Lessons on education reform from #EWF18

Last week I had the opportunity to participate in the Education World Forum (EWF), the largest annual meeting of Ministers of Education and senior policymakers from around the world. Two days of presentations, discussions and countless stories shared by education leaders from places as diverse as Finland, Croatia, Argentina, Somalia and Iran. Every one of them seeming to be in the midst of a major education reform to catch up with the ever-changing real-life demands of future graduates.

So it was perhaps unexpected that the main theme of the forum wasn’t looking for the right policy or debating the competencies required, but finding ways to enable schools to drive the change. Andreas Schleicher, the Director for Education and Skills at the OECD, summarised it masterfully in a panel discussion:

“You can’t just set policy and hope it trickles down. The front line has to be empowered to make the change.”

The importance of school-driven improvement isn’t an entirely new realisation. In a 2010 report by McKinsey analysing 20 school systems that had materially improved their education quality, it was noted that to achieve great education, school empowerment and stakeholder involvement is essential.

However, the message seemed to finally find its way to centre stage at EWF, offering practical guidance for navigating reforms. The highlight of the forum for me was a speech by Olli-Pekka Heinonen, the Head of the National Education Agency and former Minister of Education of Finland.

He offered 6 lessons for successful education reform in an age of ever-increasing complexity:

  1. Involve all stakeholders — Education change needs to happen in the classroom, so policymakers need to gain a strong understanding of the current processes as well as get buy-in, which can be best achieved by listening.
  2. Make sure everybody is solving the same problem — When we talk about vague terms like education quality and competencies, it is easy to get confused over what the terms mean. It is therefore critical to over-communicate on the rationale, approach and process of the change.
  3. Create policy that creates alternatives for tomorrow — You can’t choose the future, you don’t know what tomorrow will look like. Policy will never be fully up-to-date so the best you can do is make it easier to quickly adapt content.
  4. Understand the systemic character of the change — Schools operate in a complex web of interdependencies. The local context for every school has to be considered, as does the link between different parts of the educational experience e.g. wellbeing and learning.
  5. Increase the adaptability of the system — The faster schools are able to adapt to the changing world, the more resilient policy will be. A smoothly operating system will enable schools to utilise the latest learnings and research autonomously, establish strong processes for continuous teacher development and develop schools as communities of practice.
  6. Foster trust — Complexity can only be solved if there is trust between teachers, school leaders, policymakers and, importantly, students. Trust increases the resilience of the system.

Olli-Pekka’s main conclusion was that there are no ready recipes that work across systems, but implementing the right process can ensure a higher readiness for the inevitably complex future.

I believe this principle and the guidelines are one of the best explanations of how to do education reform well. We will never be able to catch up with real-world demands by just updating what we teach every few years — making the system more responsive and nimble is the only way to achieve resilient excellence.

EWF provided the opportunity to share what’s working in different parts of the world and sparked so many valuable conversations about putting schools in the driving seat of improvement and change in our education systems. The clear next step is to bring home what we’ve learned, put it into practice and invite school leaders to engage in these same conversations — not just hope it trickles down to them eventually.

This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020SME programme for open and disruptive innovation under grant agreement №733984.