School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University
How Political Contexts Influence Education Systems: Patterns, Constraints, Entry Points
This paper synthesises the findings of a set of country studies commissioned by the RISE Programme to explore the influence of politics and power on education sector policymaking and implementation. The synthesis groups the countries into three political-institutional contexts:
- Dominant contexts, where power is centred around a political leader and a hierarchical governance structure. As the Vietnam case details, top-down leadership potentially can provide a robust platform for improving learning outcomes. However, as the case studies of Ethiopia, Indonesia, Nigeria, and Tanzania illustrate, all-too-often dominant leaders’ goals vis-à-vis the education sector can veer in other directions.
- In impersonal competitive contexts, a combination of strong formal institutions and effective processes of resolving disagreements can, on occasion, result in a shared commitment among powerful interests to improve learning outcomes—but in none of the case studies is this outcome evident. In Peru, substantial learning gains have been achieved despite messy top-level politics. But the Chilean, Indian, and South African case studies suggest that the all-too-common result of rule-boundedness plus unresolved political contestation over the education sector’s goals is some combination of exaggerated rule compliance and/or performative isomorphic mimicry.
- Personalised competitive contexts (Bangladesh, Ghana, and Kenya for example) lack the seeming strengths of either their dominant or their impersonal competitive contexts; there are multiple politically-influential groups and multiple, competing goals—but no credible framework of rules to bring coherence either to political competition or to the education bureaucracy.
The case studies show that political and institutional constraints can render ineffective many specialised sectoral interventions intended to improve learning outcomes. But they also point to the possibility that ‘soft governance’ entry points might open up some context-aligned opportunities for improving learning outcomes. In dominant contexts, the focus might usefully be on trying to influence the goals and strategies of top-level leadership. In impersonal competitive contexts, it might be on strengthening alliances between mission-oriented public officials and other developmentally-oriented stakeholders. In personalised competitive contexts, gains are more likely to come from the bottom-up—via a combination of local-level initiatives plus a broader effort to inculcate a shared sense among a country’s citizenry of ‘all for education’.
Levy, B. 2022. How Political Contexts Influence Education Systems: Patterns, Constraints, Entry Points. RISE Working Paper Series. 22/122. https://doi.org/10.35489/BSG-RISE-WP_2022/122