• The efforts to sustain global education during the COVID-19 pandemic suggest ways to reimagine education systems for a post-pandemic world;
  • To enable this reimagination, policy-makers must be capable of devising and acting upon measures and engaging a wide range of stakeholders;
  • It is crucial that the capacity of these policy-makers and stakeholders is built as education systems are reformed.

In the past year, COVID-19 has tested education sectors around the world in unprecedented ways. From the massive spread of online learning to the emergence of alternative providers, the remarkable efforts to cope with the pandemic have opened an invitation to reimagine school education in a post-COVID-19 world.

This reimagination depends on whether stakeholders – at all levels and across all sectors – can clearly picture the promises and pitfalls of new and existing approaches to counter the challenges, such as learning loss or the digital divide, which have been imposed or exacerbated by the ongoing pandemic.

It also requires policy-makers to be capable of devising and acting upon measures that actively tap into strengths while carefully mitigating limitations. They must also mobilize and coordinate the endeavours of a diverse range of stakeholders. Accordingly, no reenvisioning of education would be viable without contemplating how the capacity building of the actors and institutions involved can be reimagined.

It’s not (just) about money or commitment

An educated population has long been regarded as an integral and crucial component of economic and human development. This, in turn, reflects a broader commitment to capacity building for fulfilling development goals, which is not only consistently high on the agenda of national governments but also increasingly pursued by international organizations and global philanthropies. In Africa alone, more than $9 billion worth of loans and $900 million of grants were provided by the World Bank from 1995 to 2004 on capacity building.

Notwithstanding the hopes and hypes, the results of capacity building in many education systems have been lacklustre, to say the least. A recent example comes from a programme in India, the tenets of which were “customized school-specific planning for improvement” and regular follow-up, guidance and support. Although it has been scaled to 600,000 schools to showcase nationwide commitment for improving school management, a recent study found the programme had no impact. Billions of dollars of government and donor investment make this outcome even more striking and puzzling. As such, the reimagination of capacity building is not only imperative in relation to COVID-19 but also urgently relevant to the governance of education more generally.

Where students have been affected by school closures during the COVID-19 pandemic
Where students have been affected by school closures during the COVID-19 pandemic
Image: Statista

Why policy capacity must be better understood

The effectiveness of capacity building requires a substantial amount of policy capacity from government agencies tasked with its design and delivery. This recognition is important: educators and stakeholders today need to build a more complex set of capacities to advance the quality and inclusiveness of education; whereas the critical capacity required of educators a generation earlier, namely, the capacity to secure financial resources and translate them into infrastructural inputs for the expansion of schooling access was more straightforward.

Despite this, identifying such policy capacity remains challenging both conceptually and operationally. One way to improve conceptual clarity is to draw on the recent development from public policy literature in which policy capacity is understood as constituting a “set of skills and resources – or competencies and capabilities – necessary to perform [analytical, operational and political] functions.”

Building on this conceptual framework, researchers from the London School of Economics and the National University of Singapore have examined capacity building initiatives for government school teachers in Beijing and Delhi and explored how policy capacity is related to its effectiveness. This recent study finds that although governments in both regions are quite actively committed to teacher capacity building, their limited analytical capacity is reflected in inadequate consultation with teachers regarding training needs or preferences.

Beijing partially compensates for that with a highly embedded expert network, including teachers whose expertise are accumulated through the capacity-building system and then duly acknowledged by it. Operationally, according to the research, Delhi’s training programmes were found wanting in both coverage and regularity; while Beijing’s capacity was demonstrated through a more comprehensive and targeted training provision.

Lastly, both regions exhibited a political capacity to commit budget for school education. Yet the voice of (especially guest) teachers is far from being sufficiently heeded in Delhi’s stakeholder coordination. In contrast, multiplicity and diversity of platforms to incorporate teachers’ voices has been instrumental for stakeholder engagement in the system of Beijing.

By showing how variations of analytical, operational and political capacity jointly account for the varied effectiveness of capacity-building initiatives, this comparative study shows how the concept of policy capacity can offer a promising direction to the reimagination of capacity building in school education.

Along similar lines, it can be investigated how capacity building in the COVID-19 context requires governments to possess a set of capacities to be updated about the experience of key stakeholders with COVID-induced change on teaching and learning, devise and implement appropriate training or incentivizing instruments, and—through stakeholder coordination and dialogue—consolidate political support and trust.

The exact mix of policy capacity required would be context-specific. However, one lesson worth highlighting from the experience of the world’s two largest education systems is that instead of neglecting the stakeholders whose capacity is meant to be being built, such programmes should actively engage them so as to understand and consequently cater to their professional needs. Otherwise, top-down programme delivery conceived as being supportive is likely to disappoint.