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【必达专访·GregParry看国际教育】The Education Dragon in China is Hungry Part II

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Greg Parry’s view of International Education interviewed by BEED Asia

必达亚洲专访: GregParry 看国际教育

The Education Dragon in China is Hungry Part II

In the previous post I spoke about the appetite for international education in China and the unfortunate gap between “international standard” and what is currently being delivered.

So what is the key difference? In this and the following posts I will begin to explore some of them. Lets start with the values and beliefs that reflect “for profit” and “non-profit”.

School management in the for-profit sector can be a tricky business. The business of education is a unique industry torn between different ideologies.

To generalize just a little, academics and business people see the world very differently and the tug of war between an education leader who wants to improve educational outcomes for children verse a business man focused on the bottom line of profit, often answering to shareholders, can be a constant struggle. Some academics and educators find the idea of education for profit as quite distasteful. To pure academics, the idea of education for profit can be seen as “selling out” to the business world. In spite of a common belief, businessman care equally as much about educational outcomes and for them it is the main goal, but just as restaurants, hotels and supermarkets provide important quality services, they must achieve profit or they don’t exist.

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Most international schools in China are managed and operated by companies that began their vision with little education background or experience. It is an exciting opportunity for an investor. Not only are schools highly profitable but to own a school is a prestigious honor. For a school owner, what a great opportunity to leave a legacy and really make a difference! It can bring together passion and profit. A school can be a permanent artifact to represent a lifetime in pursuit of success. For a company or large investment group, the branding connection is also invaluable. Schools are ‘feel good’ entities. Imagery of smiling faces, play, fun and family all fuel an image of wholesomeness. An association between a school and industries such as banking and lifestyle products can be valuable to companies looking for a marketing edge.

Most life time educators have never worked in “for profit” commercial environments of any real significance. Principals begin as teachers and as they prove their skills in the classroom, they are gradually promoted over time into middle and then senior management positions. With limited financial training they “learn on the job” how to manage budgets that can reach many millions of dollars. Some learn on the job while others rely on good CFOs and business managers. In truth, the financial responsibilities of a successful international school principal can match that of some of the highest profile CEOs. In China there are schools with annual revenue in excess of $80 million USD. That is a big leap from classroom teacher to CEO of a company that size!

There are countless stories of Principals in the non-profit education sector who struggle to manage the business aspects of the school. School budgets, facility management, human resources, strategic planning are definitely not core aspects of teacher training. This is why non-profits often have well-established boards with very competent members from a range of industries including the most senior leaders in business. This team supports the Principal and ensures the school is managed well. The strategic and fiscal direction of the school is in the hands of this essential team with broad but carefully selected skills.

Now let me be clear, I believe the finest Principals I know are outstanding leaders both in education as well as strategic management, human resources and other areas. I am however aiming to illustrate the point that academic and businessmen can forge a partnership, if carefully shaped, to ensure success in the for profit sector by utilizing each others strengths.

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I believe it is essential that educators reshape their thinking when working in a for-profit school. When a healthy business model and a healthy education vision work together, in shared goals framed the right way, then it is certainly achievable. The hidden secret in many non-profit, charity schools is the very best of them, in some contexts, make a lot of money. There are non-profit international schools that charge high tuition fees, are without debt and have very healthy financial positions. So what is the difference? They have a team of people working together in a common vision.

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Businessmen also need to be clear about what they are good at and what they are not. I love restaurants and great food, but that does not mean I can run my own restaurant. Everyone has attended a school. They may even be a parent of a child attending a school. That doesn’t mean they can run one though. When a school owner gets too involved in the day-to-day operations of the school it can certainly be a disaster. I can share countless stories first hand of school owners who have stopped classes without warning to introduce a school visitor from the government or a significant news worthy activity. Riding ponies is fun but good grades and acceptance at a good university is more important! Professional educators are very serious about their work and just as we don’t interrupt medical professionals, educators need to be respected to do what they do, without interference.

How to we grapple with this seemingly opposing ideology?

All businesses deliver a product. Be it a restaurant meal, a manufactured car or a service such as education. The ultimate product of a great school is a great student. It is a young person who has achieved good grades but more importantly someone who will make a difference in the world with the skills, values and beliefs that have been shaped by a life of 16-18 years. Of course, schools cannot take all the credit for this. Parents and society play a significant part in shaping this outcome but schools certainly play a pivotal role. When children become successful in life we recognize the schools they attended and a modern day ranking system shines bright light on the achievements of its graduates.

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For profit schools can achieve great educational outcomes. In truth, they will not be successful unless they do. Premium international schools aim to achieve the highest academic grades in their sector and this includes acceptance into top 50 ranked universities. Both the Principal and the owner have the same goals. The challenge however is to merge these two ideologies, or find the common ground so that the paths taken are in symmetry. For me the common ground is to understand that if framed correctly, the product is exactly the same. Great schools maximise the opportunities and achievements for students. This includes grades, but also the essential personal development attributes that holistic education espouses. Parents choose private schools with high tuition fees expecting the very best opportunities for their children.

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At GSE we believe we are unique because we were successful education leaders first. We moved into the business sector with a view that we can bridge this link between academics and business, better than others. We do believe very strongly however that education must come first with faith, and a carefully crafted business plan, that leads to high profit in time. There are no shortcuts when it comes to achieving quality in any business. Like any business model if an eager pursuit of short term profit misguides a bigger vision of long term success there is a high risk of failure.

There needs to be a very clear and honest understanding about the key roles of management within a school. When good educators and good business comes together it can be very successful.

Next week – “Part III – Your Most Valuable Resource?”

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