For decades, we have grown accustomed to the notion of major system reform, typically involving changes to the national curriculum, followed by changes to assessment, school leadership and governance, teacher professional development and other areas – all or some of which follow in sequential order. The process is on-going and takes place over decades. The sequence may differ. For example, in Hong Kong, school-based leadership was introduced in the 1990s, and not until 2012 did major revisions to the curriculum follow. In contrast, in Singapore, important changes to the curriculum, teaching and assessment were introduced in the late 1990s, and only recently did more powers and responsibilities to schools and principals devolve. Educational reform in Scotland may still be following this pattern: ‘Curriculum for Excellence’ was introduced as a policy in the early 2000s, and it was only recently that major structural changes involving increased devolved powers for school leaders and schools were planned.
However, elsewhere, recent examples of system reform do not appear to be following this sequential pattern. In Vietnam, for instance, the government introduced ‘fundamental and comprehensive’ renovations/reforms in 2012/13, intending to reform every aspect of education simultaneously as a response to the needs of industrialization and modernization in the socialist market economy and for international integration. (Other examples of the simultaneous model of reform are found in the Middle East.)
Undertaking system change at any time – even with the sequential model – presents huge challenges for principals and teachers in schools. Yet, when the model is simultaneous, the challenges are that much greater. It was against this background that a Robert Owen Centre, University of Glasgow (ROC) team, with two Vietnamese partners (University of Education, Vietnam National University, and the Vietnam National Institute of Educational Sciences), investigated the perspectives of a sample of teachers and principals in six schools in Vietnam during the implementation of multiple, simultaneous reforms.
Among the key findings were the following:
- More attention needs to be paid to the mode of top-down communication of policies. There is need for a communication style that engages the public and allows teachers and professionals to feel their voice has influence through consultation and feedback. There is also need for greater emphasis on the importance of clear guidelines for raising awareness and understanding of the aims of the reforms, and how to implement them.
- Challenges pertaining to the urban-rural divide, different learning curves of students, and public resistance to change all need to be addressed.
- There is a perceived ‘deficit’ in physical and human resources – which has both a past/present and future dimension. Even before and without the renovations, there was a shortage of teachers per se, teachers with high levels of competency in pedagogy, and there was a lack of physical equipment and learning materials relative to the numbers of children in schools. Since the start of renovations, the requirement for more teachers, especially with the requisite skills, plus learning resources and equipment has risen even further. Hence there is need to plug the existing ‘deficits’ in physical capital, funding, relevant skills amongst students, and teacher training, and then address further, the need to meet the additional demands made by the renovations.
Among the factors that participants thought would enhance successful implementation going forward were: a positive school culture, which they thought would lead to supportive relationships between school managers and teachers; the empowerment of principals and teachers to undertake more school-level decision making; and equipping leaders and managers with new knowledge and skills to improve leadership of the curriculum and the community. Capacity building of teachers – both pre- and in-service training – to undertake more student-centred teaching and formative assessment, were also seen as instrumental, alongside the writing of more progressive textbooks.
Finally, three further reforms were seen by teachers and principals in Vietnam as having potential to add momentum to the renovations: a greater emphasis on school improvement through stronger accountability and a concomitant shift to school-based management; improved evaluation practices that align with the purposes and aims of the renovations and that lead to informed feedback to schools and teachers; and a close alignment between the emergent national curriculum as it develops, new methods of teaching and learning, and revised examinations that test a greater range of knowledge and skills.
Studies aimed at clarifying the perspectives of principals and teachers towards the policy process of education reform, especially at the implementation stage, deserve greater recognition by all stakeholders, not least policymakers themselves. This is apposite for all policymakers engineering system reform, but especially so for those promulgating simultaneous reform. It was Richard Elmore who early on saw the wisdom of backward mapping in improving the fidelity of policy implementation to formation, and Stephen Covey popularized the notion of ‘beginning with the end in mind.’ This important principle has permeated my own writing over the years. Simultaneous reform begs questions such as the nature of connectivity between all the elements that make up a school as a social complex organization. It is remarkable how – even today – those responsible for formulating and adopting policy seem to pay little heed to the conditions and contexts that would enhance the chances of successful implementation in schools.
Clive Dimmock is a Fellow at the HEAD Foundation and is Professor of Professional learning and Leadership at the Robert Owen Centre, University of Glasgow.
The HEAD Foundation Commentary is a platform to provide timely and, where appropriate, policy-relevant commentary of topical issues and contemporary developments. The views expressed by the authors are solely their own and do not reflect opinions of The HEAD Foundation.