Jan 18, 2021

Private education and students' life-time value: how the pandemic helps educational institutions rethink their business

The Coronavirus pandemic has caused massive changes in many industries and government services all around the world in 2020, but not many areas have been as keenly observed as that of education. Amid school closures and reopenings, a move to remote learning and a general environment of anxiety, stress and fear in many families, commentators have feared that children, especially younger ones, have suffered an academic decline that will be hard to recover from.

 While remote education and government schools have garnered much of the attention, the smaller private (or independent) education sector has also been undergoing some large changes. Amid a pandemic-related economic downturn, some smaller private schools have been forced to close due to the inability of some parents to pay school fees. Other private schools stayed on-campus amid a government sector shutdown and were rewarded with increasing enrolments. There has also been a general consensus that private institutions have been able to respond to online learning requirements more easily simply due to greater resources.

In light of everything that has occurred in the education sphere in 2020, there are more questions than ever that are being asked about what students need in 2021, and how to make sure teaching gives students the ability to thrive in a rapidly changing modern society. With a private education focus, we will be looking at current discussions around what modern learning should encompass, and what aspects of education schools will be paying attention to in the upcoming year.

What should education look like in the 21st century?

Surprisingly, this has become an increasingly complex question since the turn of the millenium. Schools have always been about ensuring a generation of children will be able to function in and contribute to society. However, a consensus about what is essential has become more contentious and often political. 

“Back to basics” — In the last 15 years, native English speaking countries have been either stagnating or declining in the rankings of large international tests such as PISA (which tests reading, mathematics and science literacy). As Asian countries have been climbing these rankings, many have said that we should be following their example and spending more time focusing on the “core” subjects. This has translated into policy, as Australia’s federal education minister has signalled a “back to basics” approach, whereby students spend more class time solely focused on reading, writing and mathematics.
While there have been some supporters of this move, detractors have said that basing educational policy around tests that assess narrow criteria will not result in school time being used effectively. This preoccupation with achieving better results has been criticized by teaching unions, who say it results in “teaching to the test”, which puts teachers under undue pressure and leads to only superficial understanding for students. There may be more important things such as critical thinking and emotional intelligence, that can’t be readily measured in a testing situation.

Greater social emphasis — As stated above, most people see education as a way to prepare children to be productive and active members of society, and this is done by fostering an atmosphere of respect and responsibility. While many of the lessons were (and still are) implicit, such as don’t steal, share with others and respect other people’s boundaries, there are now expectations that schools deal with wider ranging topics. What these topics are, and how much class time is spent on them, is often heavily politicized and becoming increasingly difficult to navigate.

  • New Zealand recently introduced climate change into their national curriculum. Discussions about whether eating less meat would help the planet drew consternation from the nation’s farmers and conservatives. 
  • With the ‘nuclear family’ on the decline, many schools have started to teach their students about the different types of families that there can be. Lessons challenging homophobia and acknowledging “non-traditional” relationships were cancelled in Birmingham, England, after protests by Muslim parents
  • Globalization and education are becoming more intertwined, which is why teaching students how to understand and respect others from around the world is more important than ever. Anti-racism and multicultural initiatives have been championed, especially in schools with students from a range of backgrounds. However, there has been pushback from conservative groups and news outlets.

Digital versus non-digitalDigitalization in education is the natural response to a world where we are now dependent on IT systems in almost every sphere of our lives. Very few would disagree with teaching children how to use technology, but the extent to which technical solutions pervade the education system has been the cause of many debates. Digital textbooks, fluid desk spaces, tablets for each student - while there can be benefits when educational technology is used properly, some fear that digitalization in the education sector is being rushed, meaning skills such as handwriting and the ability to communicate without screens are being neglected in the classroom. 

Amidst all this uncertainty, change and debate, schools aim to strike a balance between adhering to all the curriculum, social and reporting obligations, while also serving the diverse needs of their particular communities. Schools will always have a spark of individuality due to the language and cultural background of students, socio-economic status of the community and physical environment surrounding the school. 

Due to their independent status, private schools are better suited to navigating some of the difficulties that education institutions grapple with, as we’ll find out in the next section.

Where do private schools sit in all of this?

Private school advocates often talk about choice and flexibility in schooling, and of course this can be a good thing. While government schools are often restricted in what they can do by stiffer regulations, private schools run under a different charter and therefore have more leeway when experimenting with, or implementing new ideas and pedagogies. They are also less beholden to making potentially radical and destabilizing changes that are mandated by the government of the day.

Private institutions are more easily able to pursue educational avenues adjacent to the mainstream school of thought, which gives parents the power to send their children to a school that they think will allow them to flourish and better serve their community in the future. 

Parents select private schools for different reasons. Sometimes it is because they believe they have the best facilities, and other times it is because of a unique teaching style (including behaviour management) that is offered. There may be a separate curriculum or extra programs that a school provides, such as specialized school music sessions, language programs, or diplomas such as the International Baccalaureate. For parents wanting their children to be brought up in a religious environment, faith-based private schools are a major drawcard. 

Due to the fees they charge, private schools are often able to provide smaller class sizes, greater individual attention and extra tutors, which for parents of some disabled children can be a lifesaver.

As we can see, in the middle of all the confusion that occured in 2020 and the continuing fragmentation of education orthodoxy, private schools have greater flexibility to forge their own path, responding to the needs of the student cohort and their families. During the early stages of the pandemic, there were some private schools which remained open, while others adopted remote learning very early on, often with the best technology and right conditions to make it a success. As digital solutions look set to play an equally large role in the coming year, private schools will be well placed to meet expectations and challenges.

Education in 2021 - what trends will feature?

Taking into account the turbulence of 2020, there will need to be greater work done by schools to help students settle in and establish satisfactory learning routines, regardless of whether they are on campus, learning remotely, or adopting a hybrid approach. Here are some of the key areas that schools are looking to work on in the coming year. 

Social and emotional teaching practices

If you have a conversation with a teacher, they will inevitably talk about the fact that they are no longer just tasked with building knowledge, but also with developing the emotional and social capacities of students (hence the rise in education touching on anti-racism, recognition of diverse families and so on). 

One of the key focuses will surely be resilience. Especially for younger children, rapidly changing situations can be destabilizing and cause anxiety. Teachers will no doubt be providing strategies and instructing students in ways that they can best navigate their pandemic education. For older students, these lessons are equally important as they may have been shouldering the worries of siblings and maybe even parents that lost jobs or had to care for sick relatives.

Greater involvement of parents

Parent involvement has always been seen as one of the markers of student success, however, in the midst of a global pandemic it has become more apparent than ever. As lockdown came and many students were sent home, parents who may never have been involved in their childrens’ education were forced to pick up the slack. Others who were already invested in their child’s learning process got an even more in-depth look at what lessons the teacher was providing. In 2021, schools will most likely try to continue this parental involvement, even if students go back to school full-time. A group called Springboard Collaborative in the USA shows that schools working with parents pays dividends

Greater digital competency

As discussed above, the era of education digitalization is upon us, and it is the responsibility of schools to prepare students for a world of work and leisure that will heavily rely on technological solutions. Well resourced private schools were already experimenting with SaaS (Software as a Service) in classrooms long before the move to home learning. This SaaS education, when used with proper instruction and guidance, can be extremely effective.

For the teacher it can provide benefits such as:

  • Attendance tracking
  • Lesson plans and resources
  • Easy sharing of multimedia content
  • Assessment and reporting tools
  • Storage of student documentation
  • Chat function

Students can take advantage of the following:

  • Comprehensive planner
  • Collaboration tools
  • Easy creation of different types of work
  • Space to chat one-on-one with the teacher

As you can see, almost all aspects of teaching and learning are encompassed, meaning that features of a thriving physical classroom environment can be replicated in almost any setting. While some may fear teachers are being fazed out or traditional classrooms are becoming redundant, this is not the case. While it is not “all eyes on the teacher” anymore, educators still play a crucial role in facilitating learning, keeping students on track and providing emotional support when needed. Furthermore, classes such as music and physical education require human connection that a digital solution can’t yet provide, meaning in 2021 and beyond, a hybrid approach, where teaching is conducted online somedays and in class on other days, is most likely. 

Remote tutors

We mentioned that one major reason why people choose private schools is so they can access courses that they otherwise would not be able to. While there may have been limitations on certain subjects due to the availability of specialized teachers, with SaaS tools, remote tutors can be sourced to provide instruction on subjects such as minority languages or world music. Having a wider range of subjects to choose from is a way private schools can add more value to their students’ education and attract prospective parents. It would be a smart move to consider in 2021.

Final thoughts

All schools have encountered and admirably dealt with challenges over the past year. Learning from home has dragged outdated institutions kicking and screaming into the 21st century, while giving more forward-looking schools the chance to take risks, trialling new methodologies or digital equipment for remote learning. With less restrictions, private schools have a chance to create greater life-time value for students with the ideas we have looked at in this blogpost, regardless of the Coronavirus situation in the year to come.

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