19 September 2014

Interview: Leading Education reform

 - Monday, 23 April 2012, 00:00

by John Cordina

As a college principal, a researcher and an author, Frank Fabri argues that developing effective leadership is crucial to achieve the results ongoing education reforms are hoping for

A teacher for 11 years, Frank Fabri furthered his studies and, in 2009, obtained a doctorate in education at the University of London, with particular focus on leadership in the context of network.

This specialisation, arguably, appears tailor-made for the post he now assumes: College principal of St Theresa College. In that role, he facilitates collaboration between seven schools – four primary ones and three secondary ones – in Birkirkara, Msida, Santa Venera and Lija.

Despite taking up the post, he continues to engage in research work in the field of education, participating in international research projects and publishing books on the topic in the process. He has just published his fifth book, named “Tmexxija Effettiva ta’ Skejjel f’Kulleġġi: kunsiderazzjonijiet f’kuntest ta’ bidla” (effective leadership in college schools: considerations in a context of change).

For his latest book, Dr Fabri conducted interviews of fellow principals, heads of schools, the directors-general for education services and for quality and standards in education, support staff and students, whilst referring to local and international research and practices.

As the name suggests, the book focuses on the role of leadership, and its conclusion is that effective leadership brings results and makes a significant difference at schools, in classrooms and in the community. Dr Fabri acknowledges that the conclusion may sound obvious, but points out that the importance and effect of leadership tends to be underestimated.

He even boiled his conclusion down to a mathematical equation, E (M + T) = SE, which ties the effectiveness (E) of a school (S), to its leaders (M) and to their leadership style (T).

The equation shows, he explains, that if both are effective, the school itself will be effective: however, traditional leadership would result in a traditional school which, at this point in time, would not bring the desired result but simply resemble “exam factories”.

The equation is broken down further, with Dr Fabri arguing that effective leaders are not born but made, linking their effectiveness to the training and professional development they receive. He also notes that effective leadership is not simply being able to order people about, but is based on collaboration, and employs democratic and distributive methods.

Unsurprisingly, Dr Fabri is a strong supporter of the reform which brought about the college system in government schools.

He explains that before the college system was in place, the Education Division in Floriana was directly responsible for Malta’s numerous state schools, designing all plans and taking all the relevant decisions. This resulted in a very bureaucratic, rigid system with a vast gulf between schools and policymakers, as well as within and among schools themselves; but the reform, he notes, has helped bridge these gaps.

Heads of schools, Dr Fabri maintains, had been reduced to mere administrators, simply implementing other people’s vision according to whatever the Floriana centre decided. But the setting up of colleges now gives them the opportunity for greater power and influence within their school, the college it forms part of and, ultimately, on a national level, although for this to be accomplished, he notes, they need to ensure their leadership is effective.

As for college principals, their first challenge, he notes, was to forge a new, common, identity between schools forming part of their college. This, Dr Fabri explains, was no easy task as schools had already developed their own identities over years of working in isolation.

Schools’ identities had to be respected and not trampled upon, he argues, adding that principals had to understand the schools they were responsible for before weaving a common identity around them – and not impose their own personality.

But a recent survey commissioned by the MUT suggested that teachers have not completely embraced the reform, with the majority of those surveyed replying that they did not believe that the reform had filtered down to students.

When asked about the survey, Dr Fabri notes that while the initial results have been published, the final analysis is yet to service, adding that he was anxious to look at the result.

He disagrees with the assertion that students are not feeling the effect of the reform, citing the growing opportunities and support they now have. One of his books provides an example, he notes: students were engaged in a reflective exercise that ultimately committed school and college leaders in the design and implementation of school development plans.

On a more positive note, Dr Fabri says, the survey does suggest that teachers do agree with the system in principle, describing this as a sign to provide support and foster collaboration.

Nevertheless, he points out, the survey sends a strong initial message about the pace and the implementation of the reform, and this had to be listened to. Efforts are already taking place, he adds: college principals have discussed and explained the matter often, and at times had even delayed or modified measures they were planning to implement.

The introduction of colleges, however, is not the only reform taking place in state schools. Another significant one concerns the transition from primary to secondary education, which has seen the removal of the junior lyceum and common entrance examinations and of “streaming” in favour of mixed-ability classes.

This reform has now been in place for a number of years: the first students affected are now in their first year of secondary education. But it has also raised a number of concerns, including a possible negative impact on the better-performing students.

Dr Fabri notes that preparations for this reform have been extensive, although it will take time for results and research to show whether these efforts were enough and appropriate. However, he adds, positive results are already apparent.

The previous system was highly selective, and focused mainly on those who academically succeeded, and Dr Fabri remarks that those who fell behind – even at an early age – were being neglected, even unconsciously. He also points out that mixed-ability classes are the norm in many educational systems, including some of the best-performing ones.

He mentions Finland among other countries – whose education system is consistently rated among the world’s best – as an example. The country introduced mixed-ability classes in a reform which took place in the 1970s, and while this was initially resisted – it barely survived a parliament vote, for instance – the ensuing results allayed these concerns.

Finland, he explains, invested heavily in training, in support for students, staff and leaders alike, as well as in efforts to attract the best students to the teaching profession. Further effort was needed in Malta, where the perception that teaching was “easy” remained, Dr Fabri notes.

Perhaps the most obvious way of attracting people to the teaching profession is through making teachers’ salaries more attractive, but Dr Fabri points out that it is not so straightforward. In the best performing countries, he notes, teachers’ salaries are relatively average, while a number of others which focused on salaries performed poorly.

However, Dr Fabri adds, teachers in countries with strong education systems are held in a very high esteem, enjoying the trust of the community. Finnish teachers, for instance, are trusted enough to set their own assessments throughout primary and secondary schooling: the first national test is faced by students aged 15-16.

On the other hand, in Malta, one of the most common observations made – even in the media – is that teachers enjoy too many holidays, an assessment which the former teacher deems unjust and superficial, and which betrays a lack of awareness of what teachers actually do.

“Being a teacher is both a passion and vocation, and is a very difficult profession,” Dr Fabri says. Changing perceptions, however, will be a challenge, he admits, although one which can be overcome.

The ongoing reforms are taking place at a rapid pace, but Dr Fabri observes that this was a natural reaction to decades of stagnation in the sector. Maltese schools, he remarks, had become relics of a bygone age, unfit for preparing children for present scenarios and future challenges.

The previous system had worked well in the past, at least in certain situations, during the industrialisation period, he adds. But society has greatly changed since then, with economies and social structures collapsing, instability, growing political pressure to achieve more with less and change becoming the order of the day.

Arguments for even faster reforms had been made, Dr Fabri maintains, while at the other end, local culture was generally resistant to change and favoured slow-paced reforms. A compromise had to be sought, he argues.

The reforms have also been backed by a strengthening of support structures in schools, and Dr Fabri argues that the introduction of the colleges system helped make this possible. Coincidentally, the interview took place while his college was organising a team-building event for its support staff.

In the past, the college principal notes, practically only teachers were deployed to schools, but this was no longer the case. He adds that as college principal, he invests heavily in staff, devoting much of the college’s budget to training.

Ultimately, he observes that obtaining success in education required investing heavily, and investing well, before adding that Malta’s investment in the education sector was quite substantial.

So is Malta also investing well?

Dr Fabri notes that this was a very complex question to answer. Investment, he says, is not simply a matter of quantity, but needed to render results, and once again, best-performing education systems provided possible lessons.

As the interview draws to an end, he does stress that everyone involved made an effort to improve the educational system, and that their work should be appreciated. What was important, he adds, was for stakeholders to understand that they could no longer work in isolation, if they wanted results, but had to work together to achieve systemic change.

Dr Fabri also stresses that it is important to keep results in mind, and not simply stubbornly implement reforms whatever the outcome. If results that matter most are not obtained, something somewhere is clearly not working, he notes as the interview ends.

A fitting assessment, one might argue, from someone who argues that effective leadership is collaborative and democratic.


Frank Fabri

• Taught in state secondary schools for 11 years

• Served as Rabat mayor until his appointment as college principal

• Obtained a doctorate in education at the University of London

• Author of five books on education

• Involved in a number of international research projects

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