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Are you Being Served?

Are our schools outdated? Are we moving with the times or would we be compared to an old-fashioned department store?

To paraphrase the title of the very popular, if somewhat risqué and innuendo laden department store-based sit-com of the 1970’s, clearly many people currently are not!
How the fictional Grace Brothers would have fared on the high street today, who knows? However, I guess that if current trends are anything to go by, there’s every chance that along with many other giants of the genre they would probably be struggling!

The principal reason identified for demise of the high street department store appears to be their monolithic lack of responsiveness to changing customer needs, tastes and online habits…

I guess if you think about it, a secondary school has at one level much in common with the department store. Not least because they are almost always organised on a subject department basis! Lots of separate, semi-autonomous subject areas ‘selling’ their own ‘product’ under a single roof – or at least series of roofs – on a single site.

So should we as schools also be more responsive to costumer needs? Are we running the risk, like many of the under siege high street department stores, of becoming an anachronism; a throw-back to a previous age, distant from and disengaged with its key customers?

It’s an interesting question! Particularly because despite what is widely regarded as the ‘marketisation’ of education since the 1980’s, we aren’t completely free to be the entrepreneurial masters of our own fate.

In many respects, schools have been exceptionally ‘agile’ in their response to meeting changing needs. Structurally, many have converted from Local Authority control to Single Academy status or are now positioned within Multi Academy Trusts – in order to give greater autonomy to use resources creatively to support teaching, learning and student achievement.

Paradoxically, however, there’s at the same time a significant disincentive to go further and also break away from the ‘department store’ structure of the curriculum offer, whether it’s offered with the context of a Local Authority School, Single Academy Trust or a MAT. That’s because, of course, young people continue examined, whether at 16 or at 18, almost exclusively on the basis of subject-based knowledge tests, just as they have been for most of the last century, too!

So, whilst I’m delighted my own school is currently one of the ‘John Lewis’’ of the education sector, there’s part of me that yearns to push things even further and move to the thematically-structured, skills and competency based curriculum that would, in my view best prepare young people for the rapidly changing world that awaits them beyond school.
Unfortunately, that would mean that, in the exam room at least, our customers probably wouldn’t currently be best served…

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The author

Derek has been the Headteacher of Park House School since 2003, during which time he has played a leading role in regional, national and international education initiatives. He supported the design of the Values-themed London 2012 Get Set Education programme and was subsequently appointed as the first Chair of the Youth Sport Trust‘s National Headteacher Strategy Group. In 2013 he received the inaugural Sir John Madejski Award for Outstanding Contribution to Education and Sport and contributed to the House of Commons Education Committee’s Report, School Sport following London 2012: No more political football. Ofsted recently stated that, at Park House, a "values driven ambition for students inspired by the Headteacher drives the school’s effective improvement." The school has also just been identified in the top 100 state schools in the country for continuous improvement in GCSE results. Derek was shortlisted for the 2016 TES National Headteacher of the Year Award.

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