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All education reform initiatives end in failure: discuss

Updated: Aug 28, 2023

All political careers end in failure. This aphorism is commonly attributed to Enoch Powell, the British politician who, in the late 1960s, spoke against immigration and opposed the Race Relations Bill in Parliament. Actually, he picked it up the aphorism from Joseph Chamberlain, a politician notorious for his staunch opposition to the Education Reform Act of 1870. His son, Neville Chamberlain was the Prime Minister who favoured appeasement at the beginning of World War II. So, the least said about all three of them, the better. However, perhaps the aphorism could be applied to education reform initiatives.

Non-positional teacher leadership

At HertsCam, we are in the throes of writing a history of the International Teacher Leadership (ITL) initiative. This is a part of what we are calling the Legacy Project in which we aim to curate different kinds of testimony and evidence arising from the pursuit of ‘non-positional teacher leadership’. Let me briefly explain this term. Teacher leadership has been talked about globally for at least 25 years, but the usual assumption is that particularly adept teachers should be selected and designated with formal roles such as Teacher Leader or Head of Department. I have argued in many places that giving people a formal position as a means to build leadership capacity is of limited benefit. I have proposed instead that anyone working in a school can be empowered and enabled to exercise leadership. I was pleased to see, that in my recent piece for Worlds of Education (an online journal published by Education International) the editor highlighted this:

“The secret to authentic change is to mobilise teachers’ human agency; enable them to reconnect with their moral purpose as educators and provide the scaffolding for a process in which they create their own pathways forward.”

Having developed strategies to realise this in practice since the 1980s, I was prompted to launch the ITL project in 2008 following expressions of interest from a number of academics from around the world. Over a two-year period, colleagues from HertsCam worked alongside partners in Europe and the Western Balkans to develop support for ‘non-positional teacher leadership’.

So, did the ITL project end in failure? Yes and no. If you adopt the black box theory of change, you might say ITL failed. OSF spent 140,000 Euros on the project and HertsCam and the other partners put in a lot of effort, but what came out of the black box? Looking back with the clarity of retrospection we might ask ourselves questions such as: Did the project establish teacher leadership programmes in the 14 participating countries? Were they adopted as mainstream practice? Did they lead to improved practice in schools? Did they contribute to the growth of democratic society? Were they sustained?

If evaluators were to apply the usual sort of indicators, the answers to these questions would be that, yes, programmes were launched and there is evidence of school improvement in the participating schools. However, they did not become mainstream; they were not sustained to any great extent and their contribution to democracy is hard to discern. Perhaps this supports the view that this initiative ended in failure. Of course, we could argue about what was missing from this intervention to account for its lack of sustained impact. An obvious factor would be the lack of involvement at the system level. Another might be that academics and activists in NGOs are not sufficiently embedded in the education systems they seek to influence. The lack of support for school principals is another obvious gap in the project. So, there is a sense in which ITL failed. However, I want to explore the possibility of a more positive interpretation.

A cumulative effects perspective

Arguably, projects such as ITL make a contribution to the cumulative effect of many related projects. Can we really know with any degree of certainty what the impact of a project is in the long term? Perhaps it is not unreasonable to say that any good project leaves a legacy, the beneficiaries of which may not necessarily be known to those who led or participated in the project. Some years ago, I was fortunate to have attended a workshop led by David Perkins, Principal Investigator at Project Zero, Harvard, who argued something along these lines. We subsequently corresponded and I found this comment particularly helpful.

There is always some captured learning, some material, a framework, documentation, whatever learning in usable form, that can live on. (David Perkins – personal communication)

In the light of this, I can identify, in outline at least, the many ways in which ITL could be said to be successful. First of all, there was a full report which not only details the activities of the programmes we launched but it also provides evidence of the impact on teachers, their practice, their schools and their systems. The extent to which these effects have been sustained remains to be seen but the evidence demonstrated that it can be done – that non-positional teacher leadership can work and can make a difference in contexts which in some cases had a recent history of conflict. The report also put forward a set of 15 principles for practice and a set of recommendations for policy makers, school principals, potential facilitators, universities and funding bodies. It is important to note that these were created through the deliberations of the ITL team through the series of six team meetings. Over fifty people, including university academics, activists in NGOs and school practitioners, contributed to this practice-based discourse. Crucially, the report presented conceptual clarification arising from this discourse.

The extent and nature of the influence of a report published on the internet is hard to measure but we know for sure that the principles and recommendations presented in the final ITL report informed further initiatives elsewhere. A steady stream of research students became interested in non-positional teacher leadership and what it might do for their particular contexts. They all opted to undertake action-based studies. Dr Hanan Ramahi, for example, launched a programme in Ramallah in the Occupied Territories of Palestine which she documented in her PhD thesis. Similarly, Dr Amina Eltemamy launched a programme in Cairo, Egypt which she documented in her PhD thesis and has sustained continuously since 2014. The programme launched in Taraz, Kazakhstan by Gulmira Qanay in 2016 for the purposes of her doctoral study gave rise to a further funded pilot in Kokshetau. This was followed by the launch of the Teacher Leadership in Kazakhstan (ITL) initiative in 2019 which aimed to cover the country as a whole. The book about TLK was published in Russian this year (see my earlier post) and has already led to interest in launching further programmes in Central Asia including one in collaboration with UNESCO funded by the Kazakhstan government.

The conceptual work arising from ITL also informed a study commissioned by Education International. ‘Teacher self-efficacy, voice and leadership: towards a policy framework for Education International’. The influence of the report from the research that followed was documented by John Bangs, one of the authors of the report in the final chapter of the book Empowering teacher as agents of change edited by myself. He highlighted how the seven principles presented in the teacher self-efficacy report had been adopted by Education International and how the report had influenced both the design of TALIS and the discussions about teacher policy at the annual International Summits on the Teaching Profession. In a variety of ways, the ITL project provided a platform that enabled us to promote a vision of enhanced teacher professionality.

A further ripple from the ITL project is the deployment of non-positional teacher leadership and the method of empowerment that goes with it in the Teacher-led Learning Circles for Formative Assessment project currently being led by Education International.

Failure or success?

So, on balance I think we can say that, in spite of the evident shortcomings of the original ITL project of twenty years ago, the ripple effect has been huge. The learning from that project has informed and shaped many subsequent initiatives. Mother Teresa famously declared that she couldn’t change the world alone but could “cast a stone on the water to make many ripples”. The idea has been taken up and worked through by sociologists such as Normal Long and other social commentators. Some have developed strategies for ‘capturing the ripple effect’ but it is almost impossible to know for sure how an intervention has changed the world.

Nevertheless, we hope that, through the current Legacy Project work, we will uncover evidence of other ways in which the pursuit of non-positional teacher leadership over thirty years or so has influenced practice and discourse.

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