3 ways to enhance ministry of education leadership during crises

31 March 2022

In today’s world, emergencies and risks are complex and fast arising. To defend the right to quality and inclusive education for all, ministries of education are called upon to play a strong leadership role, even long before a crisis strikes. This message was at the heart of the IIEP-UNESCO knowledge sharing forum on ministry of education leadership in March 2022 to help protect the uncertain future for the millions of learners affected by crises each year in and through education.

Opening the three-day event, for more than 260 participants, IIEP Director Karen Mundy remarked: “Given the stark reminder of how fragile peace is in the world, we all know that strengthening the abilities of ministries of education to lead during crisis is of growing importance. And we know that it will become even more important in the context of climate change.”

Drawing on recent research findings from Burkina Faso, Jordan, and Kenya, the forum explored how leadership for ministries can be enhanced, and what opportunities are available to ensure the continued provision of equitable and quality education for all, including children on the move.

Ministry of education leadership is important not only in the short-term response during emergencies, but also in the long-term, when it comes to building the resilience of education systems to prevent, withstand, and recover from crisis.

With funding from the European Union’s Foreign Policy Instrument (EU-FPI), the forum built on two years of IIEP research and the experiences of a wide range of researchers, practitioners from ministries of education, humanitarian and development organizations, academia, and others.

The event, featuring online discussions and working sessions, was also an opportunity to present a conceptual framework for understanding endogenous leadership in crisis settings by the Centre for Comparative and International Research in Education (CIRE) at the University of Bristol.

Listen to the related podcast episode from PlanED on ministry of education leadership:


Three top takeaways from the event

1. Embrace complex systems thinking rather than linear, hierarchical models when conceptualizing effective ministry of education leadership in crisis management.


  • Create an environment for innovation and democratize education governance with a balance of bottom-up and top-down approaches, which are participatory and inclusive and enable the contextualization of policies and plans.

“To force systems to deal with crisis, you have to have leaders at all levels of the system who have the capacity but also the wherewithal and the agency to act … Many education systems are very top down and linear, and people don’t have that agency and feel that they need to be constantly told what to do.”

-Leon Tikly, Lead Researchers, Centre for Comparative and International Research in Education (CIRE), University of Bristol

  • Understand leadership as a practice or process rather than a position, as well as the interdependence of the different levels in responding effectively to crisis, including through multi-stakeholder partnerships, such as with parents, communities, and professional network structures.
  • Ensure that the ministry of education has the ability and will to shape opportunities for greater coherence across the norms, capacities, and operations of an education response.
  • Encourage humanitarian and development actors to reflect on the extent to which their actions support and strengthen or undermine or replace endogenous leadership.

2. Improve capacities at multiple levels of the education system and strengthen leadership in crisis management.


  • Start at the individual level and build the capacity of individual leaders to set and achieve challenging goals and to direct, guide and influence the behaviour and work of others.

“COVID-19 required leaders who can take fast and decisive action, for example when it came to the closure of schools, curfews, or restrictions.”

-    Anne Gachoya, Deputy Director Education, Ministry of Education Kenya

  • Consider the organizational and institutional levels and capitalise on any existing cultures, structures, strategies, and partnerships in the area of risk reduction and management to enable effective cross-sectoral cooperation and the pooling of resources and to build political will and support from high-level leadership.
  • Recognize the essential leadership role played by both the middle tier and school levels of education administrations, notably the importance of distributed leadership and collective agency across levels of the system, with an empowering culture based on autonomy, trust, and professional development.

3. Understand the importance of the three “Cs” – communication, coordination, and collaboration – to ensure that the education system is learning and responsive to change.


  • Recognise the importance of building adaptive capacity as a key dimension of ministry of education leadership in crisis settings, ensuring that stakeholders at each level in the education system have the capacity and resources to collect and use data and information effectively to support adaptive approaches to response and recovery.

“We really knew from the beginning that we cannot do anything without data. Data is one of our oldest activities in the Ministry.”

-    George Mogga, Director-General for Planning and Budgeting, Ministry of General Education and Instruction, South Sudan

  • Enable the participatory and representative engagement of crisis-affected populations, including refugees, internally displaced persons (IDP) and other marginalized groups, ensuring that their views and experiences are included at all stages of the crisis response.

“Even if refugee children are attending school, we know very little about their education experiences, which makes it difficult to plan adequately for the particular support they need to stay and progress in school.”

-Charlotte Berquin, Education Officer, UNHCR

  • Foster demand-driven data to improve systems learning by moving away from centrally driven decision-making processes to building capacity and resilience at all levels and creating space for local adaptations and contextually relevant decision-making.

Together with IIEP’s case studies, these takeaways and the online discussions from the forum lay a stronger foundation for IIEP’s future engagement with countries in crisis settings.

Watch the recordings:

Webinar 1 (roundtable): Using a systems approach to understand and strengthen ministry of education leadership in crisis settings (7 March 2022)

Webinar 2 and group discussions: Strengthening system capacities for ministry of education leadership in crisis settings (14 March 2022)

Webinar 3 and group discussions: Strengthening systems’ learning for ministry of education leadership in crisis settings (16 March 2022)