Capacity development in education: “It’s not me, it’s the system”

12 July 2022



Education systems are composed of many different parts - and when they work together, they become stronger and more effective. An education sector plan undergirds this entire system. It outlines overarching goals, and the various paths to achieve them. In recent years, countries and partners have worked hard to improve education plans, both in terms of overall quality and the processes related to plan development, which are now more technically sound and inclusive. But what happens once an education sector plan is done and ready to go?

It is well understood that a plan - or any kind of strategy - is only as good as its implementation. That’s why a new Research Brief, published by IIEP-UNESCO, delves into perhaps the most important mechanism from strong execution of a sector plan: the effective functioning and inner workings of the education administration. This includes everything from the central level through regional and district offices to school principals.

In the brief, It’s not me, it’s the system, authors Anton De Grauwe and Anna Haas argue that to improve implementation, the administration itself has to become more effective, and that requires a thorough understanding – or a capacity assessment –  of the existing constraints of its functioning.

“If a plan is not followed by implementation, the whole planning exercise loses credibility and its impact on the reality of districts and schools become insignificant.”

Building on 60 years of capacity strengthening in countries, IIEP technical experts posit that the functioning of an educational administration can be analyzed at four different capacity levels, from the individual level, the organizational level, the public administration as a whole, and finally, via its relationship with external partners.

The different levels are also heavily interlinked and depend on each other. For example, the training of individual education officers does not alone improve the functioning of an administration. Rather, training has to be part and parcel of other initiatives that address capacity constraints within the organization where those are trained work.

The framework presented in the brief, which is also featured in the third volume of the Education Sector Analysis: Methodological Guidelines, has been used to understand the capacities of educational planners and planning departments in a range of countries in recent years. In several contexts - such as in Haiti and Madagascar - it has been used to design a capacity development plan. Its broad, generic character also lends itself well to a variety of contexts and in relation to different educational administration functions.

Overall, the methodology enables ministries and their partners to examine the many elements that impact the effectiveness of an administration and to identify the most important constraints. Experiences of the past decade also stress the importance of having buy-in from the highest ministerial level to conduct the assessment and address the failings of the status quo. It is then, the authors argue, that stumbling blocks can be turned into building blocks for real progress and education system transformation.

A closer look at the four capacity development levels

1. Individual education officers

Assessing capacities at this level typically looks at the extent to which individual posts match the available profiles. In addition, it looks at the clarity of post descriptions, availability of training opportunities, and various types of incentives - both monetary and non-monetary - that may impact staff performance. In this area, IIEP’s research in a range of countries has highlighted the fact that many planners’ posts are filled by former teachers who may not have always received proper training when changing posts.

2. The organizational unit

At this level, an assessment looks at the ability of a unit to function effectively. For example, this may include looking at the amount of available resources, both human and financial, to a planning department. This is a common challenge to many departments worldwide, especially at the decentralized level. Other factors analyzed include an analysis of the unit’s overall mandate and key functions, its structure, internal management styles, the accountability of the unit to perform, and how responsibilities for monitoring and evaluation are articulated within the division.

3. The public administration

The educational administration is an integral part of the public administration of a country as a whole, alongside other sectors such as health or defense. Its effectiveness can be influenced by its overall level of autonomy and distributions of tasks between the different ministries responsible for education, the degree and quality of coordination, collaboration, and communication between different administrations, the existence and active use of national development policies and plans, and finally, the management of public service.

4. The relationship between national authorities and external partners

In most countries, the national authorities - e.g. the ministry of education - are the main actors responsible for planning and managing the education sector. The quality of the relationship between the administration and external partners, such as non-public school networks or international development partners, is important to the overall functioning of the system. Roles and responsibilities should be clear and channels should be available for the exchange of information and coordination.