Education can fall short of community needs when it fails to adequately cultivate children into well-rounded, productive adults. This can have dramatic flow-on consequences for a country’s workforce, affecting its productivity, innovativeness and competitiveness. The antidote to this is an education that centers on the holistic development of the child, especially in the formative years of learning.
This was the chief mission of Yayasan AMIR, a nonprofit organization incorporated in 2010 to “improve the accessibility of quality education in Malaysian public schools” in partnership with the Ministry of Education. It achieves this through a multi-year intervention—the Trust Schools Programme—to transform individual schools by building the capacity of teachers, administrators and principals. The idea is not to modify what the child learns, but the way they learn. CAPS sat down (virtually) with Dato’ Noor Rezan Bapoo Hashim, who is on Yayasan AMIR’s board of trustees and is a former Deputy Director at the Ministry of Education, in September 2020 followed by an update in October 2021. She spoke about the journey of getting this groundbreaking model for education off the ground.
CAPS: Dato’ Noor Rezan, thank you for taking the time to speak with us today. You’ve had an esteemed career in the education field. What was it about Yayasan AMIR that caught your eye, and why did you get involved?
Dato’ Noor Rezan: In 2009, I was in charge of operations as the Deputy Director General at the Ministry of Education. Shahnaz Al-Sadat, the initiator of Trust Schools Programme (TSP), approached us in July. We had been trying to steer away from exam-oriented education system for years, so it was a meeting of the minds when she started talking about holistic education. I had always been a strong advocate for growing the child, not just teaching the child to score A’s in exams. TSP aligned with this goal completely, so it was easy for me to become highly engaged with the program.
CAPS: You were an educator yourself before joining the ministry. Was that when you realized there was more to education than just checking off grades?
Dato’ Noor Rezan: I started teaching in 1974, and over a span of 20 years moved from teaching to being a principal to being in the education ministry. I saw how the education system had changed to become more focused on a student’s marks as a measure of achievement. It was clear what this was doing to the children. Parents were also conscious of the system’s pitfalls that centered on student scores. Their children were getting fantastic results, but were not being prepared to become successful in the world.
In Malaysia, the national philosophy of education stipulates the development of a well-balanced, holistic child. It has taken many years of public outcry and several education ministers to steer the system back towards this thinking. TSP came to the ministry at just the right time when, in 2010, education was included as one of seven key national results in the Government Transformation Programme.
CAPS: How does the Trust Schools Programme steer schools towards holistic education?
Dato’ Noor Rezan: By changing the delivery of education in schools. We do this by transforming the entire school and giving the same training to teachers as to the principals and school administrators so that everyone is aware and can buy into the change. By focusing on the way education is delivered, we can make sure that change is sustainable, not just for a single class of students but for every class of students that comes through.
TSP was piloted in 10 schools, including high-performing and challenging ones, at the start. We realized that the issues that schools experience are often idiosyncratic, and it was important to draw differentiated lessons for the variety of schools we have in the country. Today, we bring this approach to over 100 schools.
CAPS: What was your role in steering the TSP?
Dato’ Noor Rezan: I was with the program when it first started. As it grew, I switched from the ministry to becoming part of the Board at Yayasan AMIR. Since I maintained good relations with the ministry, I acted as a bridge and buffer between Yayasan AMIR and the ministry. For instance, whenever there was a meeting planned with the ministry I would brief the Director General first. I tried to help where I could, especially through the difficult times. Support from the very top is crucial for a program like this and we were very fortunate to have a succession of Director Generals at the Ministry of Education on board.
CAPS: What were some of these difficulties?
Dato’ Noor Rezan: We made some mistakes at the program’s start when we were still learning to work with the Ministry of Education. The ministry oversees over 10,000 schools and half a million teachers. Introducing a new program within this bureaucracy must be delicately managed. For instance, all division heads must be made aware of the program. However, we only onboarded a few of the key departments at the start.
I knew we had made an error when I spoke with my former colleagues at the ministry and was shocked to find some department heads were not aware of the program. They would simply shut the door to changes if they were not properly engaged. Luckily, we caught this misstep early. We have a marvelous team that was able to uncover shortcomings like this and start putting things right.
CAPS: Starting a new initiative in the established public school system could not have been easy. Were you met with resistance when working with schools?
Dato’ Noor Rezan: We did experience resistance at the operations level. Having been a teacher before, I understand how teachers think. A new program will simply add more to their plate. The TSP builds in a period of adjustments for teachers and other school staff to review current practices and identify areas of improvement before internalizing the necessary changes. Inevitably, there are doubters at the start of the program, but six months in the results speak for themselves. You can tell by the children: they are much more vibrant, they enjoy coming to class and are keen to talk to teachers. They are less self-conscious about participating in the classroom. And once these results become apparent, we start to change minds and overcome doubts.
CAPS: That is a great indicator of success. Are there plans to expand this model to more schools across the country?
Dato’ Noor Rezan: We have shifted to the next phase—to a TSP 2.0. We’ve streamlined the program, reducing the transformation period from 5 years to 3 years so it is less costly to adopt and easier to scale. We also work with state and district officers to train them, so that the local bureaucracy can come in, monitor progress and keep the program running. We hope Yayasan AMIR can eventually exit the program when the state government assumes greater ownership of school transformations.
With TSP rolled out in over 100 schools, there is a good spread of schools with experience that they can share with other schools in their vicinity. This is one suggestion I have made to the ministry: allow other schools to learn from and visit the schools that are part of the TSP. Allow the program to spread through to other schools, whereby teachers in a TSP school could provide training and advice to other interested schools. The schools have taken this on, and we hope it continues to grow this way.