Students hold up the results from their exams at a school in Kabul, Afghanistan.

Credit: Ivan Armando Flores/Arete/GEM Report


Key Messages

  • Accountability is a process aimed at helping individuals or institutions meet their responsibilities and reach their goals. Actors have an obligation, based on a legal, political, social or moral justification, to provide an account of how they met clearly defined responsibilities.
  • Accountability lacks common definitions across disciplines and may be understood in different ways across languages.
  • Accountability matters enormously for improving education systems but it should be a means to education ends, not an end in itself.
  • People are more likely to deliver if held accountable for decisions. If held accountable for outcomes beyond their control, they will try to avoid risk, minimize their role or adjust their behaviour in unintended ways to protect themselves.
  • Trust is largely absent when actors operate in fear of punishment. A shared purpose, which fosters trust, is central to effective accountability.
  • Education actors are held to account through political processes, laws and regulations, performance evaluations, market competition, social pressure and professional norms.
  • Different approaches to accountability may be effective in some contexts and for some aspects of education and detrimental in and for others. No one approach is universally effective at all times.
  • Accountability needs to emphasize building more inclusive, equitable, good-quality education systems and practices instead of blaming individuals.
  • No approach to accountability will be successful without a strong enabling environment that provides actors with the resources, capacity, motivation and information to fulfil their responsibilities.
  • To accomplish the larger shared aims of education, policy-makers must recognize actors’
    interdependence and work towards systems that incorporate mutual accountability approaches.

The 2017/8 GEM Report evaluates the role of accountability in global education systems regarding achievement of the vision of UN Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 4: ensuring inclusive, equitable and good-quality education and lifelong learning for all.

Growing populations gaining access to education, along with evidence of underachievement in learning, have brought into sharp focus persistent deficiencies in provision and quality. These, combined with tight education budgets and increased emphasis on value for money worldwide, have countries searching for solutions. Increased accountability often tops the list.

Accountability can be a virtue, describing the quality of being answerable and reliable. In this report, it is defined as a type of mechanism. On legal, political, social or moral grounds, governments and other education actors are obliged to report on the fulfilment of their responsibilities.

Figure 1: How all actors in education are currently held to account

Because ambitious education outcomes rely on multiple actors fulfilling often shared responsibilities, accountability cannot easily rest with single actors. As this report demonstrates, reaching SDG 4 and ensuring inclusive, equitable and good-quality education is often a collective enterprise in which all actors make a concerted effort to meet their responsibilities (Figure 1). For this to happen, political and economic interests need to be aligned. Education policies and actors are not isolated from the world around them.

Equally important, no accountability approach can succeed if actors lack an enabling environment or are ill-equipped to meet their responsibilities. Without clear information and sufficient resources and capacity, their efforts will be stymied. Policies to improve existing practices that focus on building over blaming are more likely to produce equitable, inclusive, high-quality education systems.

Ensuring inclusive, equitable and good-quality education is often a collective enterprise in which all actors make a concerted effort to meet their responsibilities

Meeting broad education goals requires collaboration and communication between actors. Public trust and support depend on processes and goals being seen as legitimate and achievable within resource constraints. Ultimately, lack Ensuring inclusive, equitable and good-quality education is often a collective enterprise in which all actors make a concerted effort to meet their responsibilities of public trust can lead to citizen disengagement and parental disenfranchisement. In systems with little trust, education reform is likely to be slow and superficial. Building trust requires including many stakeholders in the creation of shared aims and recognizing actors’ interdependence through mutual accountability.

Various socio-political trends have shifted education policy towards greater emphasis on accountability. The rapid expansion of education in the second half of the 20th century made education systems increasingly difficult to manage. One response of government authorities in high income countries to this challenge, not only in education but also in other sectors, was the shift from managing inputs to managing results. The establishment of metrics and standardized instruments to enable comparisons of local governments and schools accompanied the increased focus on results.

A related development was decentralization to increase local control over education provision, while central government maintained responsibility for financing, monitoring and regulation. Also, in some countries, dissatisfaction with public education contributed to policies diversifying provision and creating an education ‘market’, where parents could choose schools for their children based on school rankings published with the intent to spur competition and drive up quality. In addition, availability of information encouraged citizens to
demand more transparency.

Accountability should be understood as a means to an end – a tool in achieving SDG 4 targets – not a goal of education systems in itself

In some high income countries, there has been a move towards accountability policies that use student test scores to measure and evaluate performance. Student performance is increasingly linked to sanctions and rewards and serves as a basis for evaluating teacher performance and school quality.

But if accountability is to help ensure more inclusive, equitable and high-quality education systems, flexible approaches, which make judicious use of available information, are needed. Accountability mechanisms may be effective in some contexts and for some aspects of education and detrimental in and for others.

Accountability matters enormously for improving education systems, but some assumptions need to be questioned. The drumbeat of accountability for accountability’s sake is misdirected. Accountability should be understood as a means to an end – a tool in achieving SDG 4 targets – not a goal of education systems in itself.

The 2017/8 GEM Report reviews global evidence on the often interdependent mechanisms holding key actors in education to account, their effectiveness in meeting SDG 4, and the necessary supportive environments that enable actors to fulfill their individual responsibilities.


There are today 264 million children and youth not going to school – this is a failure that we must tackle together, because education is a shared responsibility and progress can only be sustainable through common efforts. This is essential to meet the ambitions of the Sustainable Development Goal on education (SDG 4), part of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Governments, schools and teachers have a frontline role to play here, hand in hand with students themselves and parents.

Moving forward requires having clear lines of responsibility, knowing when and where those lines are broken and what action is required in response – this is the meaning of accountability, the focus of this Global Education Monitoring Report. The conclusion is clear – the lack of accountability risks jeopardizing progress, allowing harmful practices to become embedded in education systems. For one, the absence of clearly designed education plans by governments can blur roles and mean that promises will remain empty and policies not funded. When public systems do not provide an education of sufficient quality, and for-profit actors fill the gap but operate without regulation, the marginalized lose out. Governments are the primary duty bearers for the right to education, yet this right is not justiciable in almost half of countries, and the primary course of action for those with a complaint is lost.

Everyone has a role to play in improving education. This starts with citizens, supported by civil society organizations and research institutions, which point out gaps in high-quality, equitable education. In a number of countries, student movements have often swayed policies on equitable and affordable education, highlighting the power that we all share and must exercise to advance SDG 4. International organizations have been in the lead also in shaping new goals and targets in line with the complex challenges of our times.

The report shows too that not all accountability methods are currently helping us achieve SDG 4. In some parts of the world, it is becoming more common, for instance, for teachers and schools to be sanctioned for poor test results, in the name of purported attempts to improve quality instruction and learning. The report concludes this must be approached with great caution to avoid having unintended, contrary consequences.

There is extensive evidence showing that high-stakes tests based on narrow performance measures can encourage efforts to ‘game the system’, negatively impacting on learning and disproportionately punishing the marginalized. It is vital to collect data on learning outcomes, to shed light on factors that drive inequality in education. But drawing precise conclusions requires time, resources and skills that few countries have, and drawing the wrong conclusions can be all too easy.

Accountability means being able to act when something is going wrong, through policy, legislation and advocacy, including through ombudspersons to protect citizens’ rights. We need stronger mechanisms across the board to enshrine and enforce the right to education and hold all governments to account for their commitments, including donors.

The word ‘accountability’ appears throughout the 2030 Education Framework for Action, demonstrating the importance that UNESCO and the international community give to follow-up and review functions to catalyse and monitor progress. This means also that all countries should produce national education monitoring reports explaining their progress against their commitments – currently only about half do so and most of them not regularly. Accountability is about interpreting evidence, identifying problems and working out how to solve them. This must be the backbone to all our efforts to achieve equitable, high-quality education for all.

Irina Bokova
Director-General of UNESCO