The current approach adopted by the international development community to guarantee education for all (EFA) across the developing world can best be described as monocentric and one that favours a ‘one size fits all’ optimal solution. This involves expanding the state-controlled and bureaucratic model of education to ensure that all children have access to a free government school.  It represents a typical top-down approach promoting one form of institutional design where the key decisions are made by those at the top in central government, with people and local communities at the bottom playing very little if any role in the decision-making process. The EFA project also adds another level of decision making above national governments as many of the key decisions have been made by a select group of development experts working for a number of international agencies.

A polycentric approach to education for all challenges this existing consensus which assumes that free government schooling is the optimal solution to deliver the best educational opportunities to poor and low-income families living across the developing world. The growth of fee-paying private schools serving such families contradicts many development theories which predict that low-income communities are not capable of organising their own education and will therefore always be dependent on state and international aid. Instead research has now shown that when given the autonomy and an enabling environment, low-income communities are capable of financing and delivering their own educational opportunities and these opportunities do and will emerge even in the least favourable circumstances. This suggests that there is now a significant gap between existing development theories and the practice on the ground.

Due to the highly complex nature of educating an individual child and the numerous different people and factors which will influence this process, simple formulas or panaceas to guaranteeing education for all children across the developing world quickly become redundant. Therefore a polycentric approach does not recommend any particular institutional regime as a panacea for solving all education problems. This is because while one institution might reduce the costs involved in coping with one problem (such as access), it may also create incentives that increase other types of problems (concerning quality). As previously noted by Davis and Ostrom (1991):

‘As different institutional arrangements cope more effectively with some problems and less effectively with others, policies relying exclusively on any particular institutional panacea will fail in some ways that citizens and officials feel are important’ (Davis and Ostrom, 1991, p.317).

Instead a polycentric approach will promote a variety of different institutional regimes which will encourage a continual process of experimentation and learning. This approach will therefore promote a level playing field and an enabling regulatory environment which encourages a variety of different schools to grow and flourish. It also places much more trust in the parents themselves to solve their own problems by using their local knowledge and experience instead of depending on development experts who are often completely removed from their daily lives.

A polycentric approach to education for all also recognises that governance in education does not necessarily need to be provided by a central government. Instead grassroots organisations such as private school associations will be much better placed to help maintain an attractive regulatory environment. Finally, a polycentric approach to education for all is likely to be messy. Due to the complex nature of education itself this cannot be avoided.

In the polycentric approach, the public versus private debate becomes irrelevant as neither national governments nor international agencies are qualified to decide what is best for each individual child living in a multitude of different circumstances across the developing world. Instead there is a clear recognition that only parents have access to this very detailed personal and local knowledge which is required to make an informed decision concerning which school their children should attend. The role of government and international donors will be to guarantee that parents have at their disposal the greatest possible number of educational opportunities of all descriptions and so establishing a regulatory framework that will encourage a variety of different schools to grow and flourish will be of paramount importance. Any external donor interventions must also focus on the needs and preferences of the beneficiaries themselves and how any intervention is going to affect the incentives facing people on the ground.

Further details about polycentric approaches to public policy can be found in The Future of the Commons: – Beyond Market Failure and Government Regulation by Elinor Ostrom et al.

James B. Stanfield is Director of Development at the E.G. West Centre, Newcastle University.