Decentralizing Education

Improving access to primary education remains a key aspect of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Still, many children, especially girls, face many obstacles to attending school daily.  On a mission to improve access to education, policymakers and organizations have employed a variety of innovative tactics ranging from radio programs to interactive tools. However, they also look to innovations in education management in order to successfully expand access and improve educational quality.

Education decentralization is as an innovative approach to improve local level primary school management. In many countries, the responsibilities of governing schools, developing a curriculum, and determining education policy is shifting from central to local authorities.

From an educational governance perspective, decentralization promises more effective, efficient, and responsive school administrators and teachers. In many countries, the national government fails to provide the resources necessary to establish universal education programs. As a result, education services and quality often depend on resources from foreign aid, local or regional governments, or family members.  When resources originate from or are managed by the local level, allowing local actors to hire school leadership, manage construction budgets, determine school locations, and monitor performance, advocates for this approach state that local commitment to education programs increases.

Decentralization can also ensure local level input into lesson plan development and curriculum. Developing a curriculum involves choosing relevant courses, materials, and teaching methods. Therefore, it is seen as important that the curriculum be crafted by its directly affected stakeholders – teachers, parents, and children.

Enabling locals to determine education policies may also make educational services more accountable to the community’s needs. For example, allowing greater local autonomy on policy decisions (i.e. holidays celebrated, languages taught) has the potential to defuse national-level ethnic and religious tensions.

UNESCO has conducted in-depth research on the relationship between decentralization and education through its International Institute for Educational Planning (IIEP) Decentralization Clearing House.  Below, we explain the various challenges and opportunities uncovered through the IIEP studies.

District Education Offices (DEOs) Capacity

A major challenge to decentralization presents itself when local authorities lack the ability to manage funds, train teachers, and make decisions. Local level DEOs remain a key factor in decentralization by serving as the link between citizens and central authorities. Unfortunately, many DEOs lack previous experience managing an effective education program. With decentralization, DEOs tasks and responsibilities increase; however, little attention is currently paid to enhancing capacity building, providing additional educational resources, or clarifying the DEO’s framework – all key components in building a participatory democracy.

Previous research by IIEP also highlighted this paradox – although local actors increasingly assume additional tasks and greater responsibilities, insufficient capacity building and resource strengthening inevitably results in an inability to make decisions autonomously and effectively.

Managing Schools

Critical to successfully enhancing the quality and quantity of primary education, teachers’ and principals’ management capacity must improve. Administrative tasks, budgeting, communications, and strategic planning are all required management skills. Improving the educational experience requires input from the entire community – not just the educational ministries, principals, and teachers. Developing the structure to organize and interact with community groups is essential to ensuring a quality education.

A true participatory local democracy reaches far beyond organizing a protest or a voter turnout campaign. Participatory local democracy exists when community members have decision making abilities on issues that impact their lives. Decentralizing education promises the opportunity for every community member to decide the steps necessary to improve access to education.

Voice your opinion and shape the future of education through the World We Want 2015 survey.

For more information explaining education’s impact on social growth, please review our infographic or visit UNESCO’s Mind the Gap.

Watch this video about decentralized education in the United States:

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