From left to right: Jean-Michel Blanquer, Michaela Martin, and Anton De Grauwe

Evaluation and subsidiarity in education

Lecture at IIEP of the former Director-General of school education in France

What is the most relevant level at which to assess learning achievement? This was the question posed by Prof. Jean-Michel Blanquer – Former Rector of Academy (2004-2009) and Director-General of School Education, Ministry of National Education (2009-2012), President of the Institute of the Americas and Professor of Public Law at the University Paris III Sorbonne Nouvelle – at an IIEP Strategic Debate held at the Institute on 12 March 2013. Though many answers might be proposed, it is clear that one of them would inevitably involve the degree of decentralization of the education system.

Prof. Blanquer began his presentation by speaking of the complementary role played by international and national assessments in terms of student achievement. International surveys, such as PISA*, provide an overview of an education system and stimulate public debate. But they can also oversimplify the issues. In contrast, national assessments remain the chief tools for monitoring the system. Used to generate data on students, classes, schools, districts, departments, and academies, they allow comparisons over periods. By their nature, they fit well with the principle of subsidiarity, as they are can provide appropriate information to all levels of decision-making in education. In France these assessments are particularly important, as the country is moving towards increased decentralization in education, with greater responsibility being given to the academies.

Speaking after Prof. Blanquer, Anton de Grauwe, Senior Programme Specialist at IIEP, stressed that the issue of subsidiarity assessment must be placed in the context of a reflection on the appropriate conditions of decentralization. He argued that it should include establishing a balance between the mandate of an administrative level, its capabilities and assets, the level of autonomy, and the accountability process. It is important, he said, that the purpose of the evaluation be defined so that it allow an administrative level to fulfil its mandate. He also underlined that the link between evaluation results and decision-making remains generally uncertain and indirect.

The presentations were followed by a lively debate. Several of those in attendance asked about the conditions of implementation of national assessments in France, and especially the resistance they have encountered. In concluding remarks, Prof. Blanquer noted two conditions necessary for conducting national assessments: preparing the actors for the challenges of national assessment, and sufficient technical expertise to ensure reliability.

* PISA is an international study launched by the OECD in 1997. It aims to evaluate education systems worldwide every three years by assessing 15-year-olds' competencies in key subjects. (For more information: visit the OECD website.)