The 2017/8 Global Education Monitoring Report, Accountability in education: Meeting our commitments, fulfils its mandate to follow countries’ progress towards achieving the global education goal but also focuses on the theme of accountability in education. Why did we choose to write about accountability this year? Here are some of the most frequently asked questions surrounding this year’s Report.
WHY DOES ACCOUNTABILITY MATTER?
Despite strong progress in education, there are significant challenges to achieving the global education goal, SDG 4: Children cannot read after several years of school in sub-Saharan Africa; examination pressure is having an impact on gender gaps in China; the excess focus in education on employability is being questioned in Germany; decentralization is posing challenges for underfunded rural schools in Pakistan; low-quality private universities are proliferating in Paraguay; refugee children have severely constrained education chances, especially those fleeing war in the Syrian Arab Republic.
Faced with education challenges, the public wants to know who is responsible and policy-makers look for urgent solutions. Increased accountability often tops the list. When systems fail, people call for someone to be held responsible and for mechanisms to be in place that ensure corrective action.
WHAT IS ACCOUNTABILITY? WHOM DOES IT INVOLVE?
Accountability is a process, aimed at helping actors meet responsibilities and reach goals. Individuals or institutions are obliged, on the basis of a legal, political, social or moral justification, to provide an account of how they met clearly defined responsibilities.
But reaching SDG 4 is often a collective enterprise. Ensuring inclusive, equitable and good-quality education requires all actors to make a concerted effort to meet their responsibilities.
Accountability, therefore, does not easily rest with single actors. For instance, schools may be responsible for providing supportive learning environments, but to deliver on this they rely on governments providing resources, teachers respecting professional norms and students behaving appropriately.
Increasingly, however, voices call for holding people accountable for outcomes beyond their control. Individuals cannot be held accountable for an outcome that also depends on the actions of others.
WHAT DOES AN EFFECTIVE ACCOUNTABILITY SYSTEM LOOK LIKE?
Everyone has a role to play in improving education. Student movements have often swayed policies on equitable and affordable education. The media plays a key role in investigating wrongdoing and reporting corruption. Civil society support can be crucial.
But accountability starts with governments. They are ultimately the primary duty bearers of the right to education.
A credible education plan is the basis for accountability. It should have clear targets and lines of responsibility and allocate resources through transparent budgets that can be tracked and queried.
Policy processes must be open to broad and meaningful consultation. In Brazil, about 3.5 million people participated in the national education plan consultation.
Transparency of information is vital to make accountability work. Around half of countries have produced a national education monitoring report analysing progress related to their national education plan and budget since 2010, although only one in six have done so annually.
Independent checks and balances help hold governments to account. The ombudsman offices in Latin America from 1982 to 2011 helped increase access to education, despite the lack of sanctioning power. In the Philippines, volunteers monitored up to 85% of 7,000 textbook delivery points helping reduce costs by two-thirds and procurement time by half.
Legal and regulatory routes to accountability are the backbone of a well-functioning state. In Kenya, the Education Board closed down private schools not meeting standards. But standards need to be set at a level compatible with the available human or material resources so that countries do not overburden themselves with regulations that are ignored in practice.
DO ACCOUNTABILITY MECHANISMS ALWAYS WORK?
There is little evidence that performance-based accountability, when focused on outcomes over inputs and based on narrow criteria, improves education systems. Incentives have often been limited to punishments to force compliance or modify behaviour. A blame-focused approach to accountability is associated with undesirable consequences. Rewards, such as performance-related teacher pay, have had detrimental effects: peer collaboration deteriorates, the curriculum is narrowed, teaching to the test is emphasized.
A market-based approach creates competitive pressure that marginalizes disadvantaged parents and schools. While targeted vouchers in some countries have helped overcome constraints, in other cases schools have simply increased their fees. School choice approaches have undermined efforts towards inclusive, equitable, high-quality education, leading to greater segregation. Information is a foundation for a market but is often not available and, even if accessible, may not be usable: 72% of parents in Kenya reported not knowing how to use student learning data.
Many approaches to accountability, often externally funded, have not been designed in a sustainable way. Systems relying on government to respond to donor demands are disappointed when funding disappears.
WHAT IS NEEDED TO KEEP ACCOUNTABILITY WORKING?
Adequate resources, capacity and genuine commitment are essential. Governments should spend at least 4% of GDP on education, or allocate 15% of total government expenditure. But one in four countries do not reach these benchmarks.
Donor support is needed in the poorest countries. In 2015, only 6 of 28 OECD-DAC countries met their commitment to allocate 0.7% of national income to aid. Aid predictability, at least in the short term, slightly decreased between 2010 and 2015. Donors should be careful when making aid available through results-based mechanisms that shift risk to countries that are little prepared to bear it.
Transparent and relevant data on the strengths and weaknesses of education systems should be available. But countries need to be judicious in what data they collect and how they use them, keeping in mind the costs involved and the skills required to interpret, analyse and act on such data to improve teaching and learning. Many low and middle income countries cannot afford them. Over half of teachers in the United Kingdom argued that increased data collection created more unnecessary work.
Capacity development is essential. Actors need the skills to fulfil their responsibilities. Governments need to ensure that teacher evaluators have the appropriate training to recognize good teaching and provide constructive feedback. In New Delhi, India, school inspectors are tasked with inspecting over 50 schools annually. Teachers’ unions aiming to strengthen professionalism should build the skills of those entrusted with following through on internal accountability mechanisms.
Countries need to participate actively and monitor the work of international organizations. An accountability vacuum exists concerning the role of international organizations and their responsibility in achieving international goals. This is due to the multiple roles and competing agendas among them. But countries should also be prepared to be held to account: the word ‘accountability’ is conspicuously absent from the SDG foundation document that was developed by governments.