Poverty isn’t the reason, school management is

A leading educator in the country, together with prominent friends, visited schools in the barrios in order to see for themselves which schools to provide with financial and educational assistance (in the form of putting up a model preschool packaged with teacher training and instructional materials). Visiting one school where the buildings and facilities were so worn down, the prominent and wealthy friends were instantly touched by the condition and shed copious tears. But the educator, also active in the development community, saw the situation differently. When the friends toured the campus, the educator took the principal aside and told her, “look, until I see improvements in your school I won’t recommend you as a recipient. If you’re expecting that I’m moved by the state of your school, I’m not”. The principal promised to do some improvements.

Poverty, the educator said, isn’t a valid reason for why schools are poor looking, school management is.

This is my philosophy too.

In my decade or so in development work, I’ve lost count of the schools I’ve been to. True, there are many whose state brought tears and gave me sleepless nights. And many a donor have been hijacked by the sight into committing funds on the spot.

On stepping into a school, I could tell two things, whether or not: the school manager and/or its board (the Local School Board) have been doing their job well; there is real concern for the school children. To me, a poor looking school, whose ceilings are coming down, the paint’s peeling off, or walls are exposed and termite ridden, means the school principal, the LSB included, has been quite the lazy and inept school manager.

I’ve grown tired listening to school principals telling me that they lack the funds for school improvement. Some said they can’t squeeze out much money from families in school-community-organized fiestas and similar activities. Hello? These families can’t even put a decent meal on the table thrice a day for their children! Whenever I come up against such arguments, I do a steam-releasing visual: I imagine I’m their Supervisor giving them each a big fat red egg in their annual performance evaluation.

There are so numerous non-traditional ways in which a school could transcend the lack of funds and the poverty of its enrollees. Rare are the school principals of public schools who make the initiative to communicate (i.e. writing, visiting, networking) with funders, local, national, or international. Library books, for instance, could be sourced from many agencies and universities, here and abroad, free to developing countries. They just have to actively seek out these funders. Of course, there’d be funders that will turn down the request but the important thing is, school principals do not stop trying. Apart from financial grants, there are non-monetary resources out there available to schools and teachers. But again school principals need to seek these out. However the norm is they’d do nothing and let the school years roll by until the school building collapses on the children.

Managers of businesses do not sit around complaining there’s no money to fund their operations. They roll up their sleeves and go out in the world. The mathematics’ simple: sit around do nothing and tomorrow you’re so out of business. And, business people don’t bring in their potential investors when their offices are in disorder. If nothing else, image is what they sell. Disorder is an investment turn-off.

It just shows, despite the rhetoric of School Based Management, public school principals are not ready to assume their role as managers. Apparently school principals are unaware of even the basics in management. They think that by keeping the school poor, funds will come in. Well yes they’ve been coming in – NGOs are partly to blame in propagating the vicious cycle – but this approach has taught school principals to be dependent and passive instead of independent and active; to be mundane instead of strategic; to have things done to them instead of making things happen.

What about the role of the school principal as instructional manager, you’d ask. Instructional management is a full load. If I were a principal, I’d delegate or pass on the full authority to my assistant principal or my master teacher while I focus on being a strategic manager. Bringing in money for continued operation is already a bloody task.

Poverty is not an excuse. In fact, it’s not even a valid excuse, in management. Management is supposed to give you a strategy to overcome poverty.

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