Initial reflections on ‘Accountability in education: Meeting our commitments’
The new Global Education Monitoring Report is ground-breaking in placing accountability at the centre of its attention. As the report notes, the concept of accountability was shockingly absent from the framing of the Sustainable Development Goals–making it relatively easy for heads of state to sign up to them, as they could be confident that there were few consequences if they failed to deliver. The GEM Report is refreshing in moving way beyond the recent tendency for rights-based language to be reduced to ‘preambulisation’ in international documents (where rights are referred to at the start and then routinely ignored in the substance of reports). Here the report is unequivocal that ‘Accountability in education starts with governments, which bear the primary duty to ensure the right to education’. Based on research prepared by the Right to Education Initiative, the report notes that although every country has ‘ratified at least one international treaty illustrating its commitment to the right to education’ in practice the right to education is only justiciable in 55% of countries. In the absence of the capacity of citizens to take legal action on the failure of governments to deliver, the right to education risks being reduced to empty rhetoric. As chair of the Right to Education Initiative I could not be happier with the central call of this report, that: ‘Civil society organisations and the international community should lobby for the right to education, including for making the right justiciable in national legal frameworks’.
This GEM report has a healthy dose of common sense which is absent in far too many global education documents. It argues that accountability starts with having a good education sector plan which sets clear targets and is linked to the allocation of resources through transparent budgets. A credible plan depends on a good process–and should emerge from broad and meaningful consultation. Governments should then monitor and report on the delivery of such plans and allow for independent auditing of progress. Yes, yes, yes. Lamentably this does not happen in enough countries. As the report notes, 60% of teachers in 50 countries had no meaningful involvement in policy processes and only one in six countries produce annual progress reports. The Global Partnership for Education should be part of the solution–so long as more efforts are made to ensure that ‘Local Education Groups’ are truly inclusive and fully consulted in the development and monitoring of education plans.
One area where the GEM report could have done more is regarding financing. Of course it asserts that adequate resources are essential but it focuses on the lower end of the commitments articulated in the Incheon Framework for Action–calling for governments to spend at least 4% of GDP (rather than 4-6%) and 15% of total expenditure (rather than 15-20%). One in four countries presently miss the lower benchmark–but many more need to reach or exceed the upper benchmark. There is also little attention paid to critical issues of how to measure the 15-20%–whether debt servicing is excluded (as the GPE do) or included (as it should be) in total government spending. Nor does this report elaborate sufficiently on how governments can expand the domestic tax base to finance education (an issue on which past GMR reports did some good work, but more needs to be done).
Thankfully the report is stronger in challenging donors, observing that ‘only 6 of 28 OECD-DAC countries met their commitment to allocate 0.7% of national income to aid’, that aid to education is declining, aid targeting to the poorest countries is inadequate, aid predictability is deteriorating and aid conditionality (e.g., the use of results-based mechanisms) is increasingly problematic. There is a pleasant inversion of the traditional power dynamics in the call for developing countries to do more to ‘participate actively and monitor the work of international organisations’ where there is too often ‘an accountability vacuum’. The forthcoming replenishment of the Global Partnership for Education in Senegal in February 2018 could be an exciting opportunity to move in this direction–the first event of its type ever held in Africa. Developing country ministers should use their own financing commitments to education as a means to leverage greater commitments from donors (something being actively promoted by the Global Campaign for Education with a new compact on domestic financing being released on 31 October).
One of the most refreshing dimensions of the GEM report is the observation that market-based reforms often undermine, rather than enhance, accountability. The rhetoric of school choice is not backed up by evidence and ‘has undermined efforts towards inclusive, equitable, high-quality education’. Indeed competitive pressures ‘marginalise disadvantaged parents and schools’. It should be self-evident that there will always be unevenness in parents’ access to good, reliable information and their capacity to interpret or use information–and this is acute in a world where at least 750 million adults cannot read or write and double that number cannot do so to a functional level.
There are also challenges to other narratives that are presently dominant in the donor discourse on education. This includes a challenge to the reductive focus on learning outcomes, with the powerful assertion that, ‘there is little evidence that performance-based accountability, which focuses on outcomes over inputs and uses narrow incentives, improves education systems’. Indeed, using blame-focused approaches to accountability is often ‘associated with undesirable consequences, such as greater segregation in systems’. Equally rewards-based systems, such as performance-related teacher pay, are questioned owing to their unintended detrimental effects: ‘peer collaboration deteriorates, the curriculum is narrowed, teaching to the test is emphasised’.
This is important stuff from the GEM Report showing that it continues to have a critical role in global education circles–willing to use evidence to challenge increasingly hegemonic norms and discourses.
For further information read RTE's background report for the GEM Report 2017/8 Accountability from a human rights perspective: The incorporation and enforcement of the right to education in the domestic legal order.
David Archer is head of participation and public eervices at ActionAid. He is also chair of the Right to Education Initiative's executive board.