Trust schools blaze a trail

THE Trust School Conference blazed another trail in Kuching last week with more than 700 participants including school principals, teachers and students from all over the country. The venue was appropriate because Sarawak was one of two states that pioneered the trust school (TS), or sekolah amanah, concept some eight years ago. The other state is Johor. It started with 10 schools but has now increased more than eight-fold covering almost all states, except Kedah, Perlis, Penang and Malacca.

However, other similar projects are being introduced in the interim before the full TS programme comes on board in the remaining states. Admittedly the number is a drop in the ocean. Nevertheless, the sea of knowledge and transformational experience gained so far is in itself invaluable, being the first successful home-grown transformational model of significant impact on education.

The conference, the sixth since 2012, documents the impact publicly for others to see and judge for themselves. Nothing like "seeing is believing" as far as education is concerned. It is too complex to be simplified into numbers as currently done as if they are "the" absolute indicators of "quality" as "falsely promoted" by parties with a myopic view of education.

Instead, the conference bares the real "anatomy" of education and opens it to scrutiny, creating a deeper understanding of the human-centric aspect. It is aimed at developing the whole person (not just "human capital") and not just someone who "excels" in making a living but fails in life. Trust schools form the bedrock in the evolution of Malaysian education in its own mould as clearly outlined by Wawasan 2020. It is after all our story, the Malaysian story for a "new" Malaysia.

Over the years, the model has been improved and fine-tuned by co-learning with other experienced experts and members of the community. This is an ongoing process like all vibrant and organically grown initiatives – lifelong, lifewide and lifeworthy processes that will never stop. Otherwise, it will be stillborn and no longer transformational. With the studied transfer of knowledge and expertise, the Malaysian counterparts are playing more and more dominant roles adding socio-cultural nuances in shaping the future of national education as a preferred and relevant one. This is one of several rewards of the TS programme where virtually all the participating schools experienced their own transformation (not a one-size-fits-all) making it unique within their own context.

They range from the "better" schools in urban centres to that in remote rural areas covering schools considered "less" privileged – out of sight, out of mind. Included are those for the orang asal as well as other minorities. This wide and varied range is evident enough to show the robustness of the model cutting across the board in mainstreaming the programme to be templated throughout the nation. In this context, the statement by the education minister in conjunction with the conference that the TS programme is to be extended is timely and most welcome.

The theme this time was aptly titled "Transformation beyond borders". In a nutshell, the programme adopted a "whole school improvement" approach as a change strategy by using social enterprise (with no profit motives) as the vehicle to drive the transformation. It nurtures a more holistic, comprehensive and quality education for students and staff alike founded on high value and integrity.

A key attraction this time was the participation of Finnish experts. Finland, known for its sterling performance in education, is well recognised by the international community. Some of the lessons learned are seemingly simple but will have a tremendous impact in "humanising education".

For example, foremost, the system is built on a culture of trust and pride of work. The latter focuses on competent teachers working on a foundation of respect, autonomy and professionalism with no evaluation and inspection by external authority. It focuses on "self-reflection" rather than "assessment" in general and "standardised assessment" in particular. In other words, everyone is accountable for themselves, including the students where the building of "trust" is imperative. And they become owners of their own learning. Throughout the sharing sessions, several rounds of applause were heard from the audience as a sign of overwhelming approval.

Other eye-openers were when it was revealed that the Finnish education system works on the basis of "more problems, more resources". Meaning to say that they are more interested in slow learners and low achievers so that all of the students will arrive at an acceptable level of performance and achievement.

Thus the goal is to narrow the gaps and divisiveness among not just students but also schools throughout the nation. It is for this reason too that it entertains no form of ranking and competition in all aspects. Parents and the communities supported and accepted this so that education is not skewed towards only those that can be measured (KPIs?) but otherwise ignored including "trust" that is so fundamental to the Finnish philosophy.

The evidence: The student dropout rate is 0.3% – virtually nil. This is another eye-opener that prompted another round of applause from the rather "baffled" audience. No KPIs, really? Not in Malaysia! Thanks to advice fed to us by consultants.

For all these reasons the Trust School Programme is deemed necessary to put in place what Malaysia ought have at par with the Finnish experience.

With some four decades of experience in education, the writer believes that "another world is possible". Comments: letters@thesundaily.com