State intervention

Supporting government schools in the UAE and Malaysia

Brian Ambrosio reflects on what worked when targeting sustainable change for government schools in the UAE and Malaysia.

Why change is needed

There is a growing trend in many parts of the world where parents have lost faith in the public or government school sector and consequently move their children into private or international schools.

Over the last 15 years with 4 education organisations across the UAE and Malaysia, I have been involved in programmes attempting to rectify this situation so that trust can be restored to the public system, where, after all, most children will be educated.

Reflecting on strategies to strengthen the value proposition of state education, 4 core changes seem to have had the biggest impact on sustainable change:

  1. Placing students at the centre of planning and decision making
  2. Establishing a culture of ‘Safety’ in the school
  3. Developing effective leadership teams
  4. Implementing data-driven CPD

What did this look like?

1. Placing students at the centre of the adults’ purpose

The fundamental objective of schools is to support student growth and development. That is why schools were established. How often in strategic planning sessions, professional development programmes or decision-making meeting is the question asked; ‘What is best for the students?’

What the teams I worked with found, was that too often, many conversations about transformation, school improvement and pedagogy did not include the word ‘student’ in the discussions.

When schools were able to make the students front and centre of change while giving the students a voice through student surveys and establishment of Student Voice Groups, then adults started to view priorities through a different lens.

2. The importance of establishing a safe culture

‘Getting the culture right’ is a cliché that is used often whenever organisational development / change is discussed.  But what does it mean and what does it look like?

In a school environment, and maybe also in many other organisations, one of the key elements for effective transformation is that people feel safe.  Simon Sinek in his Ted Talk ‘Good Leaders make you feel safe’ is a good starting point to understand what is needed.  Sinek suggests that leaders need to focus on trust, respect, support and cooperation to get their people fully on board and create a ‘Circle of Safety’ that everyone feels a part of.

Too often the members of the communities with whom we were working did not feel ‘safe’.

External support for the school (i.e. consultants, districts officer, etc) needed to establish the same culture of trust, while school leaders also had to feel safe with their staff.  When leaders developed an authentically safe environment, people felt able to be a part of the transformation process.

What our advisory teams found was that creating a safe, respectful environments enabled noticeable changes in terms of;

  • Promoting the trust of staff, who also felt empowered
  • Developing a growth mindset, which led to innovation
  • Improved collaboration and sharing
  • Authentic Self-Reflection which leads to continuous improvement strategies


A Safe Environment enables the fundamentals of change to occur

 3. Building Leadership Teams

Once you have developed a safe environment, team building becomes a driver of change.  Tapping into the talent within the organisation is then a critical step.

We found that when senior leaders worked in unison and became skilled as both instructional and transformation leaders, change followed. The sustainability of any change was increased when leaders at all levels were involved and avenues for succession planning were inbuilt. Where school transformation was led by a strong-willed leader, using an ‘it’s my way or the highway approach’, there were some short-term gains, but these were not sustained if they did not develop others,and make them feel part of the process.

Senior Leaders need not do all the work alone and do not need to be the experts in all aspects of education, but we often found there was no tradition of established ‘middle leadership’. The development of a Middle Leader team who supported the Senior Leaders with instructional leadership support was a crucial element for any success.  These middle leaders were made up of department heads as well as outstanding education practitioners (who may not have had a title) within the school. In Malaysian schools, there were some outstanding educators who, once given the opportunity to contribute as empowered middle leaders, made a significant impact on the improvement of learning and teaching across the school.  When the Middle Leadership team led the internal continuous professional development programme and worked in unison with the Senior Leaders to support and coach teachers where needed, there was more impact on learning.  They were often the unsung heroes and the Senior Leadership Team needed to validate and support them through their journey, otherwise burn out was a distinct possibility.

4. Establishing a culture of Continuous Professional Development (CPD)

Professional Development is obviously central to transformation. However, for any significant long-term change it needs to be strategic. A data driven professional development programme based on triangulated data from a range of sources (a Learning walk, Lesson Observation, Teacher Survey, Student Survey etc.,) ensured that professional development was specific and stakeholders had ‘buy in’.  Teachers needed to feel part of the process, understand the why, and believe that any given change is required. Identifying ‘internal experts’, based on the initial talent identification to establish Middle Leaders, meant that certain professional development programmes could be organised in-house, while external consultants, district officers could be called on when the school identified a gap.

The best professional development undertaken was continuous. During the best programmes, all leaders and teachers were accountable to follow up new learning with practice, reflection and sharing.   Professional Learning Communities in which leaders and teachers can share their application task reflections helped consolidate learning and promoted collaboration within the school.

           Contiuous PD Cycle

The ability of leaders to demonstrate humility by being part of the CPD process also made a difference as Natalie Croome has also argued.  Senior Leaders involvement in learning and teaching professional development, particularly when they were led by the Middle Leaders, was a very powerful message to the staff.  They enhanced their instructional leadership skills and were also able to validate and support middle leaders who were proud that they were delivering a professional development programme to their boss.

Going forward in government schools

The four key elements we identified as crucial for impact on learning are only the starting point for transformational change and of course, they are relevant to any school wanting to see positive change in their culture.  What we found above all else is that when people (students, teachers, leaders) feel like they belong and are part of the process, great things can happen.


Brian Ambrosio is a Senior Education Consultant with Consilium Education and resides in the picturesque town of Cotacachi, Ecuador.





FEATURE IMAGE:  by Moondance from Pixabay

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Leading and learning