The governance of complex, decentralised, multi-level education systems poses two fundamental questions for both policy- and research discussions: What are innovative contemporary governance strategies for the central level in education systems? How can these approaches be described and analysed to identify commonalities that might help to understand how and if they work? In addressing these questions, this paper’s aim is twofold: first, to inform the policy-discussion by presenting empirical examples of new governance mechanisms that central governments use to steer systems across their levels; and second, to contribute to the conceptual discussion of how to categorise and analyse the evolution of new governance structures. To do so, the paper starts with identifying core features of multi-level governance and the respective conceptual gaps it produces. It then introduces a simple analytical categorisation of modes of governance. An analysis of three
empirical cases (an institutionalised exchange between governance levels in Norway, a capacity building programme in Germany, and the Open Method of Coordination within the European Union) then shows how various education systems address these gaps and design the role of the central level in complex decision-making structures. A comparison of the three cases identifies – despite the heterogeneity of the cases – several communalities, such as multi-staged policy processes,
transparency and publicity, and soft sanctions. The paper concludes that the Open Method of Coordination, even though often criticised for its inefficiencies, might serve as a promising template for national approaches to soft governance in education. Further research on OECD education systems is needed to gather more empirical examples; these may help to get a better
understanding of what is needed for successful steering from the central level in decentralised contexts.