May 2017

School budgets - think the unthinkable

Education systems in the western world are very resistant to change. While just about all other sectors of the economy have been transformed through and by the digital revolution, schools carry on pretty much as they did before the advent of the world-wide web. Small things have changed such as administration functions and how they communicate with parents. Access to the web is often expected to enable pupils to do homework, but the fundamentals of how the education budget is spent and how schools operate remain more or less as they have been throughout the 20th century.

If we are going to talk about how schools could change in response to the digital revolution, we had better be clear about what schools are expected to do. They of course are expected to educate children, but they also have another important societal role, that of child-minding so that parents can work. And these days that usually means both parents, and all single parents.

Because of this second role for schools, the existence of school buildings is pretty much non-negotiable until children are of an age to be responsibly left at home without parents being present. In the UK this means children under the age of 12. For children between 12 and 16 it can be debated whether they are mature enough to be home alone, though for the large majority being home alone will be possible. There are also good reasons for society to want teenagers to have a place to go during the day, and for that matter in the evenings. Teenagers are immature and still developing; if not engaged in useful activities they might engage in anti-social activities.

Then we come to the matter of education and here it is far from clear that the current
model of schooling is sensible. As a sector of the economy it provides employment for quite a lot of people but it's productivity can be questioned. Schools are nominally responsible for children in only around 12% of their time. Levels of educational achievement while have risen a little in the past couple of decades are still woefully low for very many children, who emerge from after more than 15 years of schooling poorly equipped to be creative, entrepreneurial, informed and caring members of society. This issue of levels of achievement is considerably a matter of how educational achievement is assessed. Many children are a lot more capable in things they were not taught at school than in things they were taught. But our education systems can only be judged on whether they achieve what they set out to achieve. Though whether this is what they should set out to achieve is a valid question.

The reason that the time is now right to question all this is because most children in the western world are now digitally connected. They live in digitally connected families in media-rich homes. It is possible to learn almost anything factual or practical from the internet. And a substantial part of most people's interactions with others now happen online. If we invented an education system from scratch in our connected world I do not feel we would run schools as we now do. And there are some schools showing us the way. They are taking different approaches because they feel it is right and very often despite many problems put their way by education authorities and despite receiving little official credit for what they are doing - but a lot of credit from their pupils and parents.

When companies change in response to the digital revolution they have to think through how best to use the resources that they have to do their business more effectively. The resources that all organisations have are money and people. How should you spend the money and how should you use the people to achieve what you are measured by - sales for commercial organisations and learning for schools. The priority order of decisions surely goes something like this:

1) Building occupancy. We have to have enough spaces for all children not being looked after by their parents to be safely and productively housed and occupied. The school building estate cannot be changed overnight and we can only change it slowly. So this call on the budget is determined by the numbers of young people and the requirement for parents to work, which is a function of the economic position of families and national employment needs and priorities. But note that we are talking of building occupancy. For pupils over the age of 12 there could be considerably flexibility in the timing of when they might occupy space in schools.

2) Custodial supervision. The numbers of people that it is possible to house safely in buildings depends only on their maturity and the nature of the buildings. At a major sports event or a pop festival the ratio of safety-critical staff to people present will likely be of the order of 200:1 or maybe more. To house 2yr olds in a nursery needs a ratio of 4:1. This illustrates a critical point about how current education budgets are spent. The majority of the budget is spent on staffing and older pupils are funded at a much higher level than nursery and primary pupils. As this is obviously not justified from custodial needs, we must ask whether it is justified in other ways.

3) Educators.