Driving change in Romanian education from the bottom up

A group of businessmen in Romania have created an association that works to improve the local education system, with the intention of placing it among the top ten in Europe within the next 20 years. It emphasizes scalability and slowly changes the system, one school at a time, regardless of the change in education ministers in Romania.

Then go Asociația pentru Valori în Educație has grown from its early trials within the higher education system to a start-up with corporate support. From self-employment to receiving knowledge from around the world, including Australia. And has grown from a local business to an NGO partnership and on its way to a potentially inspiring educational enterprise on a global scale.

Romania Insider spoke to George Lecafounder of the Asociatia Pentru Valori in Educație, who shared her ideas on education in Romania, the results of the NGO and its plans for growth.

The School Management and Leadership Academy is a one-year leadership program for principals of schools and kindergartens who want to improve the performance of the schools they lead. The project was born after several trials, all intended to change things for the better.

In 2019, the association launched the second year of a program for school principals aimed at developing leaders ready to make a difference in the local education system. It has also partnered with several other NGOs to scale up the model, in clusters of schools.

George Leca recalls a casual meeting with several friends and the shared concern about preparing the new grads they were to hire.

“Radu Manolescu [the founder of K.M. Trust & Partners] was there, Aurelian Sin and a few other friends, all with businesses in Romania. […] We were all from a business background. None of us had parents who had worked as educators or children in school, but we all faced the modest quality of the university graduates we had to hire.

The idea of ​​an education project emerged. After a period of learning and apprehension of the local education system and its performance, a first project that is taking shape is that of advisory councils at local universities.

“We started with private universities, it was difficult to talk to public universities. After about a year, eight-nine months, we realized that the problem was not there. had to start earlier. We realized that we must intervene in primary education. This is where values ​​are defined, the basics of literacy are defined – numbers, reading and writing,” he explains.

Getting in touch with NGOs active in the field of education gave rise to another idea” that of a platform to bring together and connect the services of these organizations and those who need them.

“In all this multitude of well-meaning people, some specialized in certain things, the bird’s eye view was lackingsomeone to coordinate everyone.”

The project requiring full-time involvement, things changed a lot with the first funding. “We found someone who believed in the idea, who knew us personally, knew that we had no other interests than to want to do something in education, who knew our motivation, knew us from the side business and gave us 35,000 euros for the project.”

That person was Dan Boiangiu, the CEO of Arval, which is part of BNP Paribas. “He is fundamental to me because he believed in an idea and was a ‘first follower’. He is much more important than a leader because a first follower cannot take credit for an idea, can’t be proud that it’s his idea “They only support someone and their ideas because they agree with the values. Its very important. This allowed us to organize ourselves,” explains George Leca.

From the outset, the objective was to act “in an integrated, systemic and scalable way”. Working independently, without depending on local or European authorities, was another wish, at least at the beginning.

Several institutes, universities, faculties, private institutions around the world have been invited to present their knowledge. Institutions from the United States, Singapore, South Korea or England were among the participants, and a partner was found in Australia – Education Changemakers (EC), led by Dave Faulkner. Despite the geographical distance, he says there was confidence that the Australian partners can understand and help with the situation of local schools.

They are the ones we trusted to understand what an underperforming school is, because the others haven’t had a school at our level for a long time. In Finland, for example, they haven’t had a poorly performing school in 25 years. Our idea, because we are talking about scalability, was not to make elite schools in Romania, but to lift a large part of the poorly performing schools and make them acceptable. It’s about transforming an entire system, not taking one or two schools, and elevating them to any height.”

Thus was born the Academy: a program allowing school principals to have access to experts in international education, a dedicated training program, a one-on-one business coach, and a variety of resources to help them change the schools they run and student outcomes. Participants have a plan to transform their own school and they receive support in writing their plans.

The program covers communities in more than 20 counties, from all regions of Romania. Interest in the program was high from the start, with over 500 applications received for the 40 places available in the first year, and a similar situation in the second year.

Several recruitment firms in Romania have drawn up a recruitment methodology for the Academy, thus the participants undergo a rigorous selection processwhere their potential for transforming schools is taken into account.

Indicators such as dropout, literacy, well-being are all measured and have seen significant jumps in the schools of people attending the Academy. Yet sometimes educators face situations that prevent them from achieving zero dropout rates, for example. “After graduating, one of the principals presented his indicators and explained why there are still children dropping out of school. In eighth grade, two got married and one had to take care of his own children “, explains Leca.

Beyond measurements and plans, the project also entails change of mentalities, he says. “When the Academy started, the first thing the Australian trainers did was to collect from the participants 100 problems that they could not solve due to legislation and rules. Of the 100 problems, 2 did not were not solvable. They needed someone from the outside to put things into perspective.”

Meanwhile, the mayors of many rural communities have recognized the importance of having a good school, which takes into account parents’ decision to stay or leave a village. “The mayors have understood that parents will no longer leave the village if there is a good school. […] It is an advantage to have a good school in the village, where the child can learn, have good results, where he goes happy.”

The desire to further broaden the impact on the local education system led to the creation of Edu Networks, a project where schools are brought together in clusters to collaborate, share knowledge, find solutions to their problems, etc. Asociatia Pentru Valori in Educație has joined forces with several other NGOs to take the Academy’s know-how further.

In the program, education and business partners help teachers, principals and parents transform schools in their communities. Their goals include sustainable development and innovation, reducing school dropouts, increasing graduation rates, decreasing illiteracy or increasing teacher motivation.among others.

Schools are grouped into clusters – 114 schools, with over 64,000 students participating in the first year of the program. Groups of around ten geographically close schools can form a cluster, and 9 clusters of this type have been created this year, the list of which is available here.

Each participating school sets its objectives and priorities, and a dedicated action plan is defined according to the needs and context of each school. Schools have access to resources, training, advice and various work tools, and working sessions with the local community are also organized.

“We looked again at the question from a business perspective. We asked how many schools are there in Romania? Around 6,000. For a system to change, it has to reach a tipping point , a critical mass of parts of the system that are already transformed, it generates a dynamic and transforms the whole system. The tipping point is generally 10 – 13 – 15% of the total. And we took 13% of these 6000 schools and we wondered in how many years we can cover them and how, “explains Leca.

A first pilot cluster was created in Brad, with the support of Bitdefender, and the funding from Lidl covered the participation in the program of the other groups.

“What is very important is that we do something that is scalable and that we change the system, whoever the education minister is. The peer pressure is so great that we see it and feel it in the fact that 700 schools applied for the available spots,” says Leca.

He is personally convinced that reform happens when everyone does their part, from within, from the bottom up.

“Civil society must stop pinning their hopes on a politician who will reform the system from the top. No, we must start working and changing the system from the bottom up, from within, because the reform will belong to the people. This works for any course of action, any plan that belongs to a person,” he concludes.

Asociatia pentru Valori in Educatie won the Most Scalable Social Responsibility Project Powered by UiPath award at the Romania Insider Awards in 2019.

(Opening photo: Andreaobzerova | Dreamstime.com)

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Helen D. Jessen