Commentary

Policy transfer: huge potential but proceed with caution

Matt Davis

Matt Davis, UK Director, considers the importance of a global dialogue when it comes to learning from education policy around the world.

Some public policy ideas seem to spread far and wide. Policy ideas as varied as the introduction of independent central banks, national strategies to address the impact of climate change or smoking cessation and the privatisation of certain forms of public sector activity are all examples of national-level policies that have become common across many countries around the world.

But, while underlying policy concepts spread widely, these ideas often take on new characteristics when they are transferred from one context to another. This can be deliberate, where policymakers identify the core principles of a concept but carefully adapt it to particular circumstances in their context; or less deliberate, where either misunderstanding of the policy or political influence means certain features of the root policy are ‘lost in translation’.

This tendency towards policy convergence is as common in education as in any other field of public policy. Indeed, for a number of reasons, education policymakers are increasingly taking a highly active approach to replicating policies from elsewhere.

PISA and TIMSS

The growing prominence of international comparative testing such as PISA and TIMSS has shown that certain countries are achieving consistently strong outcomes in core areas of study such as literacy, mathematics and science. Not surprisingly, this insight means that others seek to understand – and adapt – the policies that can be found in these countries.

Data from these tests and other sources increasingly indicates areas of common weakness in education systems globally. The prime example of this is in the attainment gap between children from higher and lower socio-economic backgrounds. This has led to a proliferation of policies aimed at addressing these global issues, providing a rich menu of policies to learn from.

Since 2000, there has been an enormous investment in basic education in many poorer countries supported by the international donor community. This model – where policy design and implementation decisions are made by bodies working across geographical boundaries – leads to a degree of ‘policy homogeneity’.

Evidence-informed policy making

As stewards of public money, policymakers understandably seek reforms that have proven evidence of efficacy and impact. While this evidence can come from education research, policy is typically a complex combination of different interventions, not all of which are easily testable. Therefore, adoption of policy ideas that have been shown to work – or at least correlate with improving outcomes – can be a proxy for evidence-informed policy making. In England, the adaptation of East Asian approaches to mathematics teaching appears to be based on this type of analysis.

Finally, adopting policies that have been shown to work and that are being used by global leaders in the field or by competitor economies provides a convincing political narrative for ministers to sell their ideas to the public. 

For all of these reasons and more, policymakers are increasingly looking beyond their own borders for guidance and inspiration.

Culture eats strategy for breakfast

At Education Development Trust, our experience of working with governments and donor agencies globally suggests that success in learning from elsewhere is not straightforward. In relation to policy, the idea that concepts can simply be transplanted from one context to another is often misguided. As the well-known saying goes: culture eats strategy for breakfast. Concepts that have proven their value in one context may not take root, owing to structural, political or cultural conditions in the new context.

Choosing effective policies to adopt is harder than it seems. Very few policies globally are implemented with a robust, experimental evaluation in place from the outset. As a result, it is often difficult to gauge what impact the policy has had, and – if impact is observable – how far this can be attributed in a causal sense to the policy.

It is challenging to codify the policy in a way that can be translated for a new context. A lack of evaluation evidence or different interpretations by those involved may mean there are differing opinions about the essential components. 

In reality, effective implementation is as important as policy design when seeking to ensure policy impact, with the ability to learn and adapt policy during implementation.

A detailed understanding of each unique context is crucial in determining success. When transferring policy from one context to another, the difference between success and failure can lie in understanding system capacity to adopt the change, the level and type of resourcing required and the demands for different levels of pace and scale.

This leaves us with an obvious challenge: understanding how policy transfer is best done. If the world is to benefit from the best of what we know about effective education policy and avoid repeating the same mistakes in different places, how do we go about this? We need to debate important questions such as:

  • How can we learn from others when each country has its own distinctive context?
  • How can we make use of promising international practice while recognising that differences in, for example, resourcing and culture can make direct policy transfer problematic?
  • What can we learn from successful and less successful attempts at policy transfer?
  • Why do some initiatives thrive while others fail to make an impact?

The potential benefits of global policy dialogue are immense but they will only be realised if we can address these key questions.