Setting Plan Targets: School Education

Dr. K. Biswal
Associate Professor
Department of Educational Planning
National University of Educational Planning and Administration (NUEPA)
17-B, Sri Aurobindo Marg, New Delhi-110016, India

1. Introduction

Broadly, planning as a process of working out future course of action based on rational decisions aims at attaining a set of commonly agreed upon objectives/developmental goals. In the planning exercise, these objectives are then translated into clearly defined quantitative ‘targets’ with specific time frames. In other words, targets are what the plan intends to achieve, given the national development framework and diagnosis of the educational situation in the base year and a preliminary assessment of available resources. Linking itself to the overall development framework, the target setting process focuses attention on, and reflects the planners’ view of the improvements which needs to be made in the education sector. They also provide measures for demonstrating progress and success.

Given the developmental goals, targets must be informed by an accurate evaluation of what are currently being achieved along with related development problems and priorities. Plan targets are different from general statements. A statement becomes a target when:

  • What is to be achieved is stated clearly and unambiguously;
  • It is expressed as far as possible in measurable and quantifiable terms; and
  • The time frame is specified.

For example, ‘improving retention rate of girls at primary level by 2010’ is a general statement. Such a statement would not lead us anywhere in assessing the outcomes of the plan interventions aimed at improving the retention rate of girls in primary education. This statement becomes a target when is expressed as, ‘increasing the survival rate of girls to grade VI in Cambodia by eight percentage points over the base year survival rate by 2010’. This target is measurable and has been expressed in terms of a performance indicator (i.e. survival rate). It also has a reference period, which would help assess progress towards its achievement. Not that all targets can be expressed in quantitative terms. In such cases, targets expressed in qualitative statements should be qualified by identifying the proxy indicators that may help monitor progress towards the target.

Needless to mention that, target setting forms a critical step in the plan formulation process. Targets and indicators should not be confused with wider educational goals and objectives. They are not ends in themselves. At best their use helps to improve performance and enhance accountability. Planning the ways in which targets will be reached in the education sector should contribute to identifying better resource allocations and working practices. Greater accountability is a positive check on politicians, managers and teachers. Moreover, developmental goals in any country are generally set through a political process, which may or may not be based on any technocratic planning model. It may be based on past trends (inertia) or political decision to shift the past trends of development in a given sector, including education. Goals are the outcomes of the policy planning process. Whereas planning primarily aims at implementing policies so as to achieve the intended sectoral or sub-sectoral developmental goals. In a way, a developmental goal in the education sector is a given variable to the planner whereas plan targets are dynamic, which changes with the actual performance of the education sector. For example, in the Cambodian context, universalization of basic education may be considered a developmental goal, which is a constant variable to the planner, while enrolment targets are dynamic in the sense that they may change every year depending on the actual participation rate of the relevant age group children, growth rate of child population, internal efficiency of the school system, etc.

2. Targets need to be SMART

Plan targets need to be SMART (S: Specific; M: Measurable; A: Achievable; R: Realistic; and T: Time-bound). Targets must focus on key development priorities in the education sector. They should be set in the context of the plan of action being developed and also take into consideration the socio-economic environment in which the plan is to be executed. It is important to note that the pace of development in education is generally slow. The capacity of the education system, therefore, should not be overestimated, which may lead to setting unrealistic targets that have little likelihood of success. Target setting, therefore, should take into consideration a whole lot of related factors that may influence results of the plan interventions including expected inputs by stakeholders; use of data and information relevant to geographic area and target population; expert assessment of the problems and issued addressed; staff experience and capacity in estimating what is realistic to achieve within a defined time frame based on research and past performance of comparable programs and activities; consideration of available expertise, institutional arrangements as well as resources for monitoring and evaluation; parallel and collaborative work of other public and private sector influences on outcomes; and after all, the environment for plan implementation.

3. Target setting in a decentralized educational planning framework

The methodology of plan formulation in a decentralized planning framework deals with the techniques of diagnosis, including estimation and interpretation of performance and other indicators; projection of school age population, enrolment and teachers; building alternative scenarios and target setting; design and elaboration of development strategies and interventions; estimation of additional infrastructure, manpower, teaching-learning material, etc.; planning for implementation; and costing of planned interventions and activities. It is, therefore important to note that target setting as a distinct stage in the planning exercise is closely linked to the preceding stages (i.e. diagnosis and projections). At the same time, it influences significantly the course of action in the subsequent stages of plan formulation. For example, while the overall development objective and the results of the diagnosis and projection exercises in the education sector form the basis for setting enrolment targets, the enrolment targets once set would largely determine the estimation of requirements in terms of infrastructure, teachers, teaching-learning materials, etc. An inappropriate enrolment target may lead to under or overestimation of schooling requirements.

Another important aspect of the decentralized planning framework is conflict between the bottom-up and top-down approach to setting plan targets. Often, national targets are imposed on lower level planning units such as the district in Cambodia, which then makes the target unrealistic. Because, national targets often have different implications for different districts. Feasibility of achieving such targets becomes a major issue at the district level. Such a top-down approach also goes against the very purpose of decentralized planning in education which is supposed to be context specific. It is a fact that availability of resources and expertise do not always ensure desired results because of the varying resource absorption capacity across decentralized planning units. Even with the availability of the required resources the performance of districts may vary significantly because of lack of other enabling conditions. Moreover, one of the primary objectives of decentralized planning is to set targets that are realistic, feasible and relevant to the target population and areas. But, at the same time, plan targets set at the decentralized planning units can not be free of the overall sectoral and sub-sectoral targets generally set at the national level. In such cases, there is a need for dialogue between the policy-makers at the macro level and planners at the micro level in order to arrive at plan targets that do not undermine the national goals and also make the district level targets unrealistic. Ensuring effective two-way communication mechanisms between macro and micro level planning units becomes important in the target setting exercise.

4. Need for disaggregated target setting

Disaggregated target setting at the district level is another aspect of decentralized planning in education. The same target at the district level may have varying implications at the sub-district level – viz., the Communes in Cambodia. For example, in a district a target of achieving a certain net enrolment ratio in primary education may have different implications for different Communes. Therefore, the district targets are to be translated into block wise targets. This is necessary to make intervention strategies local specific. For example, some Communes in the district might have already achieved universal participation in primary education, and in others, participation may found to be a major issue. In such cases, Communes which have already achieved universal participation would emphasize more on retention and quality improvement dimensions while other Communes may need to focus on all components of universal basic education. Such contextual factors are important to set plan targets and decide on the intervention strategies at the sub-district levels.

While setting disaggregated plan targets in basic education at sub-district levels, there is also a need to set targets by plan components such as access enrolment, retention, international efficiency, learning outcomes, capacity building, etc. Within these components, plan targets should be set by gender, social groups and location of schools (i.e.) rural and urban. Often, education plans do not make clear distinction between such disaggregated targets and implementation schedule of major planned interventions. It may be kept in view that, once plan targets are set, planners evolved intervention strategies and provide detailed programmes and projects to be undertaken to reach the plan targets. Each programme/project consists of a number of activities which again needs to be carefully planned for execution. Translating these programmes and projects into an operating time table with clear assignment of roles and responsibilities of individuals and organizations in the implementation process is what is called planning for implementation. One of the important tasks in the planning for implementation is assigning time and resources to each of the individual activities for their timely completion. Assigning time to individual activities of education development programme can not be termed as a plan target. This point needs to be kept in mind while developing decentralized education development plans.

Given the critical importance of target setting in formulating decentralized education development plans, target setting exercise, particularly enrolment target setting should follow certain standard procedure/methodology. Assumptions of the target setting exercise should be clearly mentioned in the plan document. All related data and information used in the target setting exercise should also be mentioned in the plan document. The procedure/method of setting targets should be discussed in detail in the plan as this would facilitate justification of plan targets. Moreover, as far as possible, plan targets should be stated in absolute numbers and in terms of performance indicators. A suggested format for presenting targets in a plan document is given below:

Table 1: Suggested format for presenting plan targets [plan component: universal participation in basic education (rural + urban)]

Sl. No.

Description of the target/Indicator Base year status Total enrolment


Plan target


Total enrolment


Additional enrolment


Net Enrolment Ratio (Boys + Girls) 86% XXX 89% XXX



Net Enrolment Ratio (Girls)

5. Setting enrolment targets in basic education development plans

Having briefly discussed the concept of plan target and some aspects of target setting in a decentralized planning framework in education, an attempt has been made in this section to discuss one of the alternative methods of setting enrolment targets in basic education, which is based on projection of school age population and enrolment in grades I-VI. In this case, the compound growth rate method has been used for projecting the school age population and enrolment in grades I-VI. Diagnosis exercise with focus on disaggregated analysis of data at the VDC and RC levels will help planning team members to set Commune-specific realistic targets on different aspects of universal basic education in Cambodia. It may also be noted that annual as well as targets in the base years need to be set out separately in case of boys and girls, social groups, rural and urban areas. All this will require projected of school age population and enrolment both at the Commune and district levels. The outcome of the diagnosis and projection exercises would play decisive role in adopting targets on enrolment.

Several alternative methods are available for setting enrolment targets. Grade ratio or grade transition and compound growth rate are some such alternative methods. The grade transition method depends on indicators determining the student flow and help set grade-wise enrolment targets. The compound growth rate method can be used to set enrolment targets both for grade I and grades I-VI. It is the simplest method of setting enrolment targets which requires data on enrolment in the base year, share of under and overage children in the total enrolment in the base year, information about past trends in the growth of enrolment and share of under and overage children in total enrolment due to repetition, late entry in grade I and grades I-VI, child population in the relevant age group, past trends in the growth rate of child population, share of private sector in the total enrolment (if any) and share of in or out-migrants in the total enrolment, particularly in urban areas.

For example, assuming that the required data and information are available, if the job is to develop a perspective plan for universalization of six years of basic education by 2015 in one of the districts in Cambodia, and given the national target to universalize participation (6-11 age group) in basic education by 2012/13, the enrolment target setting exercise based on the compound growth rate method can follow the following steps:

Step I: Project the 6-11 age group child population (based on the assumed growth rate) for the target year (2012) following the compound growth rate method {(Pn = P0 [1+ (r/ 100)]n} separately by Commune, sex and rural urban areas.

Step II: Consider the projected child population in 2012 as total enrolment of 6-11 age group to have 100% NER.

Step III: Based on the past trends in the share of under and overage children in the total enrolment in grades I-VI and proposed plan interventions to stabilize entry age to grade I and improve internal efficiency of basic education, assume a certain share of under and overage children in the total enrolment in grades I-VI in 2012/13.

Step IV: Adjust the projected total enrolment of all age groups in grades I-VI in 2012/13 by taking into consideration the presence of under and overage children in the total enrolment. For example, if the share of under and overage children in the total enrolment in grades I-VI in 2012/13 in a Commune is assumed to be 12%, then the share of the projected enrolment in grades I-VI in the total enrolment in that year becomes 88%. We now know the expected enrolment of 6-11 age group children in 2012/13, which is 88% of the total enrolment. The next job is to find out what would the total enrolment?

Step V: Taking the base year enrolment figures (actual) for grades I-VI and the adjusted total enrolment for grades I-VI in 2012/13, estimate the Commune-wise required average annual growth rates of enrolment between the base and target years to achieve universal participation in basic education 2012/13.

Step VI: Using the estimated average annual growth rates of enrolment and the base year actual enrolment, set year-wise enrolment targets following the base year.

Step VII: If the private sector has a visible share in the basic education sub-sector, adjust the year-wise projected enrolment in grades I-VI by taking the most likely share of private sector in the total enrolment.

Some of the issues we need to reflect on are that:

  • Can we use GER to set enrolment targets in basic education where the goal is to universalize enrolment of the relevant age group population?
  • Should we consider dropouts in setting enrolment targets in basic education?
  • How to take into account migration of child population while setting enrolment targets in basic education in urban areas?

Needless to mention that methods for setting enrolment targets for subsequent levels of education will be different as it depends not only on the growth of relevant age group population but also the internal efficiency of the preceding level of education.

6. Setting enrolment targets in basic education: A practical exercise

The task is to universalize enrolment of 6-11 age group children in grades I-VI in one of the districts in Cambodia. The planning team needs to set commune-wise disaggregated enrolment targets following the compound growth rate method. The basic information relating to child population and enrolment in various communes in the hypothetical district are given in Table 2.

Table 2: Commune-wise child population (6-11 age group), average annual growth rate of child population, enrolment in grades I-VI in the base year and share of under and overage children in the total enrolment in grades I-VI in District XX in Cambodia

Commune 6-10 age group population, 2007 Average annual growth rate between 2007-2015 Total enrolment (all age groups)  in grades I-V in 2007/08 Percentage share of under and overage children in grades I-V, 2007/08


Enrolment Target

(in absolute numbers)

2008/09 2009/10 2010/11 2011/12 2012/13
C1 34845 2.12 35592 21
C2 28165 1.98 28459 19
C3 24220 2.34 24729 26
C4 20986 2.11 21106 24
C5 5421 2.56 5650 22
District 113637 115536

Further, the total enrolment in grades I-VI will grow at an average annual growth rate between 2007-08 and 2012/13. The percentage share of under and overage children in grades I-VI will be uniformly brought down to 6% across all Communes in the district in 2012/13.

Based on the above data and assumptions, set the Commune-wise yearly enrolment targets for universalizing participation in basic education in the district by 2012/13:

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