Governing complex education systems

by Tracey Burns
Analyst, Directorate for Education and Skills, OECD

Florian Koester
Consultant, Directorate for Education and Skills, OECD

What models of governance are effective in complex education systems? How can governments set priorities and design polices that balance responsiveness to local diversity with national education goals? And how do we ensure that there is trust, co-operation and communication between the multiple levels and actors in the system?
These are tough questions. Just published, Governing Education in a Complex World brings together state of the art research and insights from country experience to identify the elements necessary for effective education governance. The book challenges our traditional concepts of education governance through work on complexity, reform and new approaches to collaboration and decision-making. In doing so it sets the agenda for thinking about creating the open, dynamic and strategic approaches necessary for governing complex systems in today’s global world.
Effectively governing education systems is not a simple task. There are no magic solutions, no one-size-fits-all recipe that can be rolled out to guarantee success. Work on complexity theory reveals that a certain level of complexity in a system – whether in an education system or a school – can lead to unpredictable reactions or unexpected consequences to even seemingly simple changes. Modern education governance must be flexible at the same time as it steers a clear course towards established goals. It must also be efficient, limited by given funds and time.
The book identifies key elements to modern education governance. First, savviness and endurance are needed to align multi-level systems and it is vital to engage with a diverse set of actors, including students and parents. In doing so, it’s important to include all stakeholders and voices – not only the ones that shout the loudest – in the governance process to strengthen participatory decision-making. And while new technologies provide the opportunity to engage a broader set of actors, they also bring new challenges: instant feedback can mean that expectations rise faster than performance, and lead to short-term solutions rather than long-term vision. This tends to result in reactive decision-making, where the urgent is prioritised over the important. Staying on track and keeping an eye on the long-term is not easy, but it is key to effective and sustainable governance.
Education systems must also be able to resolve system-wide tensions. For example, countries are under pressure to strengthen their accountability systems while at the same time they encourage innovation.  Ideally, a system would have both a strong and constructive accountability system as well as dynamic innovation processes. However, controlled accountability mechanisms generally seek to minimise risk and mistakes to improve efficiency. At the same time, trial and error are fundamental to the innovation process. Finding the right balance of these two elements (or, perhaps more accurately, the right combination of mutually reinforcing dynamics) is key and will depend on the context and history of the system as well as the ambitions and expectations for its future.
Successful governance also requires thinking about the individuals involved, their needs and their aspirations. Any time a reform is rolled out, we need to think carefully of what is needed on the human level to make it happen. Do teachers (and principals, students and parents) have the capacity to deliver on their new responsibilities? If not, is training or other support in place? This is a simple set of questions, but our work demonstrates that it is often this piece of the puzzle that gets lost in the rush to move forward with a new reform or policy. Yet without the required capacity and support, the best plan risks being derailed at the level where it counts most: the classroom.
So what are the elements of effective modern governance systems? Effective governance:
• focuses on processes, not structures;
• is flexible and can adapt to change and unexpected events;
• works through building capacity, stakeholder involvement and open dialogue;
• requires a whole system approach to align roles and balance tensions;
• harnesses evidence and research to inform policy and practice; and
• is built on trust.
The search for new modes of governance for 21st century education systems will certainly continue in the years to come. Governing Education in a Complex World sets the agenda and challenges us to develop the open, adaptable, and flexible governance systems necessary in a complex world. Just as education must move to evolve and grow with our modern world, so too must the systems that govern them.

Governing Education in a Complex World
OECD Centre for Educational Research and Innovation (CERI)
Find out more on Governing Complex Education Systems (GCES)
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