Effective leadership in crisis: What it takes for ministries of education

26 May 2020


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A little boy and his teacher at school in Irbid, Jordan.

Good government leadership is paramount during any crisis. It facilitates decisive action, open and consistent communication, and most importantly, puts the interest of the public first. For education, during the COVID-19 pandemic, this is no exception. In just a matter of days, school closures affected over 1.5 billion students across the globe.

As with any crisis - whether it be conflict, natural hazards or climate change – health emergencies jeopardize not only the safety and well-being of students and their teachers, but also learning, with marginalized groups (displaced families, girls and women, special needs learners) often suffering disproportionally.

To protect education for all, ministries of education must take on a strong leadership role. But, what makes – or breaks – effective leadership during crisis? How can those at the helm of an education system galvanize its staff and communities, and make important links with other line ministries, such as health, and humanitarian partners?

1.    Encourage political will at the highest level of government


When the highest level of government commits to providing education – no matter the circumstances – the ministry of education can mobilize resources, implement and monitor policies, and adapt responses as an emergency evolves. In addition, open communication on the benefits and potential challenges of chosen policies can ensure not only united agendas, but also a supportive public.

“In Jordan, strong political will has created a climate in which the Ministry of Education can lead, confront challenges, and create plans that put the education of all first,” says Anna Seeger, an education policy and planning specialist at IIEP-UNESCO. “His Majesty, King Abdullah II of Jordan has also helped set this tone by maintaining vocal interest in education reform.”

2.    Develop policies and plans that include provisions for crisis


The full extent of a crisis is hard to predict. However, ministries of education can lead strong responses when they are prepared. In Jordan, the rapid influx of Syrian refugees pushed education authorities to find new learning solutions while not overwhelming the school system. This experience showed the Ministry of Education that they must address educational inequalities from the get-go and coordinate with the National Center for Security and Crisis Management among others.

“The Ministry applied these lessons to longer-term planning as outlined in its current Education Strategic Plan and Crisis and Risk Management plan to protect the education system from future shocks,” says Seeger. “This prior investment is really paying off now during the pandemic as they are rolling out a range of learning solutions, as well as catch-up programmes and back-to-school campaigns.”

In Burkina Faso, previous education plans are also informing the response to COVID-19: educational radio prorammes that first aired during times of insecurity in vulnerable areas have been upscaled to reach students affected by the crisis countrywide.

3.    Work closely with government actors at all levels


Ministries of education need to be able to define rapid, decisive action in coordination with sub-central education offices, schools, and communities. Education systems that involve sub-central decision-makers and education actors – who are more aware of local risks and capacities – are better placed to ensure educational continuity.

For example, in Jordan, the Ministry of Education in Amman is working with Field Directorates for Education as they prepare to reopen schools. They are specifically looking at the needs of vulnerable learners, including refugees, who may not have access to the online learning tools that the Ministry put in place at the start of the pandemic.

4.    Develop a strong and resilient information system


Quality education data is crucial, yet difficult to collect, during times of crisis. “Detailed, granular data can show who is affected by a crisis and where, helping to mobilize funding and guide an effective and targeted response by identifying who is most at-risk,” says Jean Claude Ndabananiye, an education policy analyst at IIEP-UNESCO. In Burkina Faso, the Ministry of Education’s information system has evolved over time to become resilient to crises. When insecurity first escalated in 2015, new demands for data grew exponentially – and especially on the rising number of children displaced by violence. With support from IIEP-UNESCO, the Ministry and its partners were able to mobilize quickly and adapt their approach so that they could collect bi-weekly data on displaced children.

“This data was crucial in helping to create a stronger response plan to meet the educational needs of displaced learners,” says Ndabananiye. “This capacity to collect detailed data is now proving very helpful in responding to COVID-19.” 

5.     Strengthen human resources and organizational structures for risk management


Ministries of education are in a stronger position to lead in times of crises when they have already invested in human resources and organizational structures such as a Risk and Crisis Management unit across various governance levels. In Burkina Faso, the Ministry’s Technical Secretariat for Education in Emergencies was first set up to respond to education needs for displaced learners. Now, it is leading the country’s COVID-19 response for basic and non-formal education.

In Kenya, the current challenges related to the pandemic have also led to a commitment to build an Education in Emergencies Unit in the central Ministry and further establish County Education in Emergency Committees to institutionalize effective crisis management countrywide.

6.    Align humanitarian responses and development plans


During crises, fast-acting humanitarian responses should align with longer-term development plans. At the same time, long-term goals must also take into account shifting realities post-crisis. By investing in the humanitarian-development nexus, ministries of education and their partners can ensure coherence, as well as effective and efficient use of available resources. In the education sector, this requires ministries to adjust their plans, priorities, and targets.

In Jordan, the Ministry of Education is planning to revise its education sector plan targets to reflect the post-COVID 19 world. In Kenya, the Ministry will study the impact of the schools closures on its national education objectives, and Burkina Faso is revising its Education in Emergency strategy to integrate risks related to pandemics.

Building resilience on the road to recovery


In countries that have experienced a range of crises, the most effective ministry leadership has shown why responses must be multi-faceted: from short-term efforts that focus on reaching the most vulnerable to foward-looking strategies anchored in domestic and indigenous solutions. Strong leadership can also only flourish when humanitarian and development worlds meld to contribute to sustainability and resilience.

This is also the case for the current COVID-19 crisis that could forever reshape education. Strong ministry of education leadership cannot be under-estimated as countries seek new ways to ensure that all children and youth can learn in safe conditions.

How can education systems prepare for crisis?


  • Have polices and plans for risk and crisis management, as well as school-level contingency plans in place, 
  • Institutionalize coordination and communication structures that allow for quick decision-making in the face of emergencies based on established protocols,
  • Inform and train students, teachers, school communities, and education officials on disaster risk reduction.