I’m talkin’ ’bout an (industrial) revolution…

So I have read on numerous occasions analysis of contemporary schooling having its roots in the industrial revolution – and more particularly schools being modeled on Fordian philosophies of production. It wasn't really until today that I appreciated the sentiment as I looked out over a sea of Berala primary kids singing the school song. With over one thousand K-6 students, Berala is nothing if not a factory for manufacturing suitably socialised twelve year olds.

Which got me to wondering, if these large institutional schools are modeled on industrial production, why is that so, what are the advantages? And do they still hold true? (The rest of this analysis looks exclusively at those advantages to industrial-style schooling arising out of the comparison with Fordist models – there may well be other advantages to large institutional schooling. Also, I am writing this as a dilettante unqualified to write either about the industrial revolution or school policy – I eagerly welcome any more informed views).

Essentially, it seems that there are two immediate benefits of industrial production – economies of scale and homogeneity of product. Both of these are of significant advantage in terms of the mass production of commodities, but how much relevance do they have to schooling today?

ECONOMIES OF SCALE

Appreciating that the education of our future citizens is an investment, it still makes sense to talk about achieving value for money. Further, taking a government-funded approach to education (rather than a purely privatised free-market approach), we can assume that we will have limited funds and will have to get the most 'bang for our buck'. Given this, let's consider what seem to be the most obvious reasons that large-scale production (like big schools) provides economy.

– Investment in plants

The industrial revolution was about machines – big machines. To print books you needed a press. To smelt ore you needed a… smelty thing. These were big expensive machines (or 'plants'), so you wanted to get the most out of the capital investment in your plant. This means using it to produce as much product as possible – in the case of industry, perhaps running your mill 24/7.

What large investments in 'the machinery of production' does a school require? A campus, certainly – land and buildings are not cheap. Smaller items are less relevant here – chalk boards and chalk are not items that you must make large defined investments in.

– Amortisation of overhead/infrastructure

The other cost that was well managed by industrial models was overhead. On the one hand we have costs like 'production line' labour that can be mapped directly against what they produce. On the other hand there are infrastructure or overhead costs like management, and renting somewhere nice for the Christmas party. Having a larger factory means these types of costs can be distributed across a larger number of workers or products produced.

In a school sense, we see this in the costs 'per student' of having a library, a school counsellor, a bus run and so forth. Such costs are dramatically reduced by having more students to spread these costs across. We should however note that there is a limit here – at some point you require a second bus run, and the benefits of scale flatten out.

HOMOGENEITY OF PRODUCT

Beyond economies of scale, the industrial revolution promised consistent quality of product. As schools produced students that could matriculate through to any number of possible environments, it became increasingly important to assure the homogeneity of the scholastic product. If we all agreed what a high school graduate was able to do, then they could be more smoothly introduced into tertiary education or the workforce.

There are several recent developments that call this thinking into question.

– Greater inter-school communication and standardised testing facilitate homogeneity

The increasing use of shared curricula, standardised testing, and more general communication between schools suggests that regardless of the size of the school we have the ability to ensure a reasonably consistent level of 'output' (and in fact are strongly encouraged to do so).

– We have a greater appreciation of diversity (both culturally and commercially)

As we move to a post-industrial knowledge based workplace we perhaps are no longer in need of as homogeneous a work force. And while we appreciate that children will be growing up in such a diverse world, we equally acknowledge that they often are coming from increasingly diverse cultural backgrounds.

THE CASE FOR SMALLER SCHOOLS

If we no longer need school-factories to produce suitably homogeneous product, and the economies of scale are perhaps less relevant in the modern economy, should we perhaps look at alternative sources for inspiration in designing our schooling? Even if we acknowledge the commercial nature of the enterprise of educating the young, perhaps there are more useful contemporary models to draw on.

How about school systems based on the resurgence of cottage industries? What new perspectives do the just-in-time manufacturing of Benetton, the rapid product cycle of Zara, the hyper-customisation of Nike ID or the wholly outsourced hardware production of XBox provide? What can we learn from the open source movement, or even the recent 'fiscal dip'?

Large institutional schools are an artifact from an era we have left behind. As we move into a brave new post-industrial world, we need to look at innovation not only within the school, but perhaps innovation of the whole shape of the school itself.

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