chevron-down chevron-left chevron-right chevron-up home circle comment double-caret-left double-caret-right like like2 twitter epale-arrow-up text-bubble cloud stop caret-down caret-up caret-left caret-right file-text


Electronic Platform for Adult Learning in Europe



Structural Indicators: A bridge between top-down strategic direction and bottom-up creativity?

Language: EN
Document available also in: ET



An important tension in lifelong learning, as well as related fields such as youthwork, is between prescriptive top-down models of education based on centralised direction and bottom-up processes that emphasise local creativity and autonomy for learning approaches – where the relevance of learning pertains to local community experiences and needs.

A possible bridge these two tensions is worth considering, namely, the development of structural indicators as an approach to facilitate both central strategic direction and accountability on the one hand, and local flexibility and creativity on the other hand. Developing the structural indicators of a system (for transparency purposes) takes place already for the UN right to health and can be extended by analogy for lifelong learning and social inclusion in education. It is not the task of this blog to set out specific structural indicators as strategic guidance for lifelong learning, including non-formal education. Rather it is to start a process that highlights their feasibility and relevance.

Structural indicators address whether or not key structures, mechanisms or principles are in place in a system (see Table 1). Whilst these are relatively enduring features or key conditions of a system, they are, nonetheless, potentially malleable. Further, structural indicators go beyond the quantitative/qualitative distinction as they are factual, being generally framed as potentially verifiable yes/no answers. They can be action-guiding and policy and practice relevant. The indicators can distinguish state, municipality and/or education institutional effort and offer an incentive for governments to invest in the area of nonformal, community and family learning as feedback on their efforts in this area becomes simple, inexpensive and transparent.

Table 1. Illustrative Examples of Structural Indicators (SIs)

Guiding principles as SIs:

Active involvement of target groups in designYES OR NO
Active involvement of target groups in deliveryYES OR NO

Roles in organisational structures as SIs

Intervention of sufficient intensity to bring changeYES OR NO
System-change focus and not simply individual-change focusYES OR NO

Clear focus on level of prevention – universal, selected (moderate risk)and/or indicated (chronic need)                                                            

Distinct age-cohort focusYES OR NO
Clear outreach strategy to reach marginalised groupsYES OR NO
Alternatives to SuspensionYES OR NO

Physical spaces as SIs

Specific space in school building for parents to meetYES OR NO

Source: Downes, 2014b, 10 European city municipalities, PREVENT project.


Structural indicators can be at a national strategic framework level and at an institutional project level, both for external evaluation and self-evaluation. They offer a framework for strategic direction as to what issues are addressed at system level, while also offering flexibility at local or national contextual level as to how to address these issues. This respects the professional judgments of educators and other professionals rather than imposing rigid top-down prescriptive activities for learning in programmatic manuals. While seeking to unleash the dynamism of local energy and people tuned into the needs of local communities, it is not simply total decentralisation. It requires that key structural systemic features be addressed, though giving local autonomy as to how to address it. Structural indicators for parental involvement of marginalised groups in education have been developed

Illustrative examples of structural indicators, at both national and higher education institution levels, can be highlighted for access to higher education for socio-economically excluded groups. These are based on a 12 country EU-funded study.


Table2. Illustrative examples of structural indicators for access to higher education for socio-economically excluded groups at higher education institution level

Education institutional strategy for access for groups experiencing socio-economic exclusion (Yes/No)
An access strategy of third-level institutions which engages with primary and secondary students experiencing socio-economic marginalisation (Yes/No)
Formal links between universities and non- governmental organisations representing marginalised groups (Yes/No)
University outreach strategy to communicate with spokespersons, community leaders in socio-economically marginalised or ethnic minority communities (Yes/No)
Development of outreach institutional strategies that go beyond mere information-based models (Yes/No)
Availability of school and university institutions free of charge during summertime and evenings for community groups from marginalised areas (Yes/No)
Preparatory admission courses (Yes/No)

Source: Downes, 2014.


As a focus on systems, not simply individuals, structural indicators offer a flexible approach to understanding policy, strategy and implementation in areas such as non-formal, community and family learning. Such a structural concern is akin to an x-ray – it can, with the right lens of questions, extract key findings about how well a system is fostering progressive change.


Paul Downes is Director, Educational Disadvantage Centre, Senior Lecturer in Education (Psychology), St. Patrick's College, Dublin City University, Member of the Coordinating Committee of the European Commission Network of Experts on the Social Aspects of Education and Training (NESET II) (2015)

Share on Facebook Share on Twitter Epale SoundCloud Share on LinkedIn