Policy lessons

17th March 1995 at 00:00
Education 1960-1990: The OECD Perspective, By George Papadopoulos OECD #163;29. 92 6414190 1.

There are several reasons why rich countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development converge in their educational policies.

One might be the increasingly influential prescriptions from Brussels, whose power seems undiminished by their opacity. Another might be that countries follow similar sequences of economic growth which impose a similar developmental logic, although this is not easy to demonstrate. The third possibility is imitation.

Several international bodies are in the educative and imitation game, and the most sophisticated is the OECD. It comes unburdened with the power to give grants and must therefore convince by the power of its analysis and innovative thinking. For 30 years it was lucky to have, at the apex of its education secretariat, George Papadopoulos who was a one-man civilising force for international co-operation, giving a strong lead to analysis while advancing the humanistic mode. He managed to convince the grey suits conferencing in the lugubrious building in rue Andre Pascal that thinking hard could be fun.

The locus of policy-making in education is fugitive, but the OECD was there at virtually every turn to record, analyse and to anticipate the trends. Dr Papadopoulos describes its functions in the sixties as "legitimising the growth of education . . . and establishing the concepts, techniques and mechanisms by which this growth could be planned and articulated into broader policy".

This latter took some artful dodging among the ideologies of any particular time, but Dr Papadopoulos skilfully shows how the OECD responded to the needs and trends of its time. It was a leading influence in the application of human capital theory and of educational planning, but just as decisively announced the arrival of participatory or second generation planning. It has conducted projects on quality assessment and has produced pioneering work on performance indicators.

In the past it supported educational development in the Mediterranean; it is now a haven for attempts to reconstruct the educational systems of the old Soviet empire. It has moved from the theme of equality to that of quality, without casting off concerns for educational disadvantage. One of the achievements recorded here is how it combined economic argument, so dominant in OECD thinking, with those of social and individual development.OECD's country educational reviews are particularly valued by members as a way of securing an external critique of their policies.

The book provides a comprehensively documented account of OECD work; it also stands as a key text on the development of educational policies in the Western world over the last 30 years. It shows how knowledge can exert influence if not authority. There have, however, been some academic criticisms lodged against international bodies of the OECD genre as being the agents of Western imperialism. That charge does not, however, easily lie against the OECD because most of its members are Western rich countries themselves.

A more telling criticism is from the opposite direction, reported in my OECD sponsored review of 1979, that the country reviews and other outcomes reflected a social democratic bias. A further criticism was their lack of follow up. But the first criticism may have reflected the fact that most educational policy making until the 1980s was indeed "social democratic", even if the parties in power were of the right. This was the very Thatcherite complaint about previous conservative educational policy.

The point is rather that OECD attempts to cause change by starting with the presumptions of the country involved rather than attempting to impose uniformities, which are beyond its power anyway. That has not inhibited critique but it does not easily lead the OECD to offer Marxist or radical right solutions to countries whose policies have been, until recently, largely centrist. The author would have been well able to encounter these criticisms.

In spite of the European Union's arrival, there is no sign of the OECD having had its day. Ministers in 1990 reaffirmed belief in an agenda that did not abandon the earlier ambitions for greater equality, but relocated them in a more realistic context. Themes such as the learning society and of internationalisation are now to the forefront of their concern The OECD has proved to be a formidable instrument for consensual analysis and policy interchange. Dr Papadopoulos' book well shows how and why.

Maurice Kogan is professor of government and director of the Centre for the Evaluation of Public Policy, Brunel University.

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