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Centralization Versus Decentralization
By Annick M. Brennen, 2002

The concepts of centralization and decentralization are important ones to consider as they ultimately affect the effectiveness of schools in educating the children of a nation. Centralization refers to the condition whereby the administrative authority for education is vested, not in the local community, but in a central body. This central body has complete power over all resources: money, information, people, technology. It decides the content of curriculum, controls the budget, is responsible for employment, the building of educational facilities, discipline policies, etc.

Decentralization, on the other hand, refers to the extent to which authority has been passed down to the individual school. Site-based management is an example of decentralization in which individual schools can make their own decisions related to finances and curriculum. However, the locus of power remains with the central body. Advocates of decentralization believe it will result in higher student performance; more efficient use of resources; increased skills and satisfaction for school administrators and teachers; and greater community and business involvement in and support for schools.

In The Bahamas, public education is under the total control of a central administration headed by the Minister. Having experienced first hand the problems associated with such a system, I believe that a degree of decentralization would empower the individual schools to adapt to changes in their external environment and be more responsive to the needs of pupils and the community. My position rests on the following arguments (some of them advanced by Dr. Thomas, 1998):

  1. It is virtually impossible to manage large and complex organizations from the top. Inflated bureaucracies are extremely slow to respond to local needs and are not very adaptable.

  2. Centralization does not fit the current trends of participatory management, empowerment, and shared decision-making. Decentralization provides local administrators with greater autonomy, thus giving scope for creativity, resourcefulness, and personal enhancement particularly in the area of problem solving.

  3. Decentralization provides for persons at the scene of the action to become involved in the decision-making process. This allows for greater flexibility, and makes it possible for better decisions to be made because persons at the scene of the action are more closely related to the problem.

  4. When individual schools are given the opportunity to make decisions, a higher degree of morale and commitment to the organizational goals and objectives are fostered. If the principal through decentralization is given the authority to generate and disburse funds, great gains could be realized. The staff, then, would exert more effort since it would be a means by which their strategic plans for curricula and program development could be implemented.

  5. Decentralization also promotes the professional development of principals. Everyone has the innate tendency towards self-actualization. Therefore, being responsible for the development of school goals and objectives and their implementation would encourage principals to seek various means for achieving professional growth while maximizing their potentials.

  6. Decentralization demands the establishment of accountability and evaluation mechanisms. This in itself would ensure that individual schools operate at a high level of efficiency and effectiveness in promoting student achievement.

  7. Decentralization promotes greater parental and community involvement. Community members and parents can provide valuable insight about how schools can be improved to better educate the children in the community. Parents having a greater stake in the educational process, would have a better understanding of the problems facing schools, and would tend to increase their support.

  8. Reform is never initiated by central administration. It usually originates at the bottom and finds its way to the top because of the pressure exerted by those who are affected by unreasonable and ineffective policies.

While I believe that a certain degree of decentralization is needed, I also believe that total decentralization would not achieve cohesiveness among schools. I agree with Michael Fullan who posits that neither centralization or decentralization works by themselves. Both top-down and bottom-up strategies are necessary. Centralization errs on the side of over control, while decentralization errs toward chaos. He argues that site-based management fails in the long-run because not enough attention is paid to the center and vice-versa. School and district development must be coordinated. Personnel moves, transfers, selection and promotion criteria, policy requirements, budget decisions, including staff development resource all take their toll on schools if the relationship is not coordinated. The center and local units need each other. Schools will get nowhere by swinging from one dominance to another. What is required is a different two-way relationship of pressure, support, and continuous negotiation.

Contact Annick:  annickbrennen at  gmail dot com