Time to embrace the bottom-up approach to education reforms

Learners at Royal Metropolis Academy, one of the five CBC Model schools in Nyamira County undertake a practical science lesson on how to profile soil. [Stanley Ongwae,Standard]

We may be living through the Fourth Industrial Revolution, yet our schools and education systems still resemble those from the First. Given how so many parts of our everyday lives have changed so much, many have long opined the need for fundamental reform to take place within education so that we can keep pace with societal progress and development.

So why haven’t education reforms taken hold and changed the fabric of our cherished institutions?

Much has been written about working at a systems level. But the fundamental truth is that given the political nature of systems, by the time we start reaping the dividends of any changes, those in charge will have moved on. We will have had two or three education ministers and perhaps a couple of heads of government, each wanting to leave their imprint by creating their own signature initiatives. This means ideas that didn’t come from them are either dropped or de-prioritised.

This happens in all government departments, but the difference in education is that we only really see the effects in the medium to long-term – by which time these political leaders are no longer accountable for their actions.

The pandemic has clearly shown us that despite the total absence of systems planning or leadership, schools and their communities have led from the front. It is they who have shown us what’s possible, it is they who have protected our children, it is they who have pivoted towards adopting and using new technologies and approaches to ensure education continuity.

So why not trust them to lead the reform of education systems by the power of their own example? The launch ‘The World’s Best School Prizes’ seeks to reframe the discussion on how we can improve the performance of schools to include attributes that have worked in many different contexts. An alternative path to systemic reform that is bottom-up.

They will focus on these five areas: Community collaboration to include parental engagement, environmental action to recognise essential climate action in schools, innovation that extends not just to technology but also pedagogical approaches, overcoming adversity to learn about how we build resilience in our young people and supporting healthy lives which includes general well-being, mental health and nutrition.

In doing so, we make a decision to take a bottom up, grassroots approach to education reform, one in which the school by the powerful exposition of their achievement inspires others to undertake the same journey to excellence.

We need to rebalance the power dynamic by placing schools at the heart of all discussions on how we reform education systems. It is our our hope is that by harnessing the winds blowing through the world, these prizes will help to achieve two things: firstly, to democratise access to school-based expertise from around the world that helps others share and replicate good ideas, and secondly to promote a wider discussion on how we strengthen schools.

Literacy gaps

We already have huge gaps in literacy and numeracy. We have huge numbers of children in failing schools around the world. These have been coupled with the learning loss that occurred as a result of mass school closures in the past years. The funding that has been put in place in many countries to enable children to catch up has been woefully inadequate.

We need to do things differently and urgently. That’s why we are launching these prizes in an effort to catalyse a global grassroots community of schools to show us the art of the possible in all their respective contexts. After all, we know that a one-size-fits-all approach only gets us so far.

I realise that this post has been critical of system leadership. The main point I make is not that they are ineffective; rather, it is that they would do better if they listened more and found ways of working with schools, in partnership, rather than in opposition, which by all accounts is what happens more often than not. Teachers and schools are the true experts. Let’s give them their due. It is they we have entrusted to educate our children, after all.

Vikas Pota is the founder, T4 Education. [weforum.org]