Public Management

Firm helmsmanship is needed to effect a change in education

February 24, 2016 | 5 min read

The current education system lacks firm helmsmanship in order to anticipate on the multitude of learning and support issues. Education needs to be organized differently if it is not to run aground, argues Margje Bielars, primary school head and participant in the TIAS Executive Master of Management in Education (MME).

Making changes in education is like wanting to cross the Pacific Ocean in a yacht. Firm helmsmanship, conviction and passion are needed to achieve the goal. It seems as though this firm helmsmanship is missing in the educational world.

More and more demands are being made of education. The Tailored Education Act, Education Platform 2032 and the PISA, TIMMS and OESO ranking lists demand more and more customization of education. On the other hand, teachers have been insufficiently able to deliver that desired and expected customization. Many school leaders also wrestle with their role as educational leader.

In 2006 Ken Robinson, governmental educational advisor, advocated a radical shift from standardized learning to personalized learning. The old habits and working methods are no longer effective and the challenges schools face cannot be met by the traditional organizational model.


The fact is that schools are under pressure to meet the demands and wishes of children, parents, society and ourselves. In the past years we have noticed that there is a gulf between what schools want to do for children and what schools are able to do. Also the urge for accountability, in which everything has to be recorded, consumes a significant part of the time.

These factors result in increasing disappointment. The feeling that you have not quite been able to do what you wanted as a teacher, produces stress and working pressure. We should now be beyond the discussion as to whether educational change is necessary. Research and discussions should be concentrated on how to organize educational change in order to obtain the greatest effect on learning and development.

Taking a critical view of education

Our educational system is groaning under all this pressure and demands changes. Instead of sailing on in an old yacht, it would be better to develop it further. An educational organization that fits in with the wishes, demands, developments and possibilities of present-day society.

Tex Gunning, CEO at TNT Express, is well-known for his innovative ideas concerning leadership. In 2011, during a Nivoz lecture, he noted that we are teaching for yesterday's world and that we cannot permit ourselves to focus solely on combating the symptoms. With the practical tools from the research "What works at school?" by Robert Marzano, international educational scientist, we can take a critical view of education and set out new lines. It is the school leader's turn to show strong educational leadership, so that teachers become involved in the desired educational change.

Show courage

To reorganize education, responsible choices need to be made and accents need to be determined in the organization. In Didactief 2009, Bea Ros indicated that starting again follows three clear steps. Namely:

  • choose an unambiguous concept;
  • keep on course;
  • don't be afraid of making errors.

Starting again demands showing courage in discarding old habits and working methods. Another organizational model in which joint responsibility is borne for content, organization and cooperation, delivers professional learning groups within the school. If teachers have a wide knowledge of learning and development lines, firm decisions can be taken about what is offered and the working method. Also (partially) leaving the old paths demands the necessary cooperation in a team.

Set out a strong route

In order not to wander all over the place and to avoid constantly reviewing the course, the school leader and the team will have to set out a firm route and conform to it. That does not mean that we should throw all the old stuff overboard. It does however mean that we will have to further develop that old wooden yacht. Retain the strong and goods parts, adjust what can be improved and made smarter.

But these adaptations must be made based on the course that the schools want to follow. The school leader will have to set the navigation properly in order to see through social and educational trends. We need to grasp the tiller firmly and think and act proactively. The majority of schools have a reactive working method, making it tricky to navigate their own course.

Renewal has advantages and disadvantages

Opponents of educational reform indicate that there is too little evidence that reform will actually lead to educational improvements. Beter Onderwijs Nederland (BON) is an association which promotes traditional education. They indicate that adjustments to education have been going on for forty years, but all that innovation has not led to effective educational change.

Professor Doctor Rob Martens, professor of educational studies in Leiden, recognizes that decades of long term effects are needed before it can really be demonstrated what education has meant to society or individual careers. This evidence cannot be delivered in its ultimate form, but that also applies to evidence concerning the old method of learning, according to Martens.

Educational reform usually assumes organizational changes (first order changes) but another working method demands other skills and qualities of teachers. Michael Fullan, sociologist and educational researcher, indicates that educational reforms often seem to ignore second order changes.

Cooperation and coordination

Drastic educational reforms demand another way of thinking, working arrangements and cooperation from teachers. An increase in working pressure is experienced when a new educational process is started. Anything new initially costs a lot of energy. Such as preparing lessons together, coordinating the organization with colleagues and evaluating the day in order to apply refinements for the next day. Just three matters which cost more time because it is not about the own group and working method anymore. In time, more expertise is built up and joint cooperation and coordination provides more tools and satisfaction.

In the past years I have noticed while supervising various schools that teachers experience an intensive working pressure with educational reform, but that it doesn't weigh up against the old working pressure resulting from dissatisfaction. This is certainly an important element that the school leader needs to take account of. Educational reform is not a quick answer to a reduction in working pressure; rather it leads to a peak in an increase of working pressure.

For today and the future

Changes in education are not just about the future. It is not simply about anticipating other skills, social changes and about creative thinking. The educational reform which we need to initiate, is most certainly about the present. The great diversity in educational and learning needs makes the current educational system lacking. With the introduction of the Tailored Education Act on August 01, 2014, we have the responsibility of offering all children a place in education.

The school is not an island in society and, along with all the influences entering the school, the school will have to present itself. It is up to us, the school leaders, to guide the school and the team across the Pacific Ocean. With proper navigation, an increase in knowledge and proactive measures we can define what we are facing, how we want to navigate there and how our schools can contribute to proper education.

Define an own course

The school is the ship which has to navigate a turbulent sea. If one navigates an ambiguous course, then the ship will run aground and become involved with problems which will have to be solved on an ad hoc basis, thereby only increasing the working pressure and dissatisfaction of all those concerned and decreasing working pleasure.

Education is the best profession there is, but our profession is up against its limits. Define the own course and consider whether educational reform or innovative education is required. Whereas the one concerns a total reform, the other concerns an improvement of existing educational practice. In any event; choose the right direction, together with your team and show that there is a shift taking place from teaching to learning.

The author is Margje Bielars, director of the De Masten primary school and chairwoman of the project group uninterrupted development. She participates in the TIAS Executive Master of Management in Education (MME), an academic master program for Leadership and Management in education.

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