Michael Burt was the Mayor of Asuncion in Paraguay and founder of a successful micro-credit organization. Used to the volatile nature of national politics (he faced down tanks as Mayor), he saw that much of what we call ‘schooling’ simply schooled people to remain in poverty. They went to school but school wasn’t lifting them out of poverty. In fact, the time taken often exacerbates poverty by teaching irrelevant knowledge and failing to sustain itself. As a successful entrepreneur he was determined to create schools that were successful in the sense of being self-sustainable.
School as a business
Strapped for cash with low completion rates and real poverty, Burt wanted a sustainable solution and farm schools where academic subjects were taught alongside vocational skills, such as business, animal husbandry, making cheese, fermenting yoghurt and crop fertilization, was his goal. The school pays for itself by selling its own produce in their roadside shop. They also run a small, rural hotel.
They teach conceptual skills in the classroom, such as finance, marketing, selling and customer service, then apply that knowledge by doing, selling and earning. Learners are cycled through the school’s 15 business units and then specialise, to develop specific skills suited to their needs. It is this mixture of academic and vocational skills that produces the best results and students get two, separate certificated when they graduate. Burt’s simple aim is to get every student into a job or further study. Students graduate with a business plan and access to small loans and many go back to improve their family business or go on to start a business of their own or on to further study.
The idea of self-financing schools as businesses is novel and heartening. Where funding is low and rural poverty endemic, traditional schooling is often disengaged from the local needs and community, hence the student and teacher absenteeism. Burt sees farm schools as a genuine solution to rural poverty, teaching entrepreneurial and business skills. It is easy in the affluent, developed world to be sniffy about education being and end-in-itself, unrelated to employment but for Burt, this is a conceit. The reality of poverty soon puts an end to such idealism. We have much to learn, even in the developed world from his respect for vocational skills
Schooling has been subjected to much debate and discussion but those who have tried to subvert, alter and change schooling have mostly been pushed to the fringes. In practice schooling has become globalized. Sure there are differences, some wear uniforms, others don’t, curriculum differences and so on. But the fundamentals have become universal and homogenized. Schools remain stubbornly resistant to reform and it is sometimes those who reform from necessity, seeing the irrelevance of a one-size-fits-all model for their own culture and needs.
Burt, M. Who owns poverty?
Maak, T. and Stoetter, N., 2012. Social entrepreneurs as responsible leaders:‘Fundación Paraguaya’and the case of Martin Burt. Journal of Business Ethics, 111(3), pp.413-430.
Burt, M. and Hammler, K., 2014. The Poverty Stoplight: Does Personalized Coaching in Microfinance Help Clients Overcome Poverty?. Unpublished internal document. Asunción, Paraguay: Fundación Paraguaya.
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