Is school classification worth all that fuss?

By Oladele Akogun, EDOREN Country Director

In their obsessive search for patterns, researchers continue to commit a disproportionately large amount of an already abysmally scarce resource of human effort, time, and money to an exercise with little value.

During the recently concluded UKFIET conference on education, I was dumbfounded by the proportion of presentation time and intellectual as well as emotional energy devoted to the argument about how schools were classified, are being classified, or should be classified. I will admit to my feeling of guilt that I am no different, by participating in this debate and writing this article. Compared with the amount of resources committed to education interventions, research designers that invest so much in this exercise need to re-think the balance of costs and benefits. In my view, such debates are at best a worthwhile pastime on an evening out with a bunch of tired researchers.

I listened, feeling rising unease as presenter after presenter laboured ever so much to classify (not merely describe) how schools were either private or public, for profit or not not-for-profit, fee-paying or not non-fee-paying, faith-based or not secular and so on and so on.

I could not resist the temptation, out of sheer boredom, of placing some of the schools I know in those research design boxes. It was a nightmare.

Take, for example, my old school, built in 1957 by a combined effort of a community with a budding Christian population (with a more than whispering voice of other beliefs), and an agnostic young British man in his mid-twenties in search for adventure in the colonies. The idea of the school, its design and initial effort at getting it to take off with its first fifteen students were all Mr. Guy Gaguillo’s. The community donated the land, and the first block of classrooms were those of the community elites who had gone overseas, excited then, to have the first school in the area. The government of the old Western State deployed teachers to the school, paid their salaries; students contributed to the building of staff housing and, over time, additional classrooms, and they also invested a great deal of their extra-curricular time for raising poultry, pigs, and rabbits, planting crops, and building a fish pond. Those activities subsidised the cost of boarding and fees that parents paid for a very rich curriculum that contained lessons in music, and even classical languages (Greek, Latin and later French). The school received donations of books from UNESCO and some schools in Wales, and milk and wheat from Canada, as a result of the Principal’s effort to supplement nutrition. The literary and debating society in which I was an active member had a pen-friend association with some Chinese schools that sent us Chinese literature, and we received an old piano, an oboe, and a violin from a club in Ireland with which we started the school choir. The choir won a BBC competition, which provided us with funds to purchase flutes, expand the library and obtain a tractor. The school van was donated, the mosque and the Anglican Church opened their doors to the pupils, and we were free to use their facilities at will for concerts and other events before a school hall was built. In reciprocity, the school considered its facilities to belong to the community. The tractor was provided at very low cost, so students cleaned the gutters and lifted the sand for building the village post office; school grounds were available for large community gatherings at no fee. Nowadays there is a school van (a pick-up Peugeot 404 vehicle used as the Principal’s car, as well as by students during events. The principal, I am told, buys the fuel from his salary but the vehicle was a donation by a community member. Every year he travels home on leave and the school contributes to his travel expenses. I am holding back the card that has the school name until I find the appropriate box (private, for-profit, secular, etc.) for the school.

In my view it is futile to attempt to classify schools, and much more useful to describe the schools’ stakeholder community, the interest groups it serves, the management, and how its burden is shared by students, the community, local administration, and others as indeed there is no single box into which to drop any school name, except a hypothetical school with no links to the real-world education system.

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