Despite various arguments which have been advanced in favour of educational decentralization, there is no ideal version of decentralization. This explains why success or failure in implementation tends to be context based and mostly influenced by a number of factors such as the availability of financial resources. By applying the comparative qualitative case study approach, this research project analysed how institutional capacity, accountability and local autonomy affect the implementation of the decentralization policy in Zambia’s education sector. In particular, two District Education Boards (DEBs), Chongwe and Solwezi, are studied and compared.
Primary qualitative data was on the one hand, collected through the use of semi-structured interviews and focus group discussions. On the other hand, official policy documents and reports were used as important secondary data sources. Nearly 8 informants were drawn from each of the two education boards in addition to the 8 key informants interviewed at the national level. A total of four focus group discussions (2 in each district) involving teachers and parents were organised at the school level in order to solicit views on implementation of the policy from the primary beneficiary‘s point of view.
The adoption of educational decentralization has, in certain instances, led to positive changes, especially in participation and transparency both at the district and school level. Yet, the manner in which leadership is exercised within the board sets a striking difference between these two cases. Lack of coordination between the DEB secretary and the board chairperson is particularly worrisome in Chongwe compared to Solwezi. Generally this study revealed that implementation is hampered by more serious challenges, with weak institutional capacities and accountability mechanisms. Of particular interest is the weak administrative system as well as lack of a legal framework - a situation which is creating a conducive environment for poor internal and external compact relationships.
Further, the establishment of the education boards resulted in a shift of workloads from the center, but this has been without meaningful transfer of authority to the districts. Contrary to policy provisions, decentralization initiatives in both Chongwe and Solwezi have not relaxed the tight controls from the top. In the case of teacher recruitment and financial matters, for example, the Ministry of Education (MoE) has delegated authority to the DEBs, but in practice this authority is largely reclaimed. These boards have, therefore, not been able to efficiently make decisions that could support effective implementation of the policy. Therefore, these findings are consistent with the view that as much as institutional capacity, accountability and local autonomy are critical success factors, they are merely a means to an end, since educational decentralization (where not properly implemented) can, in practice, reproduce similar problems as those experienced under centralization. Obviously, further investigation based on mixed methods involving more than two education boards would yield more robust findings and recommendation for improving implementation.