and an educator. She taught at the undergraduate programme of IISc too. She is now freelancing as an independent advisor to academic institutes and teaching faculty. She can be reached at ysushama@gmail.com.

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