The Roles and Responsibilities of Non-State Actors: The Case of Education and Training

By Ezgi Yildiz, Graduate Institute, Geneva, and NORRAG Intern.

 privschoolAs the separation between ‘public’ and ‘private’ is increasingly getting blurred, the state-centric international system has been grappling with accommodating the rise of private authority in all aspects of international politics and law. The presence of non-state actors is very much felt at the domestic level as well. It is now common place for non-state actors to deliver public goods and services which we used to receive mainly from governments, such as security, policing, health and education (see Cockayne, 2014; Warner et al., 2012).

Over the course of the last century, non-state actors have proliferated and assumed state-like functions (Weiss et al., 2013). A legitimate question to ask is whether they also hold state-like obligations towards right-holders, which are classically defined as duties to respect, protect and fulfil human rights. Although some academics (e.g. James, 2003) have argued that issuing obligations for non-state actors might spur political setbacks and legal uncertainty, which might encourage states to renege on their own responsibilities, the dominant voices in academic and policy circles think it is an idea whose time has come (Clapham, 2006; Sossoli, 2010). Non-state actors’ state-like functions should incur some obligations, which could be instrumental for regulating them better and holding them accountable in cases of misconduct towards right holders. This is precisely the reason why laying down obligations on non-state actors is particularly key for preventing holes in the legal protection system.

The field of education and training is one important area, in which various forms of non-state actors assume important tasks (e.g. see Patrinos et al., 2009). In this regard, one can observe at least three distinct constellations of actors, namely: (i) private companies and organizations offering professional education services for profit; (ii) profit or non-profit private schools offering basic or higher education and training services; and, (iii) armed groups that provide basic education services in territories under their control. This is admittedly a heterogeneous group of actors that have different operational principles and raisons d’être. However, they are all expected to play a crucial role in the facilitation of right to education, as a fundamental human right. This role at maximum requires them to provide education services and ensure the accessibility and quality of the services they provide when replacing traditional state functions (duty to protect and fulfil the right to education) and at minimum–which is mostly in the case of armed groups–to allow the continuation of education services in line with the principle of non-discrimination (duty to respect the right to education). Therefore understanding non-state actors’ (expected) roles and responsibilities is inextricably entangled in the quest for ensuring quality education and training services.

Reflecting upon their role and duties is also particularly important against the backdrop of ever increasing public-private partnerships in the field of education and training. This is one of the areas in which the dividing line between public and private sectors is even more blurred. Although states are recognized as having the primary obligation to ensure the realisation of the right to education, these partnerships often work on the basis of the principle of ‘shared but differentiated’ responsibility towards right holders. The linkage between the functions taken up by state and non-state actors requires us to reflect upon their obligations in tandem. This dimension has been brought up in the context of the debates and programs led by UNESCO and ILO on Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET), which serves as an interesting example to understand how state and non-state actors assume complementary functions as a part of tripartite governance structures. This is an important starting point to ponder the role of non-state actors as duty bearers and their obligations towards right holders.

That is why it would be useful to explore further non-state actors’ functions and obligations with a view to better understanding how stipulating obligations to them would allow scrutiny over their governance and operations (i.e. the curricula, accessibility, the method of delivery of education and the certification) and their misconduct (i.e. their failure to provide quality education, to ensure equal access to education or attempt to obstruct the delivery of education –which applies especially to armed groups). An essential part of this exercise involves bringing the right to education back into the debate, and underlining the existence of shared/overlapping obligations of non-state actors and states, namely “the concept of multiple duty bearers” (Anki Sjöberg, 2007). Questions that call for further attention are as follows: how can we mainstream the idea of shared/overlapping obligations and a right to education focused approach in policy circles? What is our shared responsibility in planting this idea that has a potential to blossom into governance solutions?

Ezgi Yildiz is a Turkish post-doctoral researcher at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Geneva, and was an intern at NORRAG in Spring 2016. Email:

Offline References

Cockayne, J (2014) Private Military and Security Companies. In: Andrew Clapham and Paola Gaeta (eds) The Oxford Handbook of International Law in Armed Conflict. New York: Oxford University Press.

Anki Sjöberg (2007) Volume III: Towards a Holistic Approach to Armed Non-State Actors? Geneva: Geneva Call and PSIO (Program for the Study of International Organizations)

James, S (2003) “Rights as Enforceable Claims,” Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 103.

Warner, E, Somer, J and Bongard, P (2012) “Armed Non-State Actors and Humanitarian Norms” in Benjamin Perrin (ed) Modern Warfare: Armed Groups, Private Militaries, Humanitarian Organizations, and the Law. Vancouver: UBC Press.

Weiss, T.G. et al. (2013) The Rise of Non-State Actors in Global Governance: Opportunities and Limitations. Broomfield, Colorado: One Earth Future.

Clapham, A (2006) “Human Rights Obligations of Non-State Actors in Conflict Situations.” International Review of the Red Cross 88(863).

Marco Sassoli M. (2010) “Involving Organized Armed Groups in the Development of the Law?” in Marco Odello and Gian Luca Beruto (eds) Non-State Actors and International Humanitarian Law- Organized Armed Groups: A Challenge for the 21st Century, 32nd Round Table on Current Issues of International Humanitarian Law Sanremo, 11-13 September 2009. Milano: FrancoAngeli.

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NORRAG (Network for International Policies and Cooperation in Education and Training) is an internationally recognised, multi-stakeholder network which has been seeking to inform, challenge and influence international education and training policies and cooperation for almost 30 years. NORRAG has more than 4,500 registered members worldwide and is free to join. Not a member? Join free here.

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UNESCO Institute for Statistics Charts a Course to Monitor the Education 2030 Agenda

By Silvia Montoya, Director of the UNESCO Institute for Statistics and Dankert Vedeler, Co-Chair of SDG Education 2030 Steering Committee.

Digest-coverCan the pursuit of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) really change the world for the better in just 15 years? One thing’s for sure: we’ll never know without good data. SDG 4 – Education 2030 – is so ambitious that we will need more and better data to monitor progress, identify bottlenecks and, above all, sharpen policies and ensure that every dollar invested in education makes a tangible difference in people’s lives.

As things stand, the world as a whole gathers only about half of the data needed to monitor progress towards the global education targets. Data availability falls even further in terms of disaggregated data which are needed to monitor and ensure that everyone – no matter what conditions they face – counts in the efforts to achieve each target.

We also need different types of information, especially in the area of learning outcomes. There are a growing number of national assessments globally, as shown in our Learning Assessment Capacity Index. Yet to make the most of these different initiatives, we must work together and lay the foundations to produce reliable and internationally-comparable data through the Global Alliance to Monitor Learning.

Overall, countries need practical skills on how to gather and use new sources of information, methodologies and data to monitor progress towards their education priorities and the global targets. This will require a tremendous effort, but a new UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS) Digest, entitled Laying the Foundation to Measure Sustainable Development Goal 4, makes the case that it will be worth it, by showing the way forward for key SDG education targets.

Equity issues, a key priority of the SDGs, will come to the forefront through the use of parity indices. The parity index simply divides the indicator value for one group (e.g. girls) by the value for a comparison group (e.g. boys), with values between 0.97 and 1.03 generally representing parity, and any other value showing a disparity between the two groups. But are countries ready to produce the disaggregated data needed for parity indices?

As reported in the Digest, the UIS recently undertook a regional assessment of data availability in a survey conducted among Member States. According to the results, most countries can report SDG indicators that can be disaggregated by basic individual characteristics, such as sex, age and location.

Only a few countries, however, have available data disaggregated by wealth or disability status. According to the UIS, 85% of the available data for the global indicators can be disaggregated by sex, and 74% and 63% by location and age, respectively. But only 14% can be disaggregated by wealth and only 19% by disability status.

While highlighting these data gaps, the Digest also shows how they can be addressed and used for maximum benefit. For example, by creating parity indices by level of education, we can see how inequities play out across education levels – a major finding that you would never see in a single ‘snapshot’ of a single level of schooling.

 This is the key message of the Digest and the vision underlying every effort of the UIS: it is not enough to just produce data – we need statistical information that countries, donors and civil society groups can use to bring about change. There is no denying the complexity of producing internationally-comparable indicators, especially when trying to measure challenging areas such as learning and equity. This is why the UIS works closely with countries and a wide range of partners to develop the methodologies, standards and tools to produce the indicators. But SDG 4 demands that we go a step further – and use the data to tap into the transformative power of education.

With this goal in mind, the UIS has released a new indicator, for example, on school readiness making use of historical data that goes back to 2000. In our eAtlas for Education 2030, we see that more children are benefiting from exposure to formal learning one year before they are at the intended age to start primary education. But as shown in the map below, there is much more to be done, with vast numbers of children still not benefiting from being prepared for school. This, in turn, is a signal for greater investment in this crucial early stage of a child’s life-long learning.












Source: UNESCO eAtlas for Education 2030, 2016.

 What next?

 It should be no surprise that many countries face serious challenges in improving education data, especially given the vast ambitions enshrined in the new SDG agenda. In the field of learning, we need to tackle data gaps and dilemmas by creating a global framework for reference, which would align and harmonize common content. We need to tackle uneven quality in data processes through quality assessment, such as codes of practice with guidelines for improvement. And we need to tackle the sheer lack of data and its inadequate use by gathering far more data that can be used to improve teaching and learning.

But as highlighted in the Digest, these are technical issues with political significance. This is why the UIS is coordinating global efforts based on a key set of principles to:

  • Support and balance multiple viewpoints while identifying globally-relevant areas of learning;
  • Conceptualize how national and regional data can help inform global education measurement; and
  • Strike a balance between global competences and the role of local influences and goals on education. The new Digest offers a roadmap for better measurement. It is the first in a new publication series that will report each year on progress towards better measurement and the use of data. It will examine areas that are difficult to measure, while sharing good practices, especially in relation to education quality and equity – highlighting national and global efforts to track progress on education to 2030. We believe that success breeds success: by showing how good data enhance progress for children, we strengthen the case for greater investment.


Silvia Montoya (@montoya_sil) is the Director of the UNESCO Institute for Statistics.

Dankert Vedeler is the Co-Chair of SDG Education 2030 Steering Committee.


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NORRAG (Network for International Policies and Cooperation in Education and Training) is an internationally recognised, multi-stakeholder network which has been seeking to inform, challenge and influence international education and training policies and cooperation for almost 30 years. NORRAG has more than 4,500 registered members worldwide and is free to join. Not a member? Join free here.

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China and the Global Governance of Education and Training

By Xiulan Wan, Zhejiang Normal University, Jinhua, China


Some reflections on China’s role and positioning:

Representatives from developing countries, including China, are disproportionately under-represented in the process of global agenda making and implementation. For example, only one fourth of the positions of the UN System that China can have according to its membership dues are occupied by Chinese staff.

China is such a populous country that “domestic progress” in China itself has the influence over global processes; in other words, our educational progress itself has great influence on the world. China’s achievement of universal education and rapid growth in the gross enrolment rates of secondary and higher education (87% and 40% in 2015) is a great overall contribution to the global human resource development process. Shanghai’s PISA and TALIS (Teaching and Learning International Survey) rankings have resulted in a wave of discussion about what can be learned from Shanghai.

It is important to see an actor’s influence – like China’s – in the global governance of education and training in a dynamic perspective – looking at trends and progress over time. In NORRAG News 52 I talked about China’s increasing aid to African countries (for example in the 8 years from 2006 to 2014, the Chinese government scholarship quota increased by over 290%). In a similar vein, between 1990-2015, China actively participated in south-south cooperation and assisted more than 120 developing countries to implement their Millennium Development Goals. In a change from the past, all levels of Chinese government and some non-state organizations in China have now begun cooperation with more and more multilateral organizations. Taking the cooperation with UNESCO as a case, Shenzhen Municipal Government has supported UNESCO to establish the centre for higher education innovation in Southern Technical University. The China Academy of Engineering, associated with some famous universities, has supported UNESCO to establish the centre for higher engineering education. All these centres are to serve global aims.

Emerging actors’ increasing participation and competition in global governance offers the opportunity of making global governance more effective overall. For example, emerging countries’ experiences may be more suitable for other developing countries such as African ones as lessons or good practice. For example, some professors and international students from Africa said that they want a centralized government like China to assure effective policy implementation; they point towards having too many policies and plans not successfully implemented, and too many goals not achieved. China can provide a contrasted good practice or offer alternatives to solutions offered by western countries.

There are some barriers that China faces with regard to accessing or influencing the quickly evolving scene of global governance. For example, language is a very serious problem for us; it is difficult for us to express our opinions on the international stage and to teach and manage international students on the domestic stage. Many documents published by international organizations only have an English version, which increases China’s cost to learn and understand. Many international students speak English which increases the cost of teaching and managing. In many respects, China also still lacks the experience and capacity to participate in global education governance.

The role of China’s national governance arrangements vis-à-vis these barriers

China considers participation in the global governance of education and training as a milestone to be reached on the road to being an internationalized and responsible large country, and as an approach to enhance the nation’s soft power. China is certainly willing to participate more in global processes. The planned main measures regarding China’s participation in the global governance of education and training over the next 5-10 years include:

  • To intensify the building of programs for international students.
  • To encourage colleges and vocational schools to partner with international enterprises, and to encourage the running of schools overseas.
  • To participate in PISA and to improve national abilities for evaluating and monitoring education quality.
  • To implement the Belt and Road Education Action to meet the development need of countries along the ‘silk road’. This would involve providing Silk Road Chinese Government Scholarships to support 10,000 newcomers annually from these countries to China.
  • To build and improve the dual and multilateral mechanism for ministers’ meetings,to motivate the construction of university unions,and to deepen the education co-operation between cities and schools.
  • To quicken the building in China of the Centres for International Education and Training and Foreign Aid Bases of Education.
  • To strengthen research on international education issues and strategies.
  • To strengthen education statistics and establish an advisory organization of educational experts.

Xiulan Wan is a Professor and the Deputy Dean of the Institute of International and Comparative Education at Zhejiang Normal University, China. Email:

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NORRAG (Network for International Policies and Cooperation in Education and Training) is an internationally recognised, multi-stakeholder network which has been seeking to inform, challenge and influence international education and training policies and cooperation for almost 30 years. NORRAG has more than 4,500 registered members worldwide and is free to join. Not a member? Join free here.

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The Governance of Education and Training Agenda 2030 and Beyond: Perspectives from Sub-Saharan Africa

By Peliwe Lolwana, University of Witwatersrand, South Africa.

SSAAs the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) pick up from where the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) left off, it makes sense to start with the comparison of the two. The SDGs seem to have more of a universal appeal than the preceding MDGs. This reflects the extent and nature of consultations that took place in the development of the SDGs. Also, what did not work with the MDGs was the lack of coordination across MDGs. They worked in silos. The SDGs on the other hand aim to ensure coherence horizontally and vertically. So, we expect more from the SDGs.

However, we should also reflect on the concept of Global Governance in relation to the SDGs, and question how real a concept it is.

Firstly, there is an assumption that there is a group of people who govern the implementation of these goals somewhere. The MDGs looked more coordinated as donors were mobilised to assist countries and regions like Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) in the implementation of such goals. So far, there is no indication that such financial assistance has been mobilised yet and poorer countries are likely to focus only on what they can afford. Unless, there is a mobilisation of resources to help low-income countries, we cannot start talking about global governance of education and training. Also, SSA is just beginning to get into its own national planning rhythms. Therefore, it is not very clear how SSA countries will manage their national plans or goals vis-à-vis the SDGs. Which master do they serve?  In other words, how are the national plans related to the SDGs?

Secondly, the responsibility of achieving the SDGs in many SSA countries is taken solely by governments, as the formal private economic sector tends to be smaller than in more developed countries. Whilst governments have a big role to play, this cannot be just a government job. Other stakeholders have to be strategically brought into the equation. In other words, the role of other stakeholders is not very clear – it is implicit.  In particular, the private sector has a particular obligation to fight the triple problem of poverty, unemployment and inequality especially in developing countries. Like in most low-income countries or regions, in-country inequality tends to be more pronounced than inter-country inequality in SSA. What does it take to make the private sector the agent of change in these countries and reduce the levels of mistrust between government and the private sector? SSA countries seem not to have figured out how to make the private sector agents of change in the countries they make profits from. In-country governance has to be a reality first before SSA countries can look up to the powers outside their geographic boundaries.

Thirdly, the SDGs rely on data to set targets and assess progress. At the moment there does not seem to be a global framework that governs the collection and analysis of data.  Then where is the concept of global governance? When there is no universal framework for the collection and use of data, private institutions sometimes manage this function on behalf of countries and the consequence is that democracy is severely undermined by this process. It was easier to manage data collection for the MDGs as this effort focused on averages (as compared to the strong need to disaggregate data in relation to the SDGs).  SSA is beleaguered with the problem of data collection and lack of capacity to analyse data. A Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data has been established. This is

‘a multi-stakeholder network of more than 150 data champions harnessing the data revolution for sustainable development. Its members represent the full range of data producers and users, including governments, companies, civil society groups, international organisations, academic institutions, foundations, statistics agencies and data communities. The Global Partnership serves as an invaluable convener, connector and catalyst, building trust and encouraging collaboration among stakeholders to fill critical data gaps and ensure data is accessible and usable to end extreme poverty, address climate change and pave a road to dignity for all by 2030. SSA countries have a strong presence in this collaboration and working through the African Union and African Development Bank, SSA has organised itself to take care of the African interests in data collection and analysis’.

Peliwe Lolwana is the Visiting Associate Professor at the Centre for Researching Education and Labour at the University of Witwatersrand, Johannesburg in South Africa.

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NORRAG (Network for International Policies and Cooperation in Education and Training) is an internationally recognised, multi-stakeholder network which has been seeking to inform, challenge and influence international education and training policies and cooperation for almost 30 years. NORRAG has more than 4,300 registered members worldwide and is free to join. Not a member? Join free here.

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PISA for Development: Expanding the Global Education Community Esperanto or Developing a Dialect?

By Camilla Addey, Humboldt University in Berlin[1]

PISAIn the 1990s, the International Large-Scale Assessment (ILSA) phenomenon suddenly exploded and over the following two decades, it saw an impressive increase in the number of countries taking part and the ILSA programmes available – the most widely known being the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). Although the main ILSA administrators, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA), once questioned the validity of international comparisons of learning outcomes, they now rate and rank educational performance and skills, describing such comparisons as an indispensable policy tool. Henry et al. described this as a shift ‘from philosophical doubt to statistical certainty’ (2001: 90).

Lower and middle income countries have taken part in PISA since it was first implemented, but it was not until 2013 that the OECD publicly acknowledged that PISA data were poorly-relevant for policy in such contexts: the PISA tests were not developed for a clustering of performance at the lower levels, nor are they sufficiently representative when large proportions of 15 year olds are out of school (hence not taking the test). Officially initiated in 2012, and unofficially in the making since the poor PISA experience of India in 2009, the OECD is determined to make PISA for Development (PISA-D) a success story.[2]

To understand the OECD’s recent work (including PISA-D), it is important to acknowledge that in 2012, at the OECD’s 50th Anniversary Council Meeting at Ministerial level, concern was expressed about the OECD membership being a historical relic. The OECD Member States agreed that the global economic gravity had moved over the previous fifty years and with it, global economic governance had shifted. The meeting was followed by the publication of an OECD Strategy on Development in which the Organization’s new vision was stated: it would be a more inclusive policy sharing Organization, sharing its evidence-based approaches to policy with what it defines as ‘developing countries’. In addition, the OECD was aware (and fearful) of losing the global traction it has recently gained in education with PISA (Bloem 2015): it needed to innovate and expand.

The expansion of PISA to include lower and middle income countries raises profound questions about the significance of PISA in such contexts, and its claim to produce more policy-relevant data whilst ensuring comparability with the main PISA instrument. In order for PISA-D data to compare with PISA data, there are limits to how much PISA-D could be ‘enhanced’ to become ‘meaningful and interpretable in national contexts’ (as described in the initial PISA-D meetings).

Over the last three years, the OECD has been working closely with its PISA-D private contractors (Educational Testing Service, The Learning Bar, cApStAn, Westat, and Pearson), seven countries (Ecuador, Paraguay, Honduras, Guatemala, Cambodia, Zambia and Senegal), aid partners,[3] and expert partners,[4] and assessment programmes.[5]  So what does PISA for Development look like after three years of negotiations? Have they ‘enhanced’ the programme to make it more relevant to the contexts where PISA-D is being implemented? What will the PISA-D data look like when it is published in late 2018?

Drawing on observations of an international PISA-D meeting[6] and interviews in 2015 and 2016 at the OECD, at The Learning Bar (a private contractor developing the PISA-D background questionnaires), and with high level policy actors in Ecuador and Paraguay (two PISA-D countries), to understand how PISA-D’s policy-relevance threshold was established, it appears that many different interests were involved in the making of PISA-D. These included sharing policy knowledge beyond membership, geopolitical expansion, business opportunities, and political ties with global PISA community. Using the notions of epistemic communities (Haas 1992) and socio-material semiotics (Law 2008) suggests that principled, normative and causal beliefs, shared understandings of validity, and the shared policy agendas have been accepted temporarily by actors who are piggy-backing their interests on the PISA-D assemblage. The PISA-D assemblage draws greatly on the success and prestige of the main PISA, which is automatically transfers to all those involved with PISA. But the price of the main PISA prestige comes at a cost for PISA-D actors.

To benefit from the main PISA’s global prestige, PISA-D actors had to decide what they preferred: context policy relevance or comparing with PISA. Interviewees speak of sacrificing data that reflects country realities, preserving PISA, having stronger ties with the main PISA, and global rituals of belonging (Addey 2015). This, however, does not mean that PISA-D is no longer relevant, but that it is differently relevant than one might deduce from the OECD’s policy-relevance claim. I suggest two interpretations, which are not mutually exclusive. On the one hand, it might be suggested that in the PISA era, policy-relevance is about which knowledge counts and not what knowledges are relevant. On the other hand, it might be that PISA and PISA-D are not about the data. In December 2015, I interviewed the OECD’s Andreas Schleicher who very honestly stated that PISA ‘is not really about the scores’. He described PISA as the global education community’s common language. In other words, PISA is an Esperanto. What has been observed with PISA-D might be described as a desire to speak the global education community’s official language, rather than an Esperanto dialect.

Camilla Addey is based at Humboldt University in Berlin where she researches global education policy and international large-scale assessments in lower and middle income countries. Email:

[1] This blog draws on data gathered for the author’s ‘PISA for Development for Policy – P4D4Policy’ research project, carried out with the support of the Fritz Thyssen Foundation.

[2] Author’s interviews with OECD staff.

[3] These include: France, the Inter-American Development Bank (IADB), Korea, the World Bank, the Global Partnership for Education (GPE), Norway (Norad), UK (DFID), Germany (BMZ/GIZ), Japan (JICA) and Ireland (Irish Aid).

[4] These include: UNESCO, UNESCO Institute of Statistics (UIS), The Global Education Monitoring Report (GEMR) team, UNICEF, Education International, PISA, PIAAC team.

[5] These include: ASER;  EGRA – Early Grade Reading Assessment; EGMA – Early Grade Math Assessment;  SACMEQ – Southern and Eastern Africa Consortium for Monitoring Educational; PASEC – Programme d’Analyse des Systèmes éducatifs des États et gouvernements membres de la CONFEMEN; PIRLS – Progress in International Reading Literacy Study; TIMSS – Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study; LLECE – Latin American Laboratory for Assessment of the Quality of Education; LAMP – Literacy Assessment and Monitoring Programme.

[6] The International Advisory Group meeting in Asuncion in March 2016.


Addey, C. (2015). Participating in international literacy assessments in Lao PDR and Mongolia: a global ritual of belonging. In Literacy as numbers: researching the politics and practices of international literacy assessment. M. Hamilton, B. Maddox and C. Addey. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Bloem, S. (2015). The OECD Directorate for Education as an Independent Knowledge Producer through PISA. Governing Educational Spaces. Knowledge, Teaching, and Learning in Transition. H.-G. Kotthoff and E. Klerides, Sense.

Haas, P. (1992). Introduction: Epistemic communities and international policy coordination. International Organization 46(1).

Henry, M., B. Lingard, et al. (2001). The OECD, Globalization and Education Policy. London, Pergamon.

Law, J. (2008). “On Sociology and STS.” The Sociological Review 56(4).

Other NORRAG Blogs about PISA for Development:

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NORRAG (Network for International Policies and Cooperation in Education and Training) is an internationally recognised, multi-stakeholder network which has been seeking to inform, challenge and influence international education and training policies and cooperation for almost 30 years. NORRAG has more than 4,500 registered members worldwide and is free to join. Not a member? Join free here.

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Can the Measurement of Learning Outcomes Lead to Quality Education for All?

By Pablo Zoido (former OECD), Michael Ward, Kelly Makowiecki, Lauren Miller, Catalina Covacevich (OECD)

OECDThis is one of the complex questions that kicked off last month’s, NORRAG-Brookings event, “Learning From Learning Assessments: The Politics and Policies of Attaining Quality Education”, which brought together targeted stakeholders with expertise in learning assessments, education policy-making and classroom experience.

Pablo Zoido on our team (until just recently) had the pleasure of participating in a plenary session discussion about how we move from theory to practice in using assessments models to improve education policy-making and delivery in a country. Representing the OECD, he shared our experience with the PISA for Development (PISA-D) initiative.

The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) is the OECD’s triennial international survey which aims to evaluate education systems worldwide by testing the skills and knowledge of 15-year-old students. PISA began in 2000, and as more middle-income and low-income countries took part in the assessment over the years, it became more and more pressing for PISA survey instruments, methods and analyses to be relevant and useful to a broad set of countries. PISA-D was thus initiated in 2013 to help middle-income and low-income countries maximise their use of PISA for monitoring progress towards nationally-set targets for improvement, for the analysis of student learning outcomes, particularly for vulnerable populations, for institutional capacity-building, and for tracking international educational targets in the UN-led Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) for Education.

PISA-D participating countries include Cambodia, Ecuador, Guatemala, Honduras, Paraguay, Senegal and Zambia. Panama, a PISA 2018 participant, has also joined PISA-D for the out-of-school component and to benefit from the project’s capacity building activities. Why are these countries participating and what do they get out of it? The selection was demand driven and subject to countries having access to the necessary funds for ensuring successful participation – this often involved the support of a development partner. These countries have signed up to PISA test instruments that capture a wider range of performance levels and contextual questionnaires meant to effectively capture the diverse situations in their countries. PISA-D countries are also pioneering new methods and approaches to include out-of-school youth in the assessment.

PISA-D countries have joined the initiative because they recognize that PISA has the potential to serve as a powerful tool for policy making in their context. PISA assesses competences in reading, mathematics and science in a way that is not linked to the school curriculum. The assessment is designed to measure to what extent students at the end of compulsory education can apply their knowledge to real-life situations and be equipped for full participation in society. The information collected through background questionnaires also provides valuable context. The PISA-D survey will produce results that are on the same scale as the main PISA assessment, and help participating countries see where they stand in comparison to their regional and global peers, and to learn from each other’s experiences.

A crucial element of PISA-D is that countries receive support to build their capacity for carrying out and using the assessment. The OECD conducts a capacity needs analysis to determine the capacities that need to be strengthened in order to successfully manage a large-scale assessment. Then the organisation works with the country to establish a capacity building plan as well as a project implementation plan to ensure that the capacities are developed and the PISA-D national team is prepared to adhere to the assessment timeline and standards. The team members go through rigorous trainings on a variety of technical topics, such as sampling, translation/adaptation of survey instruments, data management, coding assessment responses, and data analysis. These activities help them implement the assessment successfully and fully benefit from their participation to strengthen national and regional evaluation efforts.

Another valuable feature of PISA-D is the peer-to-peer learning that takes place throughout all phases of the project, which include: i) design and planning; ii) technical development; iii) field trials and in-country data collection; iv) analysis and reporting; and, v) report production, dissemination and post-pilot governance. PISA-D countries enter a partnership with other PISA countries for peer learning and technical support. The main PISA national teams have valuable lessons to share with the newly appointed PISA-D national teams such as how to effectively engage with stakeholders, embed PISA in a broader national discussion of the value and standards of assessment, and prepare to report and disseminate the assessment results.

PISA countries like Brazil and Peru, which are also serving as peer-to-peer learning countries for PISA-D participating countries, have shown how valuable PISA can be by using the surveys to set quality-of-learning benchmarks and monitor progress against these over time. Their PISA results have shown that diverse countries have managed to raise the quality of educational outcomes substantially, despite starting from different points.

As the theory behind this collaborative effort is put into practice, we are seeing PISA-D countries giving new shape to national and international policy dialogues on how to improve the quality of education. After the field trial later this year, main survey data collection will take place in 2017, and the results will be reported in 2018, at which point the PISA-D countries will have data to help policy makers adjust current benchmarks and set new ones to monitor and gradually improve learning outcomes. It is already proving to be a very interesting process to watch as it develops from one phase to the next.

The UN-led SDG Education 2030 agenda emphasises the quality, equity, and measurement of learning outcomes for young children through to working adults. The challenge is to define global learning indicators that can be measured and tracked on a global scale over time, and the OECD’s PISA-D initiative is helping inform and support the SDG Education discussions and strategy. PISA is an invaluable tool for data collection, and as more and more countries use it to measure learning outcomes, we have the potential to make improvements to education systems worldwide and attain the goal of providing quality education for all.

Pablo Zoido was an analyst at the OECD until mid-July 2016, working on PISA for Development. He has since joined the Inter-American Development Bank. Email:

Michael Ward is in the OECD Development Co-operation Directorate. Email:

Kelly Makowiecki, Lauren Miller and Catalina Covacevich all work on PISA for Development at the OECD. Emails:;;

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NORRAG (Network for International Policies and Cooperation in Education and Training) is an internationally recognised, multi-stakeholder network which has been seeking to inform, challenge and influence international education and training policies and cooperation for almost 30 years. NORRAG has more than 4,500 registered members worldwide and is free to join. Not a member? Join free here.

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International Geneva, Conflict and Peacebuilding: What Role for Education?

By Mario Novelli, University of Sussex & NORRAG[1]

UN GenevaWhen we think of ‘International Geneva’ we may reflect on the unique role that a range of Geneva-based International actors play in managing, resolving and overcoming wars and armed conflict. We think of UNHCR, ICRC; OCHA, OHCHR and a range of smaller NGOs, such as Geneva Call and the Small Arms Survey, that work on aspects of violence prevention, mediation, reduction and peacebuilding. Geneva is often seen as a hub, a place to go to learn about, to act on and engage with contemporary conflicts. Education, on the other hand, has less of a name in Geneva, and the major UN institutions working on education – UNESCO, UNICEF, the World Bank are all located far away in either Paris, New York or Washington or just have a small Geneva office.

As a result, most Geneva-based institutions working on conflict rarely engage in issues related to education and training, leaving that to other agencies, operating in different countries around the world. Similarly, the major education organisations often underplay the role and place of war, conflict and violence in their work and instead focus on issues of education’s relationship to equity, economic growth and productivity. This is a big knowledge and practice gap, particularly in relation to the new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), where objectives such as SDG 4 (education), SDG 16 (Peace & Justice) and SDG 10 (Reducing Inequalities) overlap, at least implicity, in important ways, and we ignore these links at our peril.

In support of this argument I want to briefly make the case why education matters in relationship to war and peace. Firstly, to those groups and movements that take up armed struggle, educational demands are often at the centre of the debate. For example, this was true for the Revolutionary United Front in Sierra Leone and is true for contemporary armed groups such as the Taliban in Afghanistan and Boko Haram in Nigeria – though for very different reasons. Recent attacks on education infrastructure and education communities in Pakistan, Afghanistan and many other parts of the world have highlighted this link. Education also matters to civilians caught up in wars, to refugees displaced by wars and to elites who seek to reproduce their power and social movements which seek to challenge them.

Education is also a key social service – a key responsibility of the state – and it matters how it is funded, organised, and how resources are distributed across the system. How this system is governed, managed, organised can make a difference as to whether the education system is part of the problem or part of the solution to contemporary conflicts. Furthermore, the neglect of social service provision (both education and health) in contemporary UN peacebuilding missions has been recognised as a weakness by the UN Peacebuilding Fund, which is seeking to expand investment in social services.

As a result, those agencies working in Geneva in, on, or around conflicts need to be functionally literate in education and its relationship to war and peace. This knowledge gap is itself an educational gap. Those that work in conflict resolution, peacemaking and peacebuilding are often trained in disciplines such as International Relations, Conflict Studies and International Politics where education rarely gets a mention either in course contents or the key journals. Similarly, those that work in the major education institutions, such as UNESCO, UNICEF and the World Bank are often trained either in Education Departments or Economics Departments and similarly are not exposed to debates and discussions around education’s relationship to war and peace.

Bridging that gap is a crucial task for Agenda 2030 and International Geneva may well be a good place to break down those silos. With the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation continuing to prioritise ‘education’ in its work, there is also a strong incentive to bridge the work on conflict that they are already well known for and link it to the work on education and training. This would require specialised courses and training for conflict specialists on education’s relationship to conflict and greater opportunities for knowledge exchange between conflict and education specialists that work in or on conflict affected contexts.

[1] This blog is a personal reflection from a presentation at ‘The Governance of Education and Training: Agenda 2030 and Beyond’, held in Geneva, June 23rd, 2016, and organized jointly by NORRAG and the Swiss Development Corporation (SDC).  This explored the place of education and training in work that ‘Geneva International’ plays in Conflict and Peacebuilding

Mario Novelli is Professor of the Political Economy of Education, and deputy director of the Centre for International Education, University of Sussex. He is also a “Scientific Advisor” to NORRAG. Email:

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NORRAG (Network for International Policies and Cooperation in Education and Training) is an internationally recognised, multi-stakeholder network which has been seeking to inform, challenge and influence international education and training policies and cooperation for almost 30 years. NORRAG has more than 4,500 registered members worldwide and is free to join. Not a member? Join free here.

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