The consequence of making schools compete with each other is that marketing has become a major school activity upon which the school’s funding depends. Because schools need a minimum enrolment in order get enough funding to operate their survival is sometimes at stake. Principals are diverting their time from efforts to deliver educational quality to managing budgets and marketing. They have now become managers seeking competitive advantage rather than professionals seeking quality, equity and non-economic value.
In particular, the competition for students has tended to mean that schools become concerned with image management because many parents make their choice on the basis of “superficial indicators of schooling” and outward appearances “rather than on any knowledge or understanding of the processes and practices which lie behind them”.
Around the world, newly marketised schools go out of their way to create a good impression on visitors to the school in terms of architecture, interior layout and design, displays, publicity, open days and nights, and public performances. Appearances become all important.
School reception areas have been refurbished, whilst educational costs are slashed, to give the impression of a well-run, affluent business. While the cost of such marketing efforts may be justified in each school by the extra income each new student brings to the school, the total marketing bill across the school system (millions each year) is money that schools don’t have for teachers and textbooks.
Schools now depend on direct advertising to attract students, a form of communication considerably at odds with education. Apart from newspaper and radio advertisements, they “mount billboards in school grounds, sometimes supported by sponsors”. School prospectuses are now glossy, professionally-produced marketing brochures, short on information and long on advertising language with colourful evocative photos aimed at attracting rather than informing.
Advertisements focus on presenting an image of the school that usually involves depictions of attractive, happy, neatly uniformed children and focus on sporting, testing and other successes.
Because parents often value traditional educational values, such as discipline, schools tend to aim for formal teacher-student relations, neat docile and compliant students, and an academic focus. They go to great lengths to ensure that school grounds are litter free; that parent events are stage-managed and well-rehearsed; and that students are clean, tidy and well-behaved. Uniforms are especially favoured as an indicator of a well-disciplined school.
But none of this tells the parents anything about the quality of education and how well the teachers engage the students and facilitate their learning. In fact, catering to parental prejudices about the need for control and discipline can interfere with the formation of closer relationships between teachers and students as well as the use of more progressive teaching methods.
Image driven schools often take short cuts to solve problems that normally take time to rectify. For example, undesirable behaviour is dealt with quickly by expelling the students involved. Expulsions send a message to other parents that the school is tough on discipline. Expulsions can also “help to enhance a school’s league table position by removing from its roll children who are persistently late, absent or who might perform poorly in exams and not continue into further education.”
When the school does not have adequate grounds to expel a student it can pressure parents to remove the child with tactics such as the threat of forced expulsion and the associated social stigma. School exclusion rates have been increasing in the UK over the last decade, particularly amongst lower income children.
Rather than producing diversity and innovation, competition has led to homogeneity and conformity as schools avoid the risks associated with innovation. When schools are trying to maximise their enrolments, given that their markets are to some extent geographically limited, it does not make sense to “seek out niche markets”. Schools also seek to emulate the most popular schools, particularly more affluent schools and even private schools.
Geoff Whitty, Director of the Institute of Education at the University of London, concluded in 2002 that educational reforms had not led to substantially better use of resources or more school diversity (apart from government-funded specialisms) and the evidence with respect to improved learning outcomes was even more difficult to come by.
Similarly Cathy Wylie found, in an international literature review, that competition between public schools led to more attention being paid to school image and physical presentation rather than changes in teaching, apart from the introduction of more computers into classrooms. Most teachers and principals did not see any benefits to student learning from school choice.
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