In January 2019, I stood talking to a group of school leaders in a very wintery and cold Moldova, explaining how we approached school leadership in the UK compared to Eastern Europe.
“So, education is generally dysfunctional and chaotic in England?” said one Eastern European colleague as others nodded in agreement.
My reply was “not exactly” and I certainly hadn’t set out to convey that impression when I spoke to them about the systems, changes and reforms in England over the last decade. I had in fact set out to illustrate the dynamism, innovation and leadership in the English education system, which we were leading in my own school of Wyedean, based in the UK.
“Education in England has been an almost permanent revolution of constant new ideas.”
I soon realised that to my audience, the system and processes of education in England must seem very alien to a group of educators where a centralised ministry of education still has so much sway and public workers can be seen as more akin to civil servants.
On the plane home, I reflected on what has been happening to state education in England for so many years. It has been an almost permanent revolution of constant new ideas and innovation all against the very real backdrop of severe underfunding and a chronic lack of investment across the board.
One of the reasons I am so passionate about global education is because there is so much to be gained through cooperation and collaboration between systems around the world.
This is why, when the chance came up, I took the job of director of Heritage International School, the first international school in Moldova and a potential game changer.
“The neoliberal model of education was supposed to release greater freedoms, but this has not always happened.”
There is a legacy of the Soviet Bloc that still lingers understandably in this part of the world and crops up in many discussions. The research of professor Maria Mendel offers a different lens through which to view the neoliberal model of education in the UK and the USA. It was supposed to release greater freedoms and leadership based on schools and their communities 10 to15 years ago, but in reality, this has not always happened.
But one of the strengths of the English system was how school-improvement had been given back to schools and school communities to lead in the system.
Leaders and schools need to fight students’ disengagement by listening to them and understanding their needs in the modern world and stopping the relentless focus on competition and narrow data targets. Instead they must adopt a more holistic, collaborative approach. A self-improving school could then lead on this for wider benefit.
Teachers would want to stay and new teachers would join in the system, instead of leaving in droves, if they felt they were respected, listened to and allowed to practice teaching for the very reasons they came into the profession.
“In March 2020, as the Covid crisis hit and schools were forced into lockdown, the need for true leadership and innovative thinking was never greater.”
And before someone cries “standards”, the best examples of self-improving school systems are where accountability is much stronger because of personal integrity, professionalism, trust, respect and a common sense of shared purpose in the school and its community.
I have been fascinated with Eastern Europe, thanks to inspiring teachers, since I stood on the Berlin Wall in front of the Brandenburg Tor as a school boy on a history trip just weeks after the Wall fell on the 9th November, 1989.
Leading the first international school in the post-Soviet republic of Moldova thirty years after those momentous events of 1989-1991 was more than the challenge I had been seeking after leading Wyedean.
As post-Soviet countries like Moldova develop, even 30 years on, that Soviet legacy still has a strong pull. So, in March 2020, as the Covid crisis hit and schools were forced into lockdown, the need for true leadership and innovative thinking was never greater.
In Moldova, we proudly demonstrated in our innovative response to the crisis that the actual paradigm shift wasn’t necessarily a “digital revolution”, but a powerful agency in schools to adapt and find solutions, working collaboratively and with common purpose within the national education community whatever the school label.
Even with something as existentially threatening as the pandemic, leaders had the central support to still navigate the organisation and community through this crisis with hope and optimism. Moldova benefitted from both the freedom of school leaders to make a choice that suited them but within a supportive framework from the ministry.
The lessons are there to be learned for those societies in which schools were let down by ambiguous and conflicting directions from central ministries, as a result of fragmentation and competition between schools.
It is this fragmentation and competition that weakened the ability to find a wider response and trust in leadership. England suffered from schools now being more competitive and less collaborative and systems being more fragmented, such as the loss of powers from the local authority and the lack of direction from the department of education.
Rob Ford’s blog Mail From Moldova can be found here.