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A Cambridge approach to improving education

Cambridge partners have highlighted the importance of a powerful framework in supporting governments and education organisations to develop coherent and bespoke solutions towards improving education outcomes around the world.

Made up of Cambridge Assessment International Education, Cambridge Assessment English, Cambridge University Press and the University of Cambridge Faculty of Education, collectively Cambridge partners provide curriculum, assessment, teaching and learning approaches, resources, English as a second language and teacher training services to support implementation of education reform agendas.

Jane Mann, Director of Education Reform at the Press said: ‘There is increasing international discussion about how to design and implement strategies that bring about educational improvement. Our mission to “contribute to society through the pursuit of education, learning and research at the highest international levels of excellence” shapes our approach to improving education systems.’ 

Education systems are complex and local context is essential in order to understand the wider implications of change. Different nations, at different times, have different challenges and opportunities, levels of resourcing and timescales to work with. With experts across the globe, Cambridge partners work in collaboration with education stakeholders to address these challenges and develop bespoke solutions that work for specific country’s context.   

A recent paper by Professor Tim Oates, CBE, Group Director of Assessment Research and Development for Cambridge Assessment, sets out this framework which acknowledges the complexity and highlights the importance of coherence in addressing this challenge.

1. A powerful framework for policy design

Education policy can directly impact curriculum, assessment, learning
resources, teacher professional
development, funding and
accountability; but complex relations exist between these factors. The framework, designed to aid the understanding of factors affecting different education systems at different times, can guide policy making, centering it on highly targeted and specific action which maximises the impact of invested effort and resources on these factors.

Education systems are also influenced by ‘explanatory factors’, such as global and local economies, cultures and the natural environment, though these tend to be out of the scope of education policy.

2. The importance of coherence

Coherence across all components of an education system improves the changes of success in achieving education outcomes. However, effective improvement is not solely achieved through changes being made to all key aspects of education systems at once. Instead, change and refinements in single aspects of systems, for example in curriculum, assessment or teacher support, can be highly successful if designed with awareness of how that particular aspect interacts and influences other key elements of the education system.

3. Bespoke solutions

Understanding the complex relations and interactions within each national education system is an important starting point in the formation of education improvement policy. The precise steps to designing policy or managing implementation will vary but taking a comprehensive view and targeting coherence create the best chance of improving and sustaining education outcomes.


Visit Cambridge at the 2018 Education World Forum event to find out more about our wide range of flexible services that support a coherent approach to education improvement.


Finding the Way Through: Managing Complexity in Education Policy

For all those engaged in developing and implementing national education strategies, friction and its partner, complexity, will be a wearily familiar phenomena. Yet at the recent Innovation Africa event, held in Maputo, Mozambique, from 23-25 October 2017, the Deputy Director of Education Services at Cambridge, Karen Kester, revealed how complexity in education actually can be understood, unpacked and embraced, and aligned to forces for change.

Context and the dangers of ‘policy borrowing’

Complexity is inherent in education at state levels. Aligning all the factors that make up an education system – curriculum, pedagogy, resources, funding, teacher training etc. – is a vast and often resistant exercise in cooperation and coordination. In such systems, perfection is never fully attained. To make matters more difficult for those seeking change, education systems can be by nature ‘resilient’, in the sense of ‘springing back into shape’ – the interconnections between all parts of the system harden through routine, compartmentalised thinking and entrenched attitudes, making it stubbornly resistant to modification.

So far, so familiar. But as recent research by Cambridge reveals, international insights can reshape the approach to managing complexity. The ultimate goal is to achieve ‘coherence’, (quoting Tim Oates, Group Director for Assessment Research and Development, Cambridge Assessment) ‘the national curriculum content, textbooks, teaching content, pedagogy, assessment and drivers and incentives are all aligned and reinforce one another.’ For when complex parts are aligned, then the whole system exhibits strength, focus and influence.

So how is this achieved? Crucially, Cambridge warns against the dangers of ‘policy borrowing’ – uncritically adopting the education strategies of high-performing jurisdictions, such as Finland or Singapore, as apparently proven maps for the way that things should be done. While there is much to learn, and indeed implement, from such success stories, international studies by Cambridge and other organisations show that something that worked well in one country can result in disappointment when used in another. Here the crunch factor is context – each country has a unique set of variables and system elements that prevent borrowed policies from clicking neatly into place like the last, satisfying, jigsaw piece. But what the high-performing educators do offer to others is a common process approach: the ‘careful management of the relations between elements of their systems’. Working out the rules behind that ‘careful management’ is, in effect, the golden key to developing education policy that takes charge of complexity. 

Control factors and explanatory factors

Education policy makers have to manage two groups of complexities: control factors and explanatory factors. Control factors are those which it is possible to influence through policy action. The Cambridge research work by Tim Oates plots 14 such factors: Curriculum, Assessment, Pedagogy, National Framework, Governance, Funding, Professional Development, Selection, Accountability, Allied Social Measures, Inspection, Institutional Structures, Institutional Development, and Information and Guidance. All these factors interplay with each other in the complexity model. The skill in steering them into a profitable route for change often comes from targeting specific groups of closely associated and influential control factors, and remodelling their alignment. Karen Kester points particularly to the work Cambridge has done with other strategic partners in developing Curriculum, Assessment and Pedagogy, always adapting to national context and broader control factors: 

‘In both Kazakhstan and Egypt, for example, we have developed teacher training programmes, including training for school principals, to support teachers with new teaching and learning approaches which align to the curriculum content and new forms of assessment. Our work has been different in each country because we have had to take into account the influences of the other control factors. Institutional structures, professional development frameworks and funding, for example, all affect how you can approach teacher training.’

Second, there are the explanatory factors. These affect policy, but are resistant to, or out of the scope of, policy action. Examples include the natural environment, global and domestic economy, political structure and culture. Despite largely sitting outside the control of education policy (although the ultimate output of education can reshape explanatory factors), we all understand that their effects on education can be profound, from the knock-on impact of oil or mineral prices on education budgets through to the effects of seasonal flooding on students’ ability to access schools. But even here, a coherent approach to managing complexity can bear fruit. The influence of explanatory factors can be built into a smart approach to control factors, making the education system less vulnerable to the ups and downs of the context.

Ultimately, the message is a positive and grounded one. And key point to note here is that ‘The challenges of improving education can feel unsurmountable’ and that ‘Context, complexity and resilience are all difficult to address.’ But ultimately, ‘deliberate coherence of control factors and the recognition of explanatory factors provide a grounding for effective strategies.’ By understanding the individual control factors and their points of pressure upon each other, and by putting in place a systematic process for ‘fine-tuning’ these factors, education ministries can indeed manage complexity, turning friction into a more positive and productive energy.

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