The Value of Schools

In Lady Windermere’s Fan, Oscar Wilde had Lord Darlington quip that a cynic was ‘a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.’ This quote was used last week in various interviews given by Mariana Mazzucato, a mega-brained economist, whose latest book, ‘The Value of Everything’, has some harsh words for the private sector’s wealth extraction.

Mazzucato is a fierce defender of the state and the public sector in its ability to create value, which ironically often costs very little. She even mentions teachers as a perfect example!

Her words made me punch the air with joy (and a little anger too). Here is somebody saying what I’ve seen time and time again. Schools are remarkably efficient organisations, running under quite incredible stress at times, whereas many celebrated private companies and organisations are are (in my experience) often profligate, wasting money left, right and centre.

Of course, we can talk about austerity and fair funding until the cows come home – everyone knows it’s wrong and inequitable.

I’m more interested in this blog about this concept of ‘value’. In the work we do, I think it’s almost impossible to equate it with price. Let me give you an example.

A boy, arriving at the school a few years ago, was the very definition of violent and troubled. I remember being in a trashed room with him whilst he spat at me and assaulted me. Some of the things he called me were deeply troubling; where had he heard all that stuff?

On Thursday, I watched him as he guided a visiting blind teacher from Sierra Leone, an ebullient chap called Eustace, around the playground, explaining the textures of the various equipment, introducing him to children and staff. This boy is now the polar opposite of that child those years ago. Later that afternoon, I saw him in our orchestra, playing his orchestral instrument, laughing merrily with the member of staff by his side. This boy has changed beyond recognition, thanks to the work of some skilled, dedicated, loving staff.

If (and it’s a big if) he continues this improvement when he leaves us, consider the value to society of the school’s work. According to a Ministry of Justice press release from 2016, it costs £34,619 per year to keep a young offender in prison. One year. Imagine the cost over a lifetime. Then consider the prospect of a pupil going down a different path, being a good dad, a loving husband, a reliable employee. From being a significant cost to society, a pupil can become a value-creator.

This is real ‘value’, a true reflection of the wonderful work of staff up and down the country. It happens when quality people in well-run schools effect improvement, supported by appropriate early investment and intervention.

And yet what are we actually doing? Funding for early years and Children’s Centres has been slashed! I just don’t get it.

Meanwhile, we measure schools on data which means virtually nothing. What do we say to the mother of a 25-year-old who is mentally ill, unable to sustain relationships, unable to hold down a job, and engaging in petty crime? ‘Well, your child’s life was changed because he got 107 standardised score in his Maths test in Y6.’

Materazzo is right in her overarching argument. Value is created when human beings work for the common good of society.

This is not a criticism of capitalism per se. I was out with a friend of mine on Saturday; he has done extremely well for himself out of the mobile phone industry. Yet he has a philanthropic heart, assisting people to get a start in life. He and his company have been largely responsible for the journey of the Sierra Leone teachers and pupils. Whilst they are here, we are training them in how to teach phonics. Imagine the value that could be created if they can teach more children to read in a country which has a literacy rate of 51%? Human beings creating value.

No, the criticism is in the muddled values of both private and public sector organisations in their obsession with targets, data and individual greed. We need a much greater focus on people who work for the common good of their communities.

And that’s when you see the value of everything.

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