The Political Economy of Education for All

Three studies – of the policies, politics and progress of access to education (in Ghana, India and Sri Lanka) were conducted (Little, 2010 a, b, c), using the same broad questions and methods. The questions were (i) What progress has there been in access to basic education since independence (ii) What policies for access to basic education have been promoted? (iii) What role have political regimes played in the formulation of policies on access to basic education? (iv) What role has political will played in the process of policy formulation and implementation? (v) What have been the drivers and inhibitors of the implementation of recent major reforms? The methods used were (i) interviews and (ii) documentary analysis. Around fifteen policy-makers, policy implementers and researchers in each of Ghana, India and Sri Lanka were interviewed. Interviewees included current and retired senior civil servants and government officials, vice chancellors and university staff, trade union officials and, in the case of Ghana, former district directors of education. Most interviewees had played various roles in policy formulation and policy implementation at different levels over many years. Interviews were tape recorded and transcribed. Documentary sources included published histories of education, research reports, policy documents, commission and committee reports, memoirs of civil servants, evaluation studies, reports from ‘partner’ agencies such as World Bank and DFID and conference papers.

The studies were informed by theoretical, conceptual and methodological insights from the international social science literature (Lall, 2007; Little, 2008a). The country studies were informed inter alia, by a working definition of political will as a sustained commitment of politicians and administrators to invest the necessary resources to achieve specific objectives and a willingness to make and implement policy despite opposition, by theoretical frameworks of policy formulation and implementation as stages and processes and by important methodological distinctions between policy texts and policy discourse.

The conclusions from these studies, combined with those of policy studies from East Africa and Nigeria, and case studies of policy implementation from China and Zambia are as follows:

  • The formulation of policies to promote improvements in access to and the quality of basic education is apparent in many countries long before independence, after independence and before Jomtien, and after Jomtien. Lessons can be learned from the long history.
  • The formulation of policies to promote improvements in access to and the quality of basic education is apparent in democratic and non democratic political regimes, in regimes of the left and of the right and the military. While democratic regimes are more likely to generate pro-poor education polices, examples from Ghana in the 1980s and Nigeria in the 1970s attest to the convergence at times between the interests of military regimes and the poorest.
  • In some contexts constitutional change and legal enactment is a necessary condition for change in pro-poor policies in education. Constitutional change in Sri Lanka in 1931 paved the way for an expansion of free education from kindergarten to university. More recently constitutional and legal changes that assert the rights of all to education in Ghana (in 1992) and India (2002, 2009), have been followed by major increases in financial expenditure committed by government.
  • While increases in literacy rates are apparent over time in most countries it is clear that performance on a range of indicators usually falls far short of policy intentions. Our work in 17 Kenyan primary schools adds greatly to our understanding of the impact of national policies of free education on individual primary schools, on flows of students through those schools and their transitions to secondary schools (Somerset, 2010). This is a rare study of the impact over time of attempts to universalise access to primary education. Some schools limited their intake of new students to historic levels and did not expand significantly while others, in strong contrast, accepted large numbers of new entrants without complementary increases in the number of teachers, teaching resources, and space. The impact of rapid and uneven growth on reduced quality is clear, if unintended. While transition rates into secondary schools appear to have increased after the announcement of fee free schooling polarisation remains very strong, with access to the best secondary schools restricted to a small sub-set of primary schools. Moreover, chances of continuing beyond secondary to university are strongly stratified with those attending provincial secondary schools having less than a fifth of the chance of those in national schools and those in district schools less than one hundredth the chance. Though access to primary schooling may have improved, for many it is likely that the quality of what they have access to has deteriorated. And at higher levels improved access seems to have been accompanied by no reductions in the unequal chances of proceeding to higher levels. These findings are important and a reminder that CREATE’s expanded vision of access, which includes reduced variations in quality, fairer transition to secondary, and greater equity in progression to higher levels, needs highlighting in policy dialogue.
  • Political will is a necessary but not sufficient ingredient for the implementation of educational reforms. But as we know no end of policies, constitutional changes, legal enactments, plans and declarations ensures education for all on the ground. Administrative, technical, financial and human resources are as essential and require sustained attention. The analyses from Ghana, India and Sri Lanka point to similarities and differences in the constellation of factors that promote and inhibit reform. All point to the importance of a range of non political technical factors – technically sound and detailed plans of action at multiple levels, adequate finance to translate plans into action, adequate human resources, involvement and sense of ownership by administrators near to the ground, regular monitoring and evaluation and sustained effort. Where any of these is lacking then progress is constrained. In the Indian case it was notable that the role of civil society and the non-government sector was mentioned time and again as a driver of education for all, in a way it was not in Ghana and Sri Lanka. And in all countries inhibiting factors included financial wastage (less politely, financial corruption) and the restraining role of trade unions, though it was in India that were cited most often as having a constraining effect.
  • Political will is often understood to mean national will at the highest level of politics. However, our analysis from Ghana, India and Sri Lanka, combined with our case studies of particular aspects of reform in China and Zambia, suggests that the concept of will also needs to be understood at the level of implementation and at the level of multiple actors acting in their own, rather than collective interests. Some may term these wills as politicisation or political interference. During implementation a myriad of political wills of different stakeholders comes into play. Political wills in education reform are exerted by many – not only by high level Presidents and Prime Ministers, Ministers of Education, Ministers of Finance and political parties but also by myriad interests at the local level – those of citizens, local politicians, teachers, parents and officials in local and provincial government administrations. And not all political wills – high or low - are moving towards the same ends. And even if they are they are, myriad other factors that come into play in the translation of policy intent into policy in practice. We conclude that diverse political wills can often be enacted in contradictory ways. Political will can be a double-edged sword.

A final message is posed for development partners: In calling for ‘political will’ in relation to the EFA and MDG goals, development partners assume that national planners will translate global goals into national goals, national plans of actions, targets, indicators and actions. And while it is certainly the case in all three countries that there is a degree of interaction between the expectations of development partners and the national agenda and policy discourse how rooted is the political discourse of policy making, as distinct from plan making. The EFA declaration and framework of actions constructed at Jomtien and Dakar call for national action plans. But these plans are conceived of in largely technical terms and overlook the fact that, in the past at least, in-country plans for EFA (notably India’s Plan of Action of 1986) have derived from policy and the national and local politics that surround the determination of that policy. No simple dose of political will from the highest level can substitute for the political to and fro, consultation and sense of ownership engendered by the politics of policy making. So in translating universal aspirations for EFA into partnerships that take root in and on the ground, judgements are needed about how much development partners need to understand about specific policy contexts, specific policy and practice histories and about the extent to which the interests of the poor coincide with the interests of political elites, in the present and the past.