Q&A: What does it really take to transform education?

06 September 2023


Anton De Grauwe in a training session for educational planners from around the world at IIEP-UNESCO in Paris, France in 2018.

Training, research, and technical cooperation - these are the three pillars of IIEP’s integrated approach to capacity development for educational planners throughout the world. The main idea: these three functions can work together to give ministry of education officials the leadership, skills, and evidence to create the best policies for learners today. But how does change really occur in an educational administration?

IIEP caught up with Anton De Grauwe, who has three decades of experience in training and research, and led IIEP’s technical cooperation work in many countries, from Ethiopia, Haiti, to Cambodia.

IIEP: The phrase that I've heard you say a lot is, “without capacity, there's no development.” What's the origin of this phrase and the general concept behind it?

Anton De Grauwe: The core idea behind it is that for a nation to develop – in social and economic terms – and for a nation to construct an education system, or its health system, or really all systems that allow everybody in the nation to belong to that nation, you need a vision, and you need a competent public administration that can translate that vision into reality.

I have not yet seen a nation that has developed in a sustainable way – especially in an equitable way – without a strong public administration.

Nations can privatize some of the delivery of essential social services, but a full privatization translates almost unavoidably into inequity.

Once you start with the idea that you need a competent public administration, then that guides the actions one will undertake in almost everything related to social policy and planning because then your actions must be focused on strengthening the public administration in the broadest terms – e.g., an effective ministry of education, school inspectorate, ministry of health, and so on.

Over time, the approach to strengthening public administration has evolved. Initially, when IIEP was created, its main missions were training and research. The focus in the early 1960s was on training individual officers in newly independent countries. Training and research strengthened each other; and research informed training, enhancing its quality and relevance. And through training, the Institute learnt about national realities and initiatives.

When I joined IIEP in 1995, the prevailing approach focused on individual competencies. However, it became more and more clear that the difficulties faced in many countries where IIEP worked were related to the institutional framework. Ministries of education, for instance, were not always functioning properly, even those where staff had been properly trained and were well qualified. As a result, there was a growing concern that training alone was not sufficient to bring about real change in bureaucracies. The focus shifted from training to capacity development, which involves a broader reflection, beyond individual competencies, on a much more complex set of factors: teamwork, communication, collaboration, accountability, as well as leadership, human resource management, and having a shared vision.

Around that time, there was increased literature on how to undertake capacity development. In my mind, the phrase "without capacity, there is no development" came to summarize two interrelated and essential findings: countries need a capable public administration to develop and strengthening the public administration requires an intricate and contextualized set of interventions, integrating and going beyond training.

IIEP: Another phrase – and title of a recent brief that you co-authored – is “It’s not me, it’s the system.” This follows a similar narrative.

Anton: Exactly, it's beyond the individual, it's about the system. When working in many countries on an analysis of the education administration, I regularly heard that statement: it’s not me, it’s the system, almost as an excuse for non-action, for a passive acceptance of inefficiency or even mismanagement. However, any system is composed of individual actions.

That’s why it is difficult to decide on the most effective strategy to improve an administration. Should we focus on the individuals, hoping that they will lead the change process, but being well aware that the system may impede such change? Or should we focus on the system, knowing fully well that this requires a wide range of interventions and can become highly political. Indeed, working at the system level is more of a challenge.

It is easier to focus on individuals, but often the problem lies within the system itself.

Shifting from a training-focused strategy to capacity development has been a topic of reflection since the early 2000s. Finding a balance between focusing on a smaller area of work and addressing larger systemic issues is necessary.

IIEP: What do you see as some of the main levers then for system-level change?

Anton: Tailoring strategies to the specific circumstances of each country is essential. While a broad strategy may exist, it must be adapted to address the unique challenges and constraints of each country. The initial step in the design of a capacity development or a governance reform programme is to collaborate with members of the public administration, such as the ministry and municipal staff, to conduct an institutional analysis of the educational administration. This process helps identify key challenges.

In many countries, the transformation of the public administration requires not only strengthening its capacity, but also a stronger focus on accountability. In work on the governance chapter of a recent education sector analysis, I encountered a problem, which is common to so many countries. There is a lack of demand for accountability, within the administration and among its beneficiaries, mainly because many people do not see the connection between the performance of schools and teachers, and the ministry's actions.

It would be beneficial to strengthen the organizations representing the beneficiaries of education, including parents, students, and teachers, as well as employers and civil society organizations. This empowerment would enable them to demand greater accountability from the public administration. However, it is essential to strike a balance between accountability and professionalism. Holding individuals accountable requires providing them with the necessary training, resources, and support to perform their roles effectively. Professionalism and accountability go hand in hand in ensuring a responsible and effective education system. While ministries of education may resist this notion, it is important for organizations like IIEP to play a role in fostering professionalism and supporting accountability efforts.

Another difficulty is that when a system does not function properly, usually there is a plethora of different causes. These may include issues such as lack of communication, accountability, evaluation, inadequate resources, ineffective recruitment and appraisal processes, insufficient competence, absence of a professional development strategy, and a lack of shared vision for collaboration. Weaker systems require more interventions to rebuild, but implementing multiple interventions simultaneously becomes challenging due to the limited absorption capacity of the system.

This presents a paradox: stronger systems are easier to develop, while the most needed strengthening is often required when a system is already at its peak.

Identifying the main entry point for intervention is challenging as focusing on a single point rarely yields desired results. However, conducting a thorough analysis can help identify three or four key areas for feasible and necessary interventions. One significant area is civil service management, which is crucial but highly resistant to change due to its political nature.

IIEP: When you think of impact, what first comes to mind in terms of IIEP’s work?

Anton: Well, it is a difficult question. I'm reluctant to provide specific country examples. However, I do believe that we have had impact when adopting a comprehensive approach, which adapts to the country’s context. In many cases, this implies emphasizing the implementation and not only the design of plans, paying attention therefore to planning and management.

For impactful interventions in strengthening the planning function of the ministry of education, a common vision must be developed between external partners such as IIEP and the country. This can involve a range of interventions, including training and collaboration on specific projects like education sector plans or monitoring frameworks.

The key factor for success is the willingness of the national partner, particularly the ministry, to improve policy-making, planning, and management.

Collaboration between political and technical leadership, such as directors of planning, is essential, as they work together towards outcomes. Achieving a joint sense of accomplishment, such as through the completion of an education sector plan, is a true reward after the intense efforts made over months of work.

Our impact also depends on how we approach our work, with modesty, with respect for our national partners, a willingness to listen, learn and adapt, in order to create a genuine collaboration.  

IIEP: As part of our 60th anniversary, we are reflecting on the future of planning. Where do you see our field heading?

Anton: One of the greatest lessons - that many of us have been witness to in recent years - is that there have been both a misconception and an overpromise in the field of planning. The misconception is that planning consists of the preparation of an analysis and a plan. The overpromise is that the existence of a credible or robust plan is sufficient for change. However, planning goes far beyond the plan itself. And even the soundest plan cannot on its own transform a system. But these two factors have now led to doubts regarding the usefulness of plans and the effectiveness of planning at large. Going into the future, we need to remember that having an education plan does not automatically guarantee change, but that this does not render such plans useless.

While such plans can be useful in facilitating collaboration between the ministry and external partners, they alone do not bring about changes in classrooms or school administration.

We need to work with a wider interpretation of planning and recognize that change depends on human actions. Countries, administrations, policy-makers, partners - we all need to have the will and commitment to enact change and, as we often say, to turn a vision for education into a reality.