Malaysia: country of contrasts. It’s not just the different religions and races – though both abound – nor the eclectic mix of mountains, beaches and rainforests that shape the country’s rich and varied landscape. Diversity is also a fact of everyday life for its citizens, rippling through economic and social structures to leave policymakers with much to be proud of, and more work still to do.
Today’s Malaysia is a country where the skyscrapers of Kuala Lumpur jostle for space alongside increasingly modern infrastructure, where consistent economic growth and high levels of employment not only prove an attractive allure for immigrants, but also prompt admiration and envy from neighbouring governments. But what of tomorrow’s Malaysia? Are its schools equipping the next generation with the skills, knowledge and insight needed to take the country forward? Khadijah Abdullah, chief executive of Malaysia’s recently-formed Education and Performance Delivery Unit (PADU), has been tasked with ensuring they do. It’s a task she is relishing.
“If you are joining PADU to climb the corporate ladder then this is not the right place,” she says. “We are here for a totally different purpose. We are about the future of our country. Everyone here shares the same purpose – it’s not about the individual, but really about our nation.”
Teaching a new approach
Khadijah may have only recently completed up her first year in post at PADU but she is no stranger to education. Having begun her career as a primary school teacher, she clocked up a number of different roles in the sector, ranging from secondary school teacher to teacher trainer to administrator in the education department and university lecturer. But it was while she was working in the private sector that she received the approach to head up PADU.
“I took a call from the chairman of PADU, who is also the chairman of the largest bank in Malaysia, and so my first thought was that he was going to offer me a job in the bank – I didn’t know about PADU at that point in time,” she admits. “It has been a great honour to have been offered the responsibility and to play a part in this exciting journey for the nation. As I strongly support and believe in the purpose of the organisation, I took the job.”
PADU was established in 2013. Its mission is to “deliver strategies, oversee implementations, manage interdependencies, and introduce new approaches that aim to propel Malaysia’s education system to become globally competitive.” Its creation followed the publication of a new education blueprint that aims to transform standards and raise student aspirations. The primary role of PADU – a unit of the Ministry of Education – is to facilitate, support and deliver the ministry’s vision, working together to develop remedial action plans, which ensure ongoing improvements to the quality of Malaysia’s education structure.
“As the name explains, PADU is a performance and delivery unit,” says Khadijah. “It is similar to YB Idris Jala’s organisation, the Performance Management and Delivery Unit (PEMANDU), but PEMANDU cuts across different ministries whereas we focus on just one and this gives us an opportunity to go into the next level of granularity.” Her priority upon joining in May 2014, though, was to gaze inward.
“My focus when I first joined PADU – like any other CEO – was to get the house in order because it was such a young organisation, but this was an advantage as it was a blank canvas for me,” she recalls. “The first thing was to get the governance right and then we had to get the right people in who share the right values and are passionate about our purpose. This took quite a while because most of the people we wanted to recruit were already serving in other organisations. It was a few more months before we managed to get a good team into PADU but now we have a solid team in place. So, this was our internal priority at the start. It’s not rocket science – anyone would do the same thing.”
PADU is somewhat unusual in that it actively seeks talents from across the public and private sectors, but Khadijah believes this combination of skills, experiences and talents is critical to delivering sustainable success. “If you get a solid and strong team then half the battle is won,” she says. “I am fortunate in having a wonderful and highly talented team together – a mix of experiences on board. We have some ministry officials seconded to PADU who were directly involved in the blueprint and possess huge historical knowledge of the sector, and others coming from outside who will take some time to learn the granularity of the challenges and issues – but they are all highly motivated, on a steep learning curve and bring with them valuable experiences from various industries.”
The early days were not marked by just recruitment processes and interviews, however. It fell to Khadijah and her colleagues to build trust and establish credibility with colleagues in government and in particular their stakeholders and partners within the Ministry of Education. “All this is done by providing the added value and relevance,” she explains.
“The Ministry is large and full of highly-qualified people with years of experience who we greatly respect, so we needed to ensure the relevance of our role. It is always good to have an independent perspective from outside of the organisation so you can see things from a different viewpoint. These were the messages that we kept on trying to highlight.” And how successful were these efforts? One year on how does the ministry now view its near-neighbour? Khadijah believes that bridges have been successfully built.
The success of this process can – in part at least – be traced by Khadijah’s conscious decision to focus on the quality of PADU’s work. “I told my team, we have to earn their respect and establish our credibility, as this is the only way to ensure long-term sustainability and to foster close relationships,” she says. “To this end, we have always ensured that credit for success duly goes to the ministry officials who have been working very hard. At PADU, we have always tried to shun the limelight. The owner of the programmes and reforms is the Ministry of Education and this approach has eliminated suspicions, enhanced trust and built a closer relationship.”
This philosophy of not taking credit echoes that of Sir Michael Barber when he set up the original delivery unit under Tony Blair’s premiership in the UK 10 years ago. However, one challenge this approach creates is that it becomes difficult to know how to measure success. Similarly, in education in particular, it takes a long time for reforms to come to fruition – which again makes it harder to register the full impact of an initiative and whether it has worked or not. Khadijah identifies two sets of deliverables that she is focusing on.
“One is shorter term – the quick wins that can keep the momentum and the motivation going,” she says. “The other one is very long-term. Take vocational education, for example. The long-term goals are very ambitious and it could demoralise you when thinking about how to achieve them. But looking incrementally at what can be done and taking it year by year it makes it seem more achievable and gives people the hope and motivation to keep going. We also tie our data and metrics with the financials. Previously there had been separate reporting, but it is important to get both together to make sure they are aligned. Month by month the spending of the ministry and the activity are tracked together to make sure our budgets and activities are in alignment and being resourced efficiently.”
PADU: milestones in mind
A key date for very many people in the global education sector is next year’s publication of the latest results of the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). Created and overseen by Andreas Schleicher, PISA is a triennial international survey which aims to evaluate education systems worldwide by testing the skills and knowledge of 15-year-old students. In the most recent evaluation, Malaysian students performed disappointingly, placing in the bottom third of all the countries tested.
Malaysia’s results drew widespread media coverage at the time and the data continues to resonate – much to Khadijah’s frustration. “We are working hard to make sure we’re not in the bottom third again,” she says. “But we have moved on from the 2012 results and we are looking forward to next year’s results as we have done a lot. Through our mock exam results and our other interventions we are optimistic there will be a significant improvement.”
These changes are borne of the efforts of both PADU and the ministry, she is keen to emphasise. “Occasionally you come across blurred lines as to what should be with our team and what with the ministry but over time it becomes a lot clearer,” she says. “And I have already proposed we have a stocktake to identify the areas that we need to further define, so moving forward we will be able to have even more effective teamwork.” PADU is always focusing on making big changes at an accelerated pace, she continues.
“The desire to change is very strong but because many have not been exposed to life beyond the ministry, their transformational mindset may not yet be at the desired level,” she says. “We are always pushing that transformational way of looking at things and it is an ongoing challenge. And for those on the frontline it is important to be adaptable and to address different issues with different solutions; for example, we deal in and provide different interventions with urban schools as compared to their rural counterparts.”
Such a strategy reflects the requirement for a delivery unit leader to be both nuanced and flexible. After all, it is a role that needs to challenge the prevailing culture but do it in a way that doesn’t antagonise the larger organisation. A natural response to change – in government, in particular – is to be quite skilful in gently easing a new antibody into the system in order to preserve the status quo.
Malaysia’s parents need not worry, however. These are transforming times for the country’s education sector – and schoolchildren are poised to reap the benefits.
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