Recently, Prime Minister Tony Abbott mooted the idea that Australia could follow the American model of schools partnering with major companies. He had just visited the Pathways in Technology Early College High School in New York, which in partnership with IBM enables students to graduate with a high school diploma and an associate's degree.
The idea of corporate engagement with public schools in Australia is not new. It has been on government agendas and practised by individual schools for some time. But a few cautionary tales from the last 20 years are worth noting.
A 2012 report by the Productivity Commission on the Schools Workforce identified the need to develop strategies to enhance engagement between schools and the business community.
“In particular”, suggested the Commission, “equipping teachers and principals with appropriate skills and giving them the scope and incentive to employ those skills, will go a considerable way to meeting the engagement goals enunciated in the recent report by the Business–School Connections Roundtable”.
Established by Julia Gillard, the Business-School Connections Roundtable included representatives such as the Australian Business and Community Network, IBM, Microsoft, Rio Tinto, Principals Australia and Woolworths.
The Roundtable identified opportunities for business to "contribute to the education reform agenda" as a partner with education at a strategic level by ‘adding value’ to the implementation of the Australian Curriculum, through trade cadetships and trade training centres, work experience, and via new pathways into teaching by ‘adding value’ to Teach for Australia and Teach Next.
Teach Next, a Commonwealth funded program intended to bring the expertise of non-teaching professions into the schoolroom, was notable for attracting more than 500 applicants, but reportedly managing to recruit only 14 new teachers during a two-year period.
At the school level, there are numerous examples of school-business connections. Mitsubishi has sponsored schools in Sydney. In Victoria, Coles Supermarkets ran a promotion in conjunction with Apple in which students who amassed a certain amount in purchases from Coles were eligible for a “free” Macintosh computer.
The National Australia Bank’s Schools First program attempted to recognise school-community partnerships that deliver improved educational outcomes for students. Arguably, the very act of rewarding public schools and teachers (who seldom get national recognition) is a good thing and the level of investment was substantial.
Perhaps the most ambitious initiative has been the $47m-per-year Schools Business Community Partnership Brokers programme – which acts as an intermediary to foster links between schools and business.
An evaluation of the programme by Social Ventures Australia (SVA) identified a range of benefits. Schools could, for example, take advantage of external skills and resources to free up existing school resources. They could also broaden professional networks to provide career opportunities for students.
But some efforts to forge school-business partnerships have led to dubious practices.
During the 1990s McDonald’s restaurants sponsored sports activities in schools across New South Wales.
The restaurant displayed its logos at sports events and schools were encouraged to establish personal relations with local store representatives by inviting them to speech nights and fairs.
Students, school staff and parents were encouraged to eat at certain outlets during “McHappy hours” as 10 per cent of earnings were returned to the school.
Time Magazine reported that a hoax letter was allegedly sent around schools advising principals that all school names would have the prefix “Mc” and teachers would henceforth be referred to as “crew members”.
Other cautionary tales of business involvement in schools include Whittle Communications, which provided resources to US public schools such as TV and satellite dish sets through corporate advertising.
In return, over 90 per cent of the nearly eight million students attending these schools were required to watch a news program each day that included advertising by Snickers and Burger King. Reportedly earning $630,000 a day, this advertising was, by contract, required viewing.
Around the same time during the 1990s, Burger King Academies – quasi-private and fully accredited high schools – operated in at least 14 cities of the US.
Companies, such as Education Alternatives, also ran pubic schools for profit. The corporation’s president observed that “it’s open season on marketing”.
Critics at the time rightly asked: what is more dangerous, the products advertised or the brand of attitude that is espoused?
On the other hand, another benefit of partnerships identified by the SVA evaluation cited above was that partnerships could align school activities with industry needs.
This claim echoes concerns by the International Labour Organisation of a global mismatch between skills and jobs. Education systems are seen to be failing to adequately prepare students for changing job markets.
But the question arises as to whether an emphasis on skills-alignment to industry could risk schools becoming too focused on meeting market demand.
Schooling should be about the development of well-rounded individuals capable of critical thinking, but focusing too much on labour-force readiness might reduce education exclusively to “training”.
There is also a question of whether business strategic plans can be aligned to the long-term goals of schooling. Imagine, for example, if car manufacturers Ford or Mitsubishi had established such a program in South Australia?
Another challenge is to ensure that equity is maintained where there isn’t a market incentive to do so.
That said, there is a wealth of expertise that business can offer schools. In my own research, I have found that students want opportunities for hands-on learning. Businesses can provide these – for both students and teachers.
Whittle Communications has ceased doing business. The final Schools First awards were given last year. And following last month’s budget, funding of the School Business Community Partnership Brokers programme will expire in December.
Business involvement in public schooling is in a nascent stage of development. If the Prime Minister is seriously considering corporate involvement in public schools, he should be mindful of these cautionary tales, and more importantly, of the public purposes of schooling in Australia.
* Associate Professor Lucas Walsh is Associate Dean (Berwick) in The Faculty of Education at Monash University.
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