Colloquium on Sustainable Change in Education: Report

Tony Lelliott and Susan Cohen

The Colloquium on Sustainable Change in Education, held over two days in June 2018, explored ideas emanating from research related to sustainable change at scale in schools in South Africa. This article is a follow up article to an earlier one and provides details from the executive summary of the report of the colloquium which is now available on our website.

The colloquium began with an overview of the contents of Learning about Sustainable Change in Education in South Africa: the Jika iMfundo campaign 2015–2017 (Christie & Monyokolo, 2017).

Following this were 20 presentations organised around the five broad themes as follows:

  1. Curriculum coverage and progression policies
  2. Curriculum leadership and management at district level and its intersection with the school level
  3. Understanding school leadership and management challenges, and approaches to instructional leadership in South Africa
  4. Lesson plans and teacher professional development – Literacy
  5. Assessment for Learning and use of learning materials – Maths

Using these presentations and the discussions of them as a base, participants debated a set of six strategic questions in the context of each of the five themes. These questions were:

  1. What is the existing body of knowledge on change at scale in this area?
  2. What are the systemic challenges (including policy mismatch and implementation weaknesses) that need to be improved in order to improve functioning at scale in this area?
  3. What further work should be done (with monitoring and evaluation of the work) to inform our knowledge base of change at scale in this area?
  4. What needs to be done and by whom in order to adopt and implement a learning agenda or strategy to support systems change at scale?
  5. Is there a role for technology in supporting systems change at scale? What is the role?
  6. What needs to be done to ensure our systems change models are scalable in different contexts?

Presentations were made by each theme group and discussed in plenary.

Several key insights about sustainable change at scale in general recurred in various forms over the two days. These include the following:

  • Intervention needs to be owned by the Department of Education and taken up at all levels of the system. It is not possible for an intervention that operates in parallel to the department to gain traction and stick; it will not be sustainable. There needs to be excellent communication, both horizontally and vertically, across divisions in the system so that coherent messages are sent across it and neither officials nor teachers are confounded by conflicting instructions or duplicated demands. The tendency to work in silos is not helpful.
  • In order to be taken into the system, for there to be “buy-in”, interventions must be seen to be desirable and supportive of core processes and requirements that are already part of the work of the officials and educators in the system. They should not introduce additional layers of work but must rather be seen to be supportive of work that needs to be done and to contribute to meaningful improvement.
  • An intervention needs to have a core focus so that resources, including energy, can be directed toward it in a coordinated and meaningful way rather than being dispersed across too many competing demands and activities. Although there are many urgent needs for change, it is important to prioritise, to choose what is doable and to coordinate efforts around that.
  •  Change implies the taking of risks but risks will not be taken unless risk-takers feel safe. Within the hierarchical system of the education department, with sub-systems such as district offices and schools, it is imperative that relationships of trust are built up across levels in the hierarchy. Monitoring and supervision need to be supportive and intended to identify and solve problems. Relationships of reciprocal accountability must be fostered. Without this, problems are hidden and mechanistic compliance to basic requirements, rather than energised work toward positive change, ensues. Instructional leadership is essential and leaders and managers need support and training.
  • Change also implies the need for training and the development of new skills. It is important that those being required to make changes, being trained in new skills and behaviours, are supported in sharing these and implementing them in the workplace. Without such support, intended new learning, even when seen as valuable, will not persist and change will not be embedded and sustained.
  • Change processes cannot be static. It is essential therefore that interventions are monitored and evaluated, that useful data are collected and analysed, that findings are reflected upon and that there are flexible and differentiated responses to evidence of what is working and what is not in different contexts. Research needs to address key questions and to be less reliant on self-reporting.
  • Interventions do not happen in isolation. It is essential that all stakeholders in the endeavour be invited to participate, to lend support and to give honest critique. In this regard, the development of a knowledge portal and of databases of relevant information to facilitate the sharing of information and ideas is essential. There are many initiatives with similar intentions and synergies need to be found so that the impacts of these can be compounded. There is a loose association of individuals and organisations working in the field of educational development and system change. It would be beneficial to have a more formalised community of practice whose members can share and interrogate findings and processes, and co-create new ideas and strategies.
  • Technology has many affordances that can be harnessed in support of positive change however inequalities in access to necessary knowledge, skills and physical resources limit its usefulness at present.
  • Inevitably, change processes have to overcome obstacles. The colloquium identified several obstacles which impact on positive changes in teaching and learning, and hence on improved learner achievement. Key among these were:
    • issues of policies and procedures which are not well aligned with each other and therefore confound attempts to improve practices in schools. For example,
    • the progression policy allows learners to move into a higher grade annually based on age rather than achievement, creating de facto multi-grade classes as learners in any one grade are at different levels, making curriculum coverage at the new grade level difficult.
    • the mismatch between the time allocated to learning in the Curriculum and Assessment Policy Statement (CAPS), and the time demanded for formal summative assessment processes that results in insufficient time being available for adequate curriculum coverage. This is compounded by an over-full curriculum.
    • Issues related to inadequate staff provisioning. Unfilled posts and the allocation of too few posts mean that vital human resources are absent and overstretched.
    • In districts, high school and teacher to subject adviser ratios make it almost impossible for subject advisers to fulfil their role of support to teachers adequately. This needs to be re-examined if they are to add their potential value to the system.
  • Within the schools, the varied demands made of Heads of Department and heavy teaching loads make it difficult for them to fulfil their roles as supportive supervisors and mentors to members of their departments.
  • Curriculum coverage is correctly understood as not what teachers report teaching but the demonstration of what learners have learned at the specified conceptual level.

Further information about the background to the colloquium, its structure and organisation, and summaries of all the presentations and discussion is provided in the main report.