Ideas for #Progress: What If Our Best Schools Ran Like Businesses?

If you are a Kenyan, you will know that this country has some fantastic schools. National schools like the Alliance School, Moi High School Kabarak, Starehe Boys Centre and Kenya High School are centres of rich history and enviable excellence, producing students who are shoo-ins to any university lecture hall worldwide.

On a very small scale, we have mastered the fundamental art of high-school education. Minuscule scale, I should say. The original cast of eighteen or twenty high schools formerly designated as national schools have served this nation well.

Which makes me wonder: had these twenty schools been businesses… Let’s halt and think about the national demand for admission into these and other top schools. You have at least 70,000 primary school graduates scoring high enough marks to win a slot at these schools, but have to make do with a spot somewhere else.

Right there, the conflict between their desire and their reality makes a lot of them to adjust downwards, and put in less effort than they naturally would have, had they won their bet. These national schools, admitting 200 pupils each, on average, end up picking only 4,000 out of 800,000 candidates. The rest go into high-school believing they are ‘not that good.’

Elitism is good only to a point. With regard to opportunity, the most egregious sin is to miss it because of ‘accommodation’ challenges. And, getting a spot at another place is no guarantee of equal facilitation. Take two pupils of the same age, and who score the same grade: one goes to Alliance High School, and the other to Strathmore School. Both these schools are within the top 1% of Kenya, in terms of quality of educational achievement.

Whereas the two pupils will receive an approximately similar level of preparation from either school, it will not be of the same standard – because of differing school policies and philosophies. One school might emphasize spiritual growth over physical and mental gains, while the other could a better balance of body, mind and spirit. Over time, the difference tells.

It is similar to seeking a service within a bank. The bank will have the same policies (generally) within all its branches. Inasmuch as a competitor bank could be offering a similar, equal cost service, the presentation just isn’t the same. In other words, similarity does not mean equality. Otherwise, both banks would pool up and run one branch on a street and serve all customers of whichever persuasion walking in – being the same service anyway.

Yet, they go for the service experience above the service itself. Going to Strathmore or Alliance is like sending one person to Barclays Bank, while the other goes to Standard Chartered Bank. Yes, most likely each will be served well, and each will come out happy. But their experiences will differ in significant detail.

Now, imagine if that difference was between a successful, first rate school, and a second-tier one, simply because the second-tier student could not win a bed-space at the better school. The experience and four years of difference should yield markedly different outcomes. Because this is education we are considering, those differences could be life-altering.

Which leads me to my question: what if these very successful schools were turned into chartered businesses, and ran as franchises with various school campuses as their branches. Do we grasp the implications on policy, quality and output?

Because these campuses would just be branches of one organization, it is easy to notice that they will operate by the same policies, rules and standards. Doing the same thing most likely will yield the same results – but on a much larger scale. Instead of one Alliance High School, we could have  seven, producing 1400 graduates every year. There is not a quicker way of replicating a culture worth emulation. And being branches, they will innovate based on circumstances, and share best practices. They will compete on a co-operative level and produce much better, cheaper outcomes.

I dare say, the current model of individual schools is not co-operative. The schools compete to transmit the most students to university, hence cannot meaningfully collaborate. One school might have a working idea, but will not share it with others for years, denying other pupils in the school system the benefits of best practice.

However, if they knew this other school – this campus – is just one of their own, then each new idea would be spread as a culture through the whole system. It is easier to spread and reproduce any culture within one organization, than it is to transfer it to another. The new organization with its own culture would simply swallow the cultural ambassador into oblivion.

Thus, by franchising, rather than transfer of teachers or attempted replication outside one system, we can easily have seven new university campuses training seven times more of the best prepared students for the tough courses at university level – and each student would be nearly as good as the first, having been hard-boiled and formed in the same model. We could easily produce 1000 doctors, architects and other high skill professionals  a year, instead of less than 100.

Replicate this business-minded model in our top twenty schools, and you have 140 national schools admitting upto 42,000 students each year to the very best possible tried and tested environments for high school education. Being national schools, they will easily win over the very best teachers in the republic, and will not lack for market-based compensation.

By the way, education need not be subsidized for everybody. Really, not everyone is poor and unable to pay. Blanket subsidies are just an inefficient application of national resources. Schooling can be offered by the market at competitive rates, if admission opportunities are increased enough to lower monopoly power among the top performing schools.

To fill (1200 * 7) slots per top school, prices would easily stabilize. Then public funding can be directed to the vulnerable, needy cases at the bottom of the economic ladder.

Just imagine – what if there were seven regional campuses of Alliance High School, and your child could study at any?

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