What makes education governance and reform work beyond the drawing table?

by Florian Köster

Analyst, Directorate for Education and Skills, OECD


Today’s education systems need to adapt practices to local diversity while ensuring common goals. Given the complexity of modern education systems, seemingly straightforward changes may result in unexpected consequences, making effective production, use and exchange of knowledge – policy-relevant know-how – across the system indispensable. Good governance requires opening up the knowledge system to a broad range of stakeholders. It needs to allow for competing know-how on all governance-levels and must create practices that manage to integrate different forms of knowledge.

Just published, Education Governance in Action: Lessons from Case Studies bridges theory and practice by connecting major themes in education governance to real-life reform efforts in various countries. The publication builds upon detailed case studies of education reform efforts in Flanders (Belgium), Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland and Sweden. The case studies are complemented by additional examples of efforts to restore and sustain trust in education systems. Together they provide a rich illustration of governance challenges – and successes – countries see today.


The volume highlights the interdependence between knowledge and governance and casts a spotlight on those processes with which governance systems struggle the most in the real-world implementation of education reforms: capacity building, accountability and strategic thinking.

In balancing local responsiveness with central goals, a dynamic and flexible knowledge system is only half of the equation. The other half pertains to governance processes. Successful governance and reform also relies on:

  • aligning responsibilities to avoid frictions between stakeholders and between policies;
  • implementing a constructive accountability system that guides stakeholders towards common goals while allowing responsible risk-taking in the quest to improve;
  • supporting actors in adapting policy and using evidence for innovation; and
  • building stable practices that enable continuous strategic thinking.

Aligning policies can increase their efficiency and effectiveness: Clear responsibilities from the beginning reduce future costs and potential side-stepping of responsibilities. If policies are aligned, stakeholders face fewer competing demands, in turn reducing confusion and improving efficiency. When communicated effectively, aligning responsibilities and policies can also send a strong positive signal of joint effort and collaboration.

A strong accountability system sets clear guidelines and expectations. However, there is a general tension that cannot be overlooked: accountability mechanisms that seek to minimise deviation and mistakes could have a negative impact on the trial and error required for innovation. In the mission to future-proof our education systems, constructive accountability mechanisms need to reconcile quality assurance across the system with the vitality needed for innovation. Actors need the trust and confidence to take the necessary leap of faith to do things differently in the search of improvement.

Supporting stakeholders in the implementation and adaptation of policies to the local situation is vital for lasting change. This includes building the capacity to gather and use evidence for local innovation as well as policy implementation. Without sustained support, incentives and guidelines, any policy risks being derailed in the day-to-day practice.

There is one last crucial element: keeping the long-term perspective in mind. Continuous strategic thinking is tough, particularly when current events overthrow priorities in the public opinion and political discussion. Nevertheless maintaining a long-term vision is a fundamental ingredient to effective governance. While the urgent undoubtedly needs to be addressed, it is essential that strategic thinking is not overshadowed by current urgencies. Here, consolidating change through efforts at multiple points and winning the support of a broad base of stakeholders is one of the most important aspects.
The search for effective and efficient education governance for today’s and tomorrow’s education systems will certainly continue in the years to come. Based on real-world examples, the volume suggests promising pathways to successfully adapt to today’s complex environment and to steer a clear course to the future of education governance.

Education Governance in Action: Lessons from Case Studies
Governing Education in a Complex World
Centre for Educational Research and Innovation (CERI) webpage
Find out more on Governing Complex Education Systems (GCES)
Photo credit: flat 3d isometric design of e-learning concept@Shutterstock

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