In this interview, Elena and Katie find out how the education of children in Malaysia is being transformed and what can be learned from it. But with almost half a million teachers in pre-school to upper secondary alone, change will take time, say Madam Khadijah Abdullah and Radzifuddin Nordin, two of the pioneers from helping to keep the transformation on track.
Madam Khadijah and Radzifuddin work for PADU, the Education Performance and Delivery Unit that has been set up to support the Ministry of Education in executing the Malaysia Education Blueprint (2013-2025) (more info here). Its objective is to ensure that the blueprint translates successfully on the ground. As Madam Khadijah explains, “We’re a delivery unit, facilitating the process, helping to solve problems, acting as mediator to bring different groups together to collaborate. Our role is to ensure that the outcome as promised in the blueprint are successfully delivered. We exist to help the Ministry of Education implement the blueprint and our establishment is enshrined in the document itself.”
As the Chief Executive Officer of PADU, Madam Khadijah Abdullah has been leading the setup and management of PADU. “It was my responsibility to get it up and running and to ensure strong governance was put in place. My next challenge was to bring in high performing talent and get us working as a strong team. Because we are a new set up with no track record, we needed to establish our credibility and gain the trust of our stakeholders. Hence, stakeholder engagement was one of the main focus to get the buy-in by showing our relevance and value adds.”
As Executive Director of Programme Management, Radzifuddin’s focus is on the delivery framework, which includes initiative management, monitoring and problem-solving as well as planning. This is done in collaboration with the Ministry’s appointed staff (i.e. Programme Managers) who are accountable for the Blueprint initiatives and outcomes.
Working towards a common vision
We began the conversation by asking about PADU’s relationship with the Ministry in bringing the blueprint to life. Madam Khadijah explained that it was working with the Ministry in a collaborative way to bring about change. “As PADU staff, we work hand in hand with the programme managers in the Ministry to monitor and implement all the selected initiatives, and on top of that, we produce an annual report that shows the achievements, lessons learnt and also, progress against our objectives.”
Radzifuddin then outlined some of the success factors the unit considers to be important: “Number one is that the Ministry and its divisions need to uphold and embrace the blueprint, so it’s about getting buy-in to the overarching purpose of education transformation in Malaysia. Ensuring good communication between different divisions is also vital. And then, of course, there’s the focus on KPIs, which we see as the milestones to achieving the blueprint.”
PADU uses KPIs to help the Ministry achieve its goals, but not in the traditional way of tracking outputs. Radzifuddin believes that KPIs can be helpful to align government teams around common goals, but he is also aware of the potential for them to backfire by encouraging data manipulation or other counter-productive approaches. We asked Radzifuddin how PADU helps the Ministry focus on outcomes while maintaining a KPI-based approach.
“PADU holds an annual workshop to plan the KPI’s for the year ahead”, he responded, “and we ask the Ministry divisions to set KPIs so as to come to an agreement about what success looks like for a certain initiative. The key is that each KPI is outcome-based rather than process-based, so the focus is on the results that policymakers want to see in our country. We see KPIs as indicators, and meeting them should not be a goal in itself.”
A combination of standardised and local interventions
Given the complexity of education that the Ministry is facing, how does PADU strike a balance between enforcing standards across the country and encouraging local solutions?
“We have to be very mindful of the different contexts that require differing interventions. Some approaches can cut across and so lend themselves to a more standardised approach, such as implementing the required standard for English across all schools. Others such as District Transformation Programme need to be contextualised because we can only address them effectively with a place-based approach.” Madam Khadijah replied.
“However, even with issues that require a standardised response, implementation can look very different from one place to another. For example, change in urban areas may be more straightforward, but as you go further into the rural areas you need to allow more time and deeper engagements before interventions take root.”
Taking the best from the private sector – up to a point
In some ways, the project management focus of PADU is reminiscent of the private sector. What has the public sector to learn from business and where do you draw the line?
According to Radzifuddin, there is a lot that can be learned from the private sector in terms of financial management and adhering to timescales and deadlines. “We’re trying to encourage more industry expertise or industry best practices in the education sector. Historically, there has been limited engagement with the corporate sector, even though what the education system is actually producing is tomorrow’s the global workforce, of which majority will work in that sector. However, it’s encouraging to see now increasing efforts to engage and collaborate with the corporate sector.”
So how far should we go down the private sector route? Madam Khadijah made a clear distinction: “We can’t go beyond a certain point because we are not commercially driven. We have an agenda to deliver the education transformation for the good of society. However, in terms of best practice, it’s always useful to explore what’s out there in the corporate sector where practices can be adapted and useful to make the public sector more effective.”
We can’t go beyond a certain point because we are not commercially driven. We have an agenda to deliver the education transformation for the good of society
What’s next for education transformation in Malaysia?
And what does all this change mean for teachers at the sharp end of education policy? We asked about the challenges of empowering teachers to make change based on the needs of their communities.
Madam Khadijah is confident that teachers can be the drivers of education transformation across the country: “The existing teachers within the system are passionate and committed and they have been given lots of training and there has been quite encouraging feedback from citizens. Quality will continue to be the focus for training programmes for future incoming teachers I am confident that, with strong support, teachers can drive the change captured in the blueprint.”
As the discussion drew to a close we asked Madam Khadijah about her views on the future of education in Malaysia: “We’re very optimistic, but we’re talking about a whole ecosystem that we need to change. We are talking about a huge ministry, with almost half a million teachers in pre-school to upper secondary alone, so change will take time.”
“Moreover, education is very dynamic. Even the blueprint is not cut in stone. It was developed six years ago and we are already seeing emerging issues that were not captured. But as long as we learn along the way and don’t underestimate the complexity of the issues we are trying to address and address speedily, we’ll be on the right path.”
Moreover, education is very dynamic. Even the blueprint is not cut in stone. It was developed six years ago and we are already seeing emerging issues that were not captured.
The Future of Government
At the Centre for Public Impact, we’re exploring and debating the implications of enablement as part of our Future of Government project. Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org if you work in the public sector or in government and would like to contribute your thoughts and reactions to this debate.
We’re speaking to government leaders, civil servants and public sector workers around the world to understand how they’re thinking about the future and shaping their organisations for the challenges ahead.
Find out more about our Future of Government Project here.
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- What’s next? A design journey into the Future of Government: Lack of diversity at the top, austerity, and simplified metrics – Elena Bagnera explores the obstacles to building citizens’ trust in government.