Saturday 11 May 2013

Education and Skills Development - Big not always better

In the education and skills development space it is important to recognise the true nature of the requirements at hand and the accompanying challenges, to be able to make real progress on these critical agenda points. Largely reform on these agendas has relied on efforts directed towards, curriculum changes, teacher training, access and choice, student retention, assessments, greater accountability of teachers and school leaders and results based funding.
A significant amount of effort has gone into motivating and training teachers and leadership development at the school level including introduction of technology based teaching methodology to support teachers and learning.
I think there is a need to recognise that behaviour change, which involves capability development, perspective building and conducive support systems, requires ongoing development, action, monitoring, review and responsiveness. While this is often expounded and somewhat true that technology enables us to do most of these things remotely, unfortunately we are yet to find examples of large scale responsive systems which can quite grasp the complexity of behavioural change at the point of performance.
It is important to remember that the output stakeholders desire often from education and skills development systems are a somewhat benchmarked and standardised cohort of individuals who can perform to a certain minimum standard.
Large organisations have been aggressively lobbying for more work in the space, based on claims of being able to produce this standardised output based on their ability to scale their operations and deploy standardised measures across vast areas. In addition their research capabilities, expertise and track record in other markets, ability to afford expensive technology and hire talent are put forth as claims for credibility.
The truth of the matter is that in the space of education and skills development the critical factor is that while the output is desirably standardised, to manage and deliver on that expectation requires sufficiently varied input and a highly responsive dynamic system attuned to local, individual and contextual variations. Unfortunately, large organisations and their internal dynamics designed to make them perform efficiently make them more suited towards creating common culture and relatively homogenised ways of working and communicating. So when they deploy, even though they are desirous of building a flexible and responsive system end up creating a relatively straight-jacketed and inflexible system. This has been the legacy of the manufacturing industry which relied on standardised products being delivered through a network of distributors who had to deal with a small number of variables but largely rely on standardised schemes and communication to get their products on shelves.
In addition what seemingly are the benefits of economies of scale, as often claimed by large companies as an advantage over smaller ones, are often not realised. This is because the overheads for large companies without last mile connectivity tend to be much higher, given the complexities of education and skills development input and the controls for quality that are required. Technology solutions even within large corporate at the moment are struggling to balance the need for flexibility with standardisation; so I cannot but imagine that even with rapidly evolving technology, those solutions with the requisite level of responsiveness that hold promise to resolve some of the complex issues in education are some time away from being developed and deployed across large education and training systems.
In this scenario I can only think that the real solution for the challenges within this all important space lies in creating and leveraging locally entrenched small and micro-scale organisations that engage with schools and other providers to support improvement in quality across the education and skills development value chain. A locally entrenched entity not only comes with critical local knowledge and relationships, they also tend to have much lower overheads and potentially can have longer engagement with the stakeholders to ensure the system receives timely input and support on an ongoing basis. They have higher stakes in longer term success and viability of the system as failure often can threaten critical relationships and means of sustenance. It is also widely accepted that smaller organisations are much more responsive and conducive for innovation.
It would be prudent if Public systems recognise this and create a framework for engagement of local agencies in supporting schools and training providers and funds those rather than pinning their hopes on large providers centrally. Secondly, there is a need to create a network of small providers and support them in upgrading their own knowledge, perspective and skills. Thirdly, a framework of shared services should be created that allows these organisations to get support on non-core areas such as administrative, compliance and staff functions. Fourthly, a transparent mechanism for meaningfully funding these agencies that ties-in realistic accountability needs to be put in place.
These actions should encourage professionals in this space, who want to start social enterprises and contribute to society, thereby generating jobs at the local level. At the same time this will help the country develop expertise and create capacity in the area where there is a dearth of professionals and over-reliance on western and large urban based companies. Hopefully this will generate the necessary momentum to deliver much needed, progressive, much improved services and outcomes at the last mile.