Education reform is always on the agenda of governments; each successive government, regardless of its political leaning, tries its best to dabble in an area that will always attract attention, whether positive or negative. The education minister will point to the unwillingness of schools to innovate and adapt to the new regulations of the times, citing the reluctance teachers, teachers’ unions, and university vice-chancellors to innovate. Not surprisingly, those actively involved in the profession will point the other way, saying that the ‘innovation’ often is no more than imposed changes without prior consultation and no insurance of a successful transition. Due to the many debacles that ensue from policies implemented terribly, changes still are applied without attentiveness towards their application, with no test-runs, no experimentation, and no evaluation.
For a pedagogue or your everyday teacher, it is evident that top-down policy implementation is flawed deeply and few innovative changes arise from such heavy-handed methods. Innovative methods in teaching and education in general arise from the grassroots level – where the learning and teaching essentially occurs. Therefore, the crux of the issue rests in the successful implementation; or the process, in other words, by which these well-intentioned policies typically fail or can succeed occasionally. After a series of unsuccessful policy changes, a lack of trust from ministers and policy makers and teachers surfaces; this sets off a pattern where teachers do not believe that their actual practice is being considered seriously as evidence, thus hampering any good policies from being developed.
Perhaps the problem lies in the fact that too many schools now operate as businesses, complete with business jargon that confuses the parent but satisfies the share- and the stakeholders. However, common knowledge suggests that a business failing to innovate and to adapt itself in the face of changing winds is doomed to fail. Adding more layers of complexity and giving those layers decision-making capabilities, akin to a large company dependent on the middle management of its subdivisions to give an accurate report of on-ground events, makes education systems of all levels more difficult to reform and does not make life any easier for the higher ups.
For greater accountability, decentralisation of education systems leads to the tightening of bureaucratic screws, a favourite tool among education ministers and policy makers. Yes, the education system needs to be accountable and adequately supervised, but too much and you stifle the flair and innovation with which teachers impart lessons; and let us not to forget that the material also can vary from any strict guidelines set. Perhaps the teacher cares enough to enlighten his or her class with additional learning material that will benefit their knowledge. However, screw tightening does not lead to long-term change, as top-down reforming of education is difficult to achieve due the complexity involved.
So then, what works? A first step would be to re-establish trust between all levels. This is difficult to achieve but essential; top-level ministers can show good faith by presenting evidence and a calculated expectation of changes to those actually teaching. The teachers’ and principals’ professionalism is another: they make change happen when they feel actively involved and when they have a say in the matter. Roundtable discussions are important to have in establishing how a policy will affect the teachers and students; for that matter, even parents support such inclusion to assuage their fears of any long-term ill effects of a new policy on their child. This does not imply that ministers and policy makers lose their capacity to affect change; rather, they have to find new ways of ensuring that the decisions affecting next generation is considered carefully. Rationally convincing teachers and school leaders for change will appeal to their professionalism, and will appeal towards convincing parents and community leaders that those in power actually have their heads screwed on right.