Posted by: Principal/Editor | October 30, 2012

Random Thoughts on Communication between MOE and Schools in Policy Implementation

The ideals that support the educational policies in Singapore, i.e. of meritocracy and multiracialism have remained unchanged since independence. However, this does not mean that the Singapore education system has not seen any changes over the years. Be it small or big, initiatives are constantly being rolled out in the name to keep the system ahead of perceived changes while reviews with accompanying recommendations for implementation on curriculum and programmes are consistently conducted in a 3- or 5-year cycle. As a need as well as a result, educators in schools are not unfamiliar with implementing new or updated policies formulated by Ministry of Education (MOE).

Communication between MOE and schools

The implementation of a policy involves various processes. Among them, communication is one that cannot be overlooked. While effective communication may not guarantee a successful implementation, poor communication will most likely lead to unsatisfactory results. Hence, it is necessary to ensure that communication is a friend and not an enemy during the process of policy implementation. A guide on implementation of policies endorsed by the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, Australian Government in 2006 spelt out the following rationale and objectives of communication:

“Communication is a central component of any change process. The greater the impact or change, the greater the need for clear communication of the reasons and rationale behind it, the benefits expected, the plans for its implementation and its proposed effects. Without effective communication, stakeholders may miss out on vital information and may not understand why change is needed, or the benefits to them of the change.

The objective of communication is to:

  • keep awareness and commitment high
  • maintain consistent messages
  • ensure that expectations do not drift out of line with what will be delivered.”[1]

In the Singapore education system, communication to schools, the implementing agent of policies is always given due consideration by MOE. From the receivers’ perspective, in line with the common perception that education policies in Singapore are implemented using a top-down approach, communication by MOE is interpreted as the series of announcements and information-giving sessions that happen after a policy is formulated at the HQ level. The communication process may takes place along such the following 2-step procedure. After the initial announcement (at perhaps significant events by members of the senior management for the “heavy-weight” policies), further direct communication will be carried out by MOE in the virtual space or/and on other face-to-face platforms. The former includes the spotlight in the intranet, an email blast, a LAN broadcast, or a discussion thread in the MOE forum while the latter includes platforms such as Townhall, In-conversation with DGE and zonal/cluster-level meetings.

In reality, communication done by MOE also goes beyond the processes done after the policy formulation. Understanding the limitations of post-formulation communication in engaging educators as well as to tap on the tacit knowledge within the fraternity, MOE has started to incept elements of bottom-up approach in the top-down model of policy implementation. Representatives of the general teaching population sit at certain HQ committees. For instance, the Teachers’ Council which plays a strategic role of advising and steering the Academy of Singapore Teachers comprises esteemed teacher representatives from various schools. Groups of educators are involved in the formulation process of some policies through ad-hoc focus group discussions. Existing platforms which are conducive for feedback and ideas to be gathered are also tapped to seed the ideas behind initiatives, such as the Work Plan Seminar and various milestone programmes.

Yet, despite the many communication channels tapped by MOE, it is not uncommon to hear teachers at the ground displaying dissatisfaction with the way MOE communicates with them. Disparity exists between the intended and received messages which leads to less than satisfactory results of policy implementation. Level of commitment towards and awareness of certain policies and how they should be implemented vary amongst educators. It is not surprising that at the latest MOE HQ climate survey, communication was identified as one of the main areas of improvement.

So, where do the gaps lie? The next few paragraphs are some of my random thoughts with regard to the gaps that exist in the communication process of policy implementation in the Singapore education system.

Is communication of unsatisfactory level for all groups?

Firstly, it may be useful for us to first question who exactly holds the perception that communication between MOE and schools is unsatisfactory. Although the schools are treated as an entity, each school is actually made up of different personnel who are engaged by MOE in different capacity. A quick slicing of the staff population in schools excluding the executive and administrative staff will reveal at least 4 different groups, namely the school leaders, the middle managers, the teacher-leaders (i.e. Senior and Lead Teachers) and the non-appointment holders. Among the 4 groups, school leaders are the ones most courted by MOE in policy implementation as they are often deemed as the champions and entrepreneurs of policy implementation. School leaders have frequent meetings with the Director of Schools in a year, and polices are usually first communicated to them on such platforms. They also receive circulars and notifications of policy changes. Should this group of school personnel perceive the communication between MOE and schools is unsatisfactory, there will be an urgent need for MOE to review its communication process. The perception of unsatisfactory communication should hence be held by the other groups.

Are current platforms and leverage effective?

In view of the above, if the communication process is to be improved, how the other groups receive information from MOE should be the area to be relooked into. As mentioned before, there are many platforms which MOE can tap on to disseminate information to or receive feedback from the general teaching population. MOE has also ridden on the social media wave with facebook, twitter and YouTube accounts. However, does a large quantity of communication channels guarantee effective communication on a wide scale? If we look beyond the quantity of the channels and look at the type of channels in existence, it is not hard to see their main inadequacy that is they require the receivers to be active agents. Regardless of the platforms tapped, the receivers can choose to ignore the messages by simply either deleting the incoming messages or not signing up to receive the messages. As a personal sensing, a certain number of non-appointment holders treat messages on policies from MOE in such a way. As a result, the rationales of policies are lost, the actions to be taken are interpreted in another way, and eventually expected results of policies are not observed.

To circumvent the issue of receivers being passive, one method will be to package the communication in a more attractive way to entice others to actively seek out more information. For instance, a well-crafted question may attract people to log in My Forum to find out more. A well-designed poster may prompt people to click on it to access more information. Above and beyond, engagement where receivers partake in clarifying the issue at hand and feel a sense of commitment toward the issue will need to be actively carried out.

Currently, active engagement is done with the school leaders as they are identified as the highest leverage for policy implementations. The assumption is that upon receiving the messages from MOE with regard to the policies, they will implement the policies in their schools accordingly, while making slight adjustments to the implementation process to suit their school contexts. However, does this assumption hold true? Given that education policies should eventually affect students’ learning, changes can only be realised by teachers who have direct contact with the students. Hence, it is necessary for communication to teachers to be effective. However, when the teachers are passive receivers of information, they often form the bottom group in receiving messages of policies, after school leaders, middle managers and teacher-leaders. And, as a usual situation in all cases of information dissemination, bits of information are lost between the layers of communication, especially when the in-between layers are ineffective communicators or are affected by their own mental models and have different agenda. The objectives of communication are eventually not met when teachers are being communicated to as the last layer. As such, the strategy to have school leaders as the highest leverage may need to be reconsidered.

Is engaging teacher representatives enough?

MOE is not totally oblivious of the need to engage teachers directly. While it is impossible to engage all teachers due to resource constraints, various divisions do meet up with teacher representatives directly during the communication process, especially when the intended changes pertain to curriculum and/or professional development matters. If the teacher representatives are the connectors, mavens or salesmen in their community of practitioners, by the “law of the few” stated by Gladwell in his book “The Tipping Point”, they will be able to create a social epidemic with regard to the policy initiative. However, such a phenomenon is not always observed in schools. The extent of influence and impact of teacher representatives is not exactly known.

There could be various reasons to why the engagement of teacher representatives does not result in a social epidemic. The engagement of the teacher representatives by MOE may not have created sufficient buy-in from them; the teacher representatives may have misinterpreted the policies despite engagement efforts; the teacher representatives are overloaded with other work to take initiative in engaging others in schools; the teacher representatives do not see themselves as multipliers within the community. An understanding of the reason(s) is required before the appropriate remedy can be adopted.

Last but not least, while the above point out certain inadequacy of the current communication between MOE and schools (which may be biased and incomprehensive as it is from a personal perspective), it should also be recognised that the current process is not without its merits. The Singapore education system is well-known internationally for its efficiency, which is only possible when the communication between MOE and schools is effective. Nonetheless, tension can still be sensed between MOE and schools, and there still exist gaps in communication (and probably in other areas too which are beyond the scope of discussion here) which will affect the results of policy implementation. If some of the gaps can be properly identified and closed, the good intentions of policy will have a greater chance to be translated into good actions, which will eventually benefit the students whom we care most about.

Posted by: Jennifer Wu


[1] Commonwealth of Australia. (2006). Implementation of programme and policy initiatives: making implementation matter (Better Practice Guide). Downloaded on 22 October 2012 from http://www.anao.gov.au/uploads/documents/Implementation_of_Programme_and_Policy_Initiatives.pdf.

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Responses

  1. Communication is an area that needs to be worked on by both parties – MOE as well as the schools.

    It would be easy to push the blame to one or the other but the irony is that schools and MOE are not two different bodies. They are one and should work as one. So how is it that while there are so many channels of communication that MOE has used, the message is still lost in the mail?

    As members of the fraternity, we will need to look at this closely, re-examine the current processes in place and find ways to better bridge this gap.

    How can we ensure that Principals convey the right message and follow up accordingly? We can’t leave it to chance because the pupils’ lives will be at stake. We can’t afford to even hope that a high percentage of principals will be able to communicate effectively and hence we are contented. We need to ensure that policies are implemented for all schools to give equal opportunity to all. So the question remains; how do we ensure that this happens?

    Rather than looking at the channels of communication that we have in existence, what can we do differently?

    We have to relook, reflect and review what we have to improve communication between MOE and schools instead of coming up with something new.

  2. In recent years, I must applaud MOE on improving their communication channels to schools on the ground. Their efforts have not gone unnoticed but it is a sad reality that despite all that has been done so far, as you rightly put Jennifer, it is still “not uncommon to hear teachers at the ground displaying dissatisfaction with the way MOE communicates with them.” I believe that the disparity that exists between the intended and received messages lie in disturbing misinterpretations of incoming policies and not so much miscommunication.

    Many teachers who have not had a stint in MOE only have the chance to understand policies based on the already filtered interpretations of school leaders and middle management. In addition, when policies are being communicated to the ground, the history, background and sound rationale for a particular initiative is mostly ignored as teachers just want to know how to operationalise the policies. Teachers also have their own mental models and even if aspects of a certain policy are communicated clearly, they would choose to hear what they want to hear and interpret it in their own way.

    This misinterpretation and miscommunication may be a result of Singapore having too many educational policy changes over the years. For communication channels to be clear without misinterpretations, teachers need time to ‘digest’ new policies and take ownership of them in order to believe in them fully before operationalising them effectively. However, this is not the case in ever-changing Singapore so teachers end up carrying out what they think is somebody else’s idea, all the time. When that happens, the teaching and learning process lacks true depth and authenticity even though everything began with a good and well-thought through intent.

  3. I believe that we are able to build such a robust education system mainly because of good policy intend and how they were communicated to the schools. If our minister is able to provide that strong affirmation that “all schools are good schools”, it goes to show that there is consistency in educational practices among schools, shared vision between schools and MOE and excellent achievements in all schools. This would not have been possible without communication between MOE and schools. But our education system is far a unilateral system but rather integrated and a complex one. Communication of any sort becomes more complex as well. As you would have experienced it in your school, you may send an email to your staff for their feedback but only a handful will reply. You can then imagine, MOE trying to chart national agendas on education and trying to communicate that intent so that it will be translated to school leaders, teachers and students without any distort. In the recent years, Education Minister’s speech during the annual work plan seminar had been communicated directly to the middle managers via recorded videos. Sometimes such direct communication works rather than leaving it to the school leaders for interpretations or misinterpretations. I also believe that school leaders need to spend more time on educating the teachers on MOE and school policies so that teachers understand and appreciate the essence of them .

  4. We recognise that school leaders, middle managers and teachers will have differing interpretations when they receive policies from HQ. These differing interpretations are understandable as we make sense of the things we hear and see based on four perspectives, technical, cultural, political and postmodern (Hargreaves et. al., 2001).

    The issue with communication is beyond the mode it takes. My observation of the communication efforts by MOE very often focused more on information dissemination; the details of the policies/initiatives and the deliverables. These efforts tend to underestimate, overlook or be oblivious to the difficulties of implementing changes that these policies/initiatives require.

    What about customising the approach of communication to the different audience which considers the underlying assumptions and beliefs of the recipients? No doubt a customised approach may need a longer time and more manpower. I believe the benefits far outweigh having a one-size-fits-all communication that just zooms past the supposed ears of the recipients.

  5. The communication process, or rather, the effective communication process, must be in place if any system change/reform is to be successful. Many factors on the ground also influence/affect the implemention of any policy/initiatives. I believe a close and regular dialogue/feedback session together with a close monitoring process of the actions on the ground will be critical in any policy reform.

  6. You provided an insightful account on how MOE communicates policies and initiatives to schools. You rightly pointed out that leveraging on school leaders to communicate policies to teachers has the benefit of allowing for the message to be tailored to the school context, but also carries a corresponding risk that the fidelity of the policy message might be lost through additional layers of commmunicators. It is easy to blame the current communication processes for the current state of affairs. But let’s not ignore other forces at play here.

    Firstly, the rationale and technicalities behind each policy is varied, complex and comprehensive. Even if one were to pore through the lengthy press releases and speeches by Senior Management and political leaders, one could still misinterpret the message. Furthermore, teachers are bogged down by teaching and administrative duties and hence can barely afford the time to do that. Another possible reason could be the increasingly rapid rate of change in the education landscape. It is not surprising that a new policy, school or initiative is lauched every other month. To be able to keep up with the changes is a challenge in itself. Thirdly, as a result of the first two reasons above, teachers would naturally ‘filter’ the deluge of information (this is a survival skill) and merely look out for issues that concerns themselves.

  7. I wonder if MOEHQ could re-look at their priorities to see that the “marketing” or communication of the educational initiatives that they roll out is as equally important as the other stages in policy formulation i.e. planning, implementation. Very often, the time set aside to plan the communication part is shortest. To realise that “marketing” their “product” well can help them win half of the battle may sway the distribution of resources (i.e. manpower, money) towards mounting a good “publicity” campaign to communicate the intent and other details of a policy.

  8. After being in the service for 10 years, I have personally seen the shift in the way MOE communicates to teachers. From a top down approach to one which is grounds up. The changes we see today are more conversations with the DGE as well as leaders in the HQ. CPDD is also coming to schools more often to touch base with HODs/SHs. The Singapore Conversation which is currently taking place in schools also allows teachers to voice out certain concerns regarding education. Jennifer Wu rightly points out that there are still certain groups of teachers who are dissatisfied. The truth is when DDs from HQ comes to schools and have conversation with the teachers, Principals will have it all planned out – choose teachers who can represent the college well. Teachers who have the most grouse will probably not be chosen for these talks. In addition, even though there is the teacher forum, many teachers are fearful of writing what they truly think for fear of backlash – in terms of promotion or ranking. Even though there are platforms for teachers to give their views about policies, I feel that these platforms have their OB markers and hence teachers are still dissatisfied.

  9. I think we need to look at this from two angles. First What is effective policy implementation (in light of MOE’s deliverables) and Second, what is effective policy implementation from a schools perspective.

    Given the vastness of MOE, it is unavoidable that what whatever they do, they will be seen as not engaging the ground enough, regardless of how many teacher focus groups they engage and consult, this will be a drop in a vast ocean, and when policy is implemented, those who were not consulted will raise the accusation of authoritarian, top-down policy implementation.

    However, policy implementation at MOE has to be top down. Its sheer vastness demands that. How else can coherence be brought? I think MOE has done its best in balancing consultation with policy implementation efficiency.

    To solve this problem, a novel way may be to look at schools as individuals rather than a category of things. Schools are all defined by their neighbourhood, demographics, niche areas, teacher profile, finances etc. The frustration with implementing MOE policy is that often schools do not feel they have the autonomy to define the policy to their own context.

    Maybe MOE should issue broad policy directions, but allow schools to do the job of contextualizing these policies to their own specific circumstances.

  10. I agree with Jennifer and Wuay Boon that there has been a shift in the way MOE communicate with teachers by incepting elements of bottom-up approach in the top-down model of policy implementation. Platforms such as Singapore conversation on education and teacher forum were created for teachers’ feedback and recommendations on various policies. This deliberate attempt involves teachers to envision the kind of education system they hope to have and discuss ways to achieve this shared vision. However, one of the challenges that teachers face in coping new initiatives/policy is that there is often surface interpretation due to the interaction between language and structure of the policy document and thus leading to variation in implementation at the school level and finally departure from policymaker’s intent. As for the policymakers, there is a need for them to pay more attention to the local needs and conditions to make a local judgment so that the decisions would impact the schools meaningfully. Perhaps, more autonomy and empowerment could be given to schools, (other than independent and autonomous schools) so that they can make timely local decisions to impact the students’ learning in their own contexts.

  11. With reviews on curriculum and programmes consistently conducted in a 3 or 5 year cycle, is there pressure for changes, perhaps for justification for these reviews since a lot of time, money and effort have been put into these reviews?

    Is it ok not to come up with major changes during the reviews?
    That other then updating to keep up with time, there would be no major changes since the rational, intent and objectives of these educational programmes should largely remain the same?

    MOE communicates through “the virtual space or/and on other face-to-face platforms. The former includes the spotlight in the intranet, an email blast, a LAN broadcast, or a discussion thread in the MOE forum while the latter includes platforms such as Townhall, In-conversation with DGE and zonal/cluster-level meetings.”

    However, I argue that these might not be totally effective. Spotlight in the intranet, an email blast or a LAN broadcast to me is not communication.
    It is just MOE HQ informing its officers what is happening.

    Communication must be a two-way process while MOE HQ virtual space communication can end up as ‘spam’ among the many pieces of information MOE officers are induated with daily.

    The other face-to-face platforms may only involve a small number of officers, and thus ineffective.

    What I feel would be the most effective is how MOE HQ is now decentralising this communication process to the school leaders – like the recent code of conduct – where school leaders engages their staff in their school. This works best as more officers can be sufficiently engaged and the school leaders will be able to tailor-made the communication process to the
    needs and culture of the school.

  12. For communication of policies and initiatives to be successful, it is important for both MOE and schools to do their part. MOE tries to engage the School Leaders through various platforms such as Cluster Board Meeting, FGDs etc. Information is passed down to middle managers through briefing sessions, workshops, FGDs etc.

    I feel that the challenge is engaging all teachers. Sometimes school leaders and middle managers are briefed on certain new policies and they are expected to brief their teachers but there are situations in which information is not passed down to the teachers due to time constraint e.g. middle managers can’t find a time slot to share the information with the teachers or the sharing is very brief that some main points are missed. Thus, these could be the situations where teachers do not get the correct information on time.

    While I understand that it is impossible for MOE to conduct briefing sessions for all teachers, it would be good if schools can create a platform for middle managers to cascade the necessary information to teachers.

  13. Indeed the communication between MOEHQ and schools has improved much over the years where various communication channels have been set up to send a signal to teachers and schools that their voices are important and heard, not just as part of policy implementation but that of the policy formulation stage. Teachers are invited to sit in various review committees in HQ for curriculum syllabus changes, policies and feedback sessions e.g. the recent Singapore Conversation and at the same time more visits by HQ senior management and school-based conversations are conducted in schools and cluster to allow for ground listening hence changes that meets the needs of the teachers and resistance lessened. While the efforts are commendable, I agree with Wuay Boon that the resources put in this aspect might be looked into in a superficial manner as compared to the other stages of policy planning. If this area of communication is not properly managed and positioned, no matter how best the intentions of the policy, it will not succeed as teachers will become cynical along the way and become more resistant to the change. And let us not forget that we are talking about 33,000 educators here. For a policy to be well implemented from HQ down to zonal, cluster, schools then each individual teacher, there is already the watering down of true understanding of the rationale and change. How can then HQ ensure the quality of the communication flow? More emphasis is definitely needed.

  14. With the concern of the dangers of meritocracy may pose, I would like to pick up that gaps in the communication process inevitably create a sense of dissatisfaction on the ground level in relation to EPMS.

    While the understanding that EPMS is beneficial based on the fact that (1) it acknowledges and rewards accordingly officers for their work based on a systematic approach to data finding during staff appraisal for performance and potential and (2) to develop officers to help close the gap between the current grade and the potential grade, possible gaps in the communication process at the MM and ST level with their teachers can be a grave concern.

    In this context, all Reporting Officers (RO) and their Officers should be fully aware of goals and expectations set out for the year and an agreed grade at the end of the year by both RO and Officer, assuming that RO has monitored and reviewed Officer’s performance at least 2 to 3 times a year so that there is a systematic approach to developing the officer whereby consistent clarification in due conscientiousness of the RO during the review sessions had taken place.

    The concern here is: Can EPMS justified for staff appraisal when proper follow up by ROs have not been done? At the end of the day, ROs are “seen” to have carried out their duty but the Officers are left vulnerable.

    In all due diligence, ranking helps to give a fair assessment on officers, however when officers perceive their ROs as negligent in their duty, the system is already perceived as unfair.

  15. Although many communication channels have been created and appropriated to articulate the intentions of the policy. Such channels clearly indicate the extensive effort undertaken by MOE to ensure information is shared and disseminated intended for the recipients.

    Communication is a two-way activity. It involves the exchange of information will lead to exchange of perspectives with regard to the policies communicated. I’m wondering if the current platform is conducive to not only elicit responses from the ground but to also help facilitate an sustained effective discussion, taking into account both perceptions and concerns of the views expressed.

    As we have about 33,000 educators, it is not possible to account for every single strand of thought discussed in a meaningful way, such that everyone who partakes in the process feel that they have been heard.

    It does appear sometime that the communication process falls into the patter of MOE and the rest. The dichotomy creates a divide which polarizes the ways views are framed and positioned. It has also have an impact on the way the communication process is designed, owned and managed. MOE is a huge organization, and hence, it is not only the onus of HQ to help frame, articulate, lead and act on the discussions opened. Schools, and clusters can own this process.

  16. As a society becomes more democratised, stakeholders feel a greater need to be heard and partake in making decisions of consequence. While the grievance of teachers may be a lack of communication, it could really mean that teachers do not feel adequately involved in the decision making process.
    The complaint of a lack of communication could also simply be a guise to express discontent with the policies themselves, rather than in the way it was communicated. Or it may well be a reaction to the speed at which policies change, and frustration at having to adjust to these changes while dealing with their bread and butter teaching duties. Thus, there are many hidden reasons behind the ‘lack of communication’.
    To the credit of the ministry, it has tried to open up more channels of communication with schools over the years and adopt a more consultative stance. It isn’t easy trying to communicate clearly to a staff of a few tens of thousands located in a few hundred schools. And if there are hidden reasons behind the complaints as stated above, then no amount of improvement in communication lines will help. It would be interesting to ask ourselves how our ministry has done relative to foreign education systems.

  17. No one can ignore the importance of COMMUNICATION, it is critical not only to Education but also to all other industries. Without clear and proper communication, any change or policy will encounter difficulties during the process of implementation.

    For example, if a school wants to change assessment policy, instead of traditional examinations in classroom, academy board would like to integrate some online discussion as part of continuous assessment. Not all teaching staff is willing to execute this due to insufficient understanding of the objective. Young teacher maybe easier to adapt, but those teacher with more than 20 years teaching experience might not be so receptive due to tradition way of teaching and assessment. If the school would like to implement such new policy, the following communication is recommended to consider:

    1. Share relevant market analysis and trend of assessment with all teaching staff
    2. Address the need to change in order to meet nowadays demand
    3. Highlight the objective of inbuilt online assessment component
    4. Provide implementation timeline and give teaching staff time to prepare, learn and digest.
    5. Implementation and review.
    6. Evaluate and gather feedback from teachers

    Sometimes top-down way of communication might still work, but not for all. Stakeholders engagement became vital to optimize the outcome.


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