Educational Planning in Primary Education

In a fast changing world, where adaptability and agility are crucial for survival, schools must find new and innovative ways to fulfill their mission while coping at the same time with increased competition for limited—and in some cases dwindling—resources (Dryden, 2013). Strong leadership with a strategic outlook is vital in this scenario (Williams & Johnson, 2013). Educational planning, while not always practiced in the same manner, is also a major part of strong, strategic school leadership (Rutherford, 2009). In the primary education context, leaders have utilized a variety of educational planning approaches and models, some of which are discussed below.

The First Steps

According to Coombs (1970), during the pre-World War II period educational planning had four characteristics: it was focused on the short-term; it lacked cohesiveness in planning for all parts of the system; it was disconnected from economic and social needs; and it was static. During the post-war period (especially the 1950s) planning became vital as multiple European and Asian economies had been destroyed and their infrastructures needed to be rebuilt. This period was dominated by economists, who viewed planning as a methodical, rational way to allocate resources and position the country as a whole on a path to future growth and stability, with the Marshall Plan being a clear example of this type of effort (Bray & Varghese, 2010).

As the benefits of planning became clearer, educational leaders also sought to apply some of the principles that had been used for the economy at large in an attempt to improve the conditions of schools and prepare for population growth. Three approaches to educational planning emerged during the 1960s: the social demands approach, the manpower requirements approach, and the cost-benefit analysis (Coombs, 1970). These three approaches were stand-alone models that could be—and were—combined with each other depending on the need.

Social Demands Approach

The social demands approach takes into consideration mainly the national “aggregate ‘popular’ demand for education, that is, the sum total of individual demands for education at a given place and time under prevailing cultural, political and economic circumstances” (Coombs, 1970, p. 37). Under this model, the demand is of greater consequence than economic considerations; however, economic considerations are still one of the aspects at the root of social demand for primary education, as two major factors influence that demand: primary education is compulsory, and the costs associated with primary education that parents and families must cover (both cash and opportunity costs) may hinder fuller participation (Coombs, 1970).

Under this approach, educational planners simply used population data to estimate the number of school-aged children that should attend school and projected an estimated rate of participation; with an estimated enrollment number, planners would then estimate the total cost associated with providing primary education to the nation’s children (Bray & Varghese, 2010). Coombs (1970) points to three problems with this approach: it assumed that investment in education superseded all other types of investment in importance; it did not take into consideration future workforce needs; and it resulted in lower quality and less effective education.

Manpower Requirements Approach

The manpower requirements approach had educational planners examining future professional needs in the economy and matching those needs with educational investments (Bray & Varghese, 2010). This approach was open to additional input by educational planners, and had a considerable impact on primary education in countries where it was utilized. In Tanzania, for example, the government utilized a manpower requirements approach to its educational planning, which led planners to decide that the participation rate in primary education should be set to about half; this goal seems absurd today when compared to current global efforts in the Education For All campaign (EFA, 2014), which are aimed at reaching full participation in primary education.

There were three main problems with this approach: it caused educational planners to focus their efforts on higher levels of learning (implying a limited desired participation in primary education); it applied industrialized economies’ standards and ratios that were not suitable for developing nations to all educational planning situations; due to economic, technological, and political uncertainties, any long-term planning for manpower was of limited reliability (Coombs, 1970).

Cost-benefit Approach

The cost-benefit approach was based on human capital theory and presented planners with a robust analysis method for investment allocation (Bray & Varghese, 2010). Under this approach, planners measured the benefits of investing in education and compared them with the benefits of investing resources elsewhere. Complex calculations were needed under this method, and critics of this approach pointed to two major weaknesses: “basic cost data are flimsy” (Coombs, 1970, p. 44) and the assumption that individual economic improvements based on education would be the same in the future as they are now.

Educational Planning Trends

As educational planners sought to refine their techniques, measuring results and comparing them with their estimated target goals in the midst of a changing world, certain trends could be seen and to a certain extent continue to this day. Prior to the 1980s, the country was the major analysis unit for educational planners. This was known as macro- or national-level planning (Bray & Varghese, 2010). This phase was characterized by: school facilities as the main target of investment; “national plans were sectoral in their approach, and each department or ministry took responsibility for preparing its won plans” (p. 18); and decisions were made mainly by the ministries of education, often based on manpower requirements and rate-of-return analyses.

The economic crisis of the early 1980s helped to shift the approach to educational planning from a centralized to a decentralized model. During this period, school mapping and location planning were utilized as a way to fulfill the needs of areas that had not been adequately reached by previous educational efforts. Government roles also changed under this approach: local governments gained more influence over the planning process and the decisions, while the national government provided funding and a more general direction without much involvement in smaller decisions (Bray & Varghese, 2010).

Educational planning at the local level sought to address the needs that the simplified approach of building educational facilities did not meet. Particularly in primary education, children still needed to be enrolled and drawn to stay in school, and previous efforts did not have a successful record in reaching underprivileged children. New database systems were created to track participation rates, and more sophisticated methods were adapted for location planning, such as the Geographical Information Systems (Hite, 2008). Local level planning has evolved to include the institution itself, with a focus on “planning for inputs to process and outputs” (Bray & Varghese, 2010, p. 22), which in turn has resulted in a growth of student testing.

Alternative Approaches

Professor Isave (2011), of the Tilak College of Education in India, has identified several other approaches that can be used in educational planning and that are applicable to primary education. The intra-educational extrapolation model bases planning on the available data and focuses on one program (or an aspect of a program) at a time. It analyzes the time and funding required in light of the needs for the specific program, and promotes workshops to involve members of the institution in decision-making activities.

The social justice approach plans for “social development” (Isave, 2011, p. 9) based on the goals delineated by the Constitution of the country. This approach seeks to meet the educational needs of underprivileged citizens and minorities by focusing on equal opportunity. The pattern-oriented approach seeks to emulate successful models implemented in other areas or educational institutions. The need-based approach is favored by educators and takes into consideration the needs of the individual, society, country, and other nations when planning educational efforts. This approach has limited applicability to primary education, but it is still relevant as the first three levels are related to school aged children within a country’s borders. Finally, the resource-based approach to educational planning (favored by economists) seeks to match financial resources to available human resources. This can be a good approach when there are abundant financial resources available.

Choosing the Right Approach

Coombs (1970) proposed five key issues that need to be addressed in the educational planning process: the goals and functions of educational institutions and systems need to be defined; educational planners need to identify the best means of achieving those goals and functions; planners need to define the level of investment to be made in educational efforts; “who should pay?” (p. 34); and the recipients of resources must be clearly identified at every level of the system. As educational planners seek to address these five key issues, three characteristics can be very helpful: “the good educational administrator is a hybrid of idealist, pragmatist and politician” (Coombs, 1970, p. 35). That is, successful educational planning requires a focus on education (“idealist”), the use of available resources to do as much as can be done in a realistic way (“pragmatist”), and the use of connections in government and private enterprise to acquire the necessary resources (“politician”).

As it has been the case since the 1950s, not one single method is the answer to all questions (Bray & Varghese, 2010). A mixture of centralized and decentralized planning is needed to reach national and local goals; this means that some approaches can be successful at the local level and not necessarily apply to the national level in primary education. Strong leaders utilize different approaches to solve problems depending on what the situation requires; in this sense, there is not a preferred method for all—each class, school, district, state, and country needs to analyze its own resources, compare them with short- and long-term goals, and allocate its resources accordingly. This is not only evident in recent history (Bray & Varghese, 2010), but can be seen also in global efforts, such as Education For All: each country has a different recipe for reaching similar goals (Bruns, Mingat, & Rakotomalala, 2003).



Bray, M., & Varghese, N. V. (2010). Directions in educational planning: Report on an IIEEP symposium. Paris, France: UNESCO, International Institute for Educational Planning.

Bruns, B., Mingat, A., & Rakotomalala, R. (2003). Achieving universal primary education by 2015: A chance for every child. Washington, DC: The World Bank.

Coombs, P. H. (1970). What is educational planning? Paris, France: UNESCO, International Institute for Educational Planning.

Dryden, J. (2013). Innovations in times of austerity: Thinking outside the box to maintain programs during periods of financial exigency. Journal Of Cases In Educational Leadership, 16(1), 27-48. doi:10.1177/1555458913478425

EFA Global monitoring report. (2014). Paris, France: UNESCO.

Hite, S. (2008, July). School mapping and geographical information systems in education micro-planning. Symposium on directions in educational planning. Symposium conducted at the meeting of UNESCO, International Institute for Educational Planning (IIEP), Paris, France.

Isave, S. G. (2011). Approaches to educational planning. Pune, India: Tilak College of Education. Retrieved from

Rutherford, C. (2009). Planning to change: Strategic planning and comprehensive school reform. Educational Planning, 18(1), 1-10.

Williams, H. S., & Johnson, T. L. (2013). Strategic leadership in schools. Education, 133(3), 350-355. Retrieved from



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