Education systems reform: ‘It’s about the meal not the menu’

January 13, 2016Colin Bangay

Thanks to a diet of cuisine based TV programmes – even the least epicurean will be aware that while good ingredients are critical – gastronomic success comes through artful combinations, the process through which they are brought together and the sequence in which they are served.  Reading across to education, it was refreshing to be on the panel at the recent launch by Dr. Steve Munby (formerly head of UK’s National College of School Leadership) of a study which was not on a mission to isolate the most powerful educational intervention (a quest fraught with both methodological and statistical challenges) but took the ‘big view’, and through case studies sought to learn from what seems to have worked. This brought into sharp focus the importance of the interplay between four elements of successful system reform, namely; ‘leadership’, ‘ownership’, ‘standards’ and ‘expectations’. 

Interesting Cities, a report by the Education Development Trust (EDT - formerly CfBT) explores urban education reform - focusing on what underpins the success of five cities in converting inputs into rising education outcomes. The report charts the particular achievements of Ho Chi Minh and Vietnam’s impressive PISA performance relative to GDP expenditure; the dramatic rise of inner London education from low performer to national high achiever; a near 50% rise in secondary school graduation in New York. In so doing it identifies seven ‘key  themes’ pertinent to all: (i) effective leadership at all levels; (ii) data driven reform (iii) making teaching a career of choice (iv) accountability with support (iv) new forms of school provision (vi) collaboration between schools (vii) building coalitions of change.

An overarching theme running through the case studies is the inter-twined challenge of building leadership capacity while concurrently decentralising decision making. With decentralisation comes greater accountability at all levels of the system. The theory is compelling – however, effective decentralisation is dependent on culture change and if there ever was a truism of change management ‘culture eats strategy for breakfast’ is it. Changing culture is at the heart of enduring reform.

Nowhere is culture change more important than in the classroom. The EDT’s report identifies strong school leadership as instrumental. Leadership that raises expectations of what teachers and students can achieve; and what parents should expect can be a game changer. Easy to say but hard to do; building accountable autonomy in hierarchical systems where school heads are often recruited on seniority (rather than merit) and there is a belief that progress is delivered via top down directives is fraught with challenges. As Hopkins suggests “… the key to managing system reform is by strategically re-balancing ‘top-down’ and ‘bottom-up’change” – securing a transition from prescription to professionalism and greater school based autonomy.

A reliance on data was a common element in the success of all five cities. Evidence that is reliable, timely and comparable (over time and geography) enabled performance monitoring, targeting of resources, and informed the communication strategies - so important in maintaining finance and political momentum for change.

One powerful aspect of using evidence was explored in the case of London where ‘high performing’ and ‘struggling schools’ were paired up and both improved. This approach – focused on ‘collaboration’ as a means of lessening the gap between the best and worst performing may offer a more powerful driver than the conventional ‘demonstration’ approach, e.g., of the ‘model school’ kind (which too often are akin to exhibiting a ‘Rolls Royce’ and asking for the same to be built from motorbike parts).

A systems approach requires interrogation of the spread of performance across population sets - be they schools, teachers or students. If we believe the challenge is not just equity of access but concurrently equity in learning we must take note of the shape of the performance distribution curve – how big is the tail of under-performance and what are the characteristics of the schools, students or teachers who populate it? A reliance on the ‘average’ or fixation with the ‘topper’ is not going to give us the granularity of data that enables us to raise performance for all while simultaneously reducing the within system performance gap.

There is a sense of a common sequence within the case studies. The emergence of a leadership with both a compelling vision and the ability to persuade others to ‘buy into it’; the raising of expectations and standards and a concomitant approach to building accountability which balances support with rigorous ‘policing’ – ultimately if you want excellence have to deal with the flip side – underperformance. This sequence resonates strongly with a forthcoming multi perspective study on the state wide scale up of Activity Based Learning in Tamil Nadu (of which more in the spring of 2016).

The Political Economy of the Scale up of the ABL Programme in Tamil Nadu. J Bedi and G Kingdon (DFID, forthcoming)

Five cities isn’t a massive sample so what can we learn from the EDT report? Firstly, successful educational reform is not solely about the technical veracity of the ‘what’; for systems reform ‘how / process’ variables are critical. As professor Dylan William notes - ‘In education, “what works?” is not the right question, because everything works somewhere and nothing works everywhere. So what’s interesting, what’s important in education is “under what circumstances does this work?” ’ Five cities identifies seven interacting aspects which influence the evolution of education systems.  It reminds us that successful systems reform is a dynamic - the result of a favourable interaction of combinations: leadership, sequencing, influential champions, building ownership in ‘roll-out’ and institutionalisation of standards. As famous British Education reformer Sir Michael Barber states on delivering sustained educational change: “What makes the key difference isn’t innovation it is routines.”

A ‘systems focus’ does not mean we should reject robust impact evaluation of specific interventions (Though perhaps we could do more to build an ‘evidence based practice’ as Ben Goldacre has argued). More, there is much to be gleaned from systematic review of education interventions across the industrialised world, e.g. from the likes of John Hattie and his two recent papers boldly titled ‘distractions’ and ‘solutions’. Perhaps now is the time take a similar ‘systems approach’ and take a holistic look at education systems in the developing world with similar levels of GDP spend. This would need to go beyond the interventions and explore the pre-requisites that govern their performance – capture not just the impact but the dependent variables of implementation.  

By Colin Bangay, senior education adviser for the UK government’s Department for International Development and member of CEI's Advisory Council; the views expressed do not necessarily reflect the UK government’s official position or policies or CEI.

Photo Credit: UN Photo, Albert González Farran

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