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Debate on "Interesting Cities: Five approaches to urban education reform" research report

15 December 2015

Breaking the link between poverty and educational failure - debate on research report "Interesting Cities: Five Approaches to Urban Education Reform" at the British Council's office in New Delhi.

In front of an audience of over 100 influential policy makers, senior Non-Government Organisation (NGO) staff and school principals, CEO of Education Development Trust Dr Steve Munby introduced the ground-breaking report "Interesting Cities: Five Approaches to Urban Education Reform" at the British Council, New Delhi on Wednesday, 9 December.

A panel of distinguished Indian and Indian- based education reform experts including Amit Kaushik of IPE Global, Colin Bangay of DFID India, Bikkrama Daulet Singh of Central Square Foundation, Michael Connolly and Gill Caldicott of the British Council discussed the key findings and their relevance to Indian education. India is already home to 3 of the world’s ten largest mega-cities.

The presentation showed how five very different cities around the world (Rio de Janeiro, New York, Ho Chi Minh City, Dubai and London) had found innovative solutions to radically and rapidly improve education outcomes for children and young people, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds. India is currently dealing with the challenges and opportunities presented by rapid urbanisation.

Steve Munby emphasised that successful programmes cannot be simply cut and pasted from other contexts. It is crucial to design reforms that will work within their local context. So although each of the cities had taken different approaches to suit their context, seven common themes were identified which had made significant contributions to their successes. These themes were:

  • Data driven reform – focusing on education outcomes (not outputs) and using the data to target support to those schools and students who needed it most.

  • Making teaching a career of choice – in 1995 the best graduates in New York City were the least likely to choose a career in teaching, with the worst graduates going into teaching, by 2010 the situation reversed. The influx of top quality people into teaching had served to "detoxify" the profession, persuading other capable graduates to follow their lead. 

  • Improving accountability but also providing additional support – in Vietnam 97% of school principals observed their teachers’ lessons in order to check their standards and support them to improve (compared to an OECD average of 69%). Also in Vietnam 92% of schools linked their teacher assessments to a bonus scheme to reward high-performance (in contrast to an OECD average of just 30%).

  • Creating new forms of school provision – in Rio poor performing slum schools were bulldozed and replaced by new "schools of tomorrow", which despite being located in the most deprived areas were soon out-performing the other municipal schools.

  • Improving school to school support – pairing high-performing schools with their less successful peers in the UK has been shown to lead to significant improvements in both the poor and the already successful schools. In Rio the same approach was taken with “godmother” schools supporting others to improve.

  • Building coalitions for change – in Dubai parents had been very effectively engaged in the development of the government-led inspection system. Informing parents with high-quality inspection data about school performance has acted as a powerful driver of change across a school system that is 90% private.

  • Leadership – including high level, consistent and sustained political commitment over many years. 4 of the 5 cities studied had benefited from the inspiring impact of ‘hero leaders’, who embodied passion, optimism, charisma and drive in order to deliver success.

The presentation concluded with reflections on 'the genius of leadership'. Effective leadership means picking the right strategy for the context (recognising that there is no simple blueprint for success), putting in place the systems, routines and processes that support innovation and maintaining a laser-like focus on your goal whilst inspiring others to follow your vision.

Amit Kaushik of IPE Global (formerly of the Ministry for Human Resource Development) responded to the report praising its quality and relevance.

Bikkrama Daulet Singh of Central Square Foundation commended the report for capturing not only what the cities had done but how they had done it. Bikkrama highlighted specific cities’ successes from which India could learn. For example, Ho Chi Minh City's success in reducing the pupil teacher ratio, whilst also improving teaching quality. In India, the former has happened, the latter remains an enormous challenge.

Colin Bangay of DFID India particularly endorsed the importance of taking a holistic approach, and highlighted the report’s emphasis on finding solutions that were correct for their context. Ending the panel discussion with appropriate optimism, Colin stressed that it has already been proven that India can rise to this challenge and emulate the achievements of the cities celebrated in the report; in Tamil Nadu for example, activity based learning has been implemented over time, and at scale, to tremendous effect. 

In conclusion, Colin Bangay stated that experience, including the examples highlighted in the report, proved that "our education system doesn't have to be like this, we can change".