Leadership: Strong ministries of education at the heart of resilience

24 January 2022


© UNICEF /Frank Dejongh
Children attending class in a traditional koranic school, in Dori, in the North of Burkina Faso.

Natural hazards, conflicts, migration, and displacement – for many countries, the COVID-19 pandemic came on top of other existing crises, exacerbating inequalities, and putting already strained education systems under additional stress. As the primary duty bearers in education, ministries of education must take on a leadership role in preparing for crises, to maintain education services and to ensure that teaching and learning continue.

What are the obstacles to ministry of education leadership during crisis, and which factors can enhance it? IIEP-UNESCO has been exploring these questions through research and discussions with educational planners and policy-makers.

Enhancing the capacities of ministries to lead

For nearly two decades, IIEP has been supporting countries to strengthen their capacities and planning skills to better prepare for, prevent, and respond to crises in education. However, little research has been conducted so far on the specific role of education administrations - especially ministries of education and their decentralized offices - in leading crisis management within the education sector. What factors may enable or constrain their engagement and leadership? This has been the focus of an IIEP project initiated in 2019 - just before COVID-19 entered our global lexicon.

“At the heart of the most resilient education systems are strong ministries of education, able to prepare for and lead sector-wide crisis responses to crises, which are aligned with priorities for longer-term recovery and development; and shorter-term humanitarian assistance.”
Leonora MacEwen, IIEP programme specialist

This project includes three country case studies that approach the topic of leadership by looking at different crises:

  • Burkina Faso: This case study explores how the Ministry of Education worked to prepare for and mitigate the impacts of ongoing insecurity that were compounded by COVID-19.
  • Jordan: This case study examines the Ministry of Education’s response to the refugee crisis, including its efforts to mainstream refugee education into national plans.
  • Kenya: This case study analyzes the processes and decisions involved in the Ministry of Education’s response to COVID-19.

Each study examines a number of areas, including policies, infrastructures, institutional and technical capacities, teacher management, and coordination and provided contextualized recommendations to each country based on the findings of the research.

“By better understanding the conditions that enable and support ministry leadership and engagement in crisis management, ministries and their partners can improve the effectiveness and sustainability of their efforts, leading ultimately to more resilient education systems."
Anna Seeger, IIEP programme specialist

But what exactly is leadership?

In the education sector, and especially in crisis situations, leadership is a complex – and at times, blurry– concept. In the first episode (full transcript here) of IIEP’s new podcast “PlanED”, specialists from IIEP and the Centre for Comparative and International Research in Education (CIRE) attempt to break down the concept and draw out key lessons for planners and policy-makers on how to lead during crisis. 



Key takeaways from Burkina Faso, Jordan, and Kenya

An enabling policy environment, supported by political will and alignment between international and national policies, enables effective crisis response.

The crisis in Syria has displaced more than six million people since 2011. Jordan is the third-largest host country for Syrian refugees, including more than 212,000 of school-aged as of 2018.

The alignment between national commitments to refugee inclusion and SDG 4  generated substantial support from international actors in Jordan. However, “as refugees began to arrive, analysis showed that technical and institutional capacity was the single most important factor in the Ministry of Education’s ability to lead a response while simultaneously working to maintain important development reform initiatives,” says Anna Seeger, programme specialist at IIEP and co-author of the report on Jordan.

Learn more about ministry leadership in Jordan

Risk management mainstreaming in education strategic plans, planning processes, and tools are a key prerequisite for ministry leadership in times of crisis

Each year in Kenya, drought affects an estimated 250,000 school-age children and 8,000 teachers. Over the past decade, the Ministry of Education has taken significant steps to address education in emergencies in its policies and plans and to reinforce its capacity for crisis management. These efforts expedited the COVID-19 response to a certain degree – notably by familiarizing some of the Ministry staff with the tools and approaches already in use.

However, this work was still in progress when the pandemic emerged. For example, the 2017 Education Disaster Management Policy had only been disseminated in nine out of 47 counties in Kenya by early 2020. In addition, the research shows that crisis management mechanisms were considered either as inadequate or as not directly relevant for addressing the scale and system-wide impacts of the pandemic.

Learn more about ministry leadership in Kenya

Ministry leadership relies on strong information systems and data collection.

Located in the heart of the Sahel region, Burkina Faso has been facing worsening environmental conditions for several decades leading to natural hazards. In addition, insecurity and violence have led to an unprecedented humanitarian crisis in the region since 2015. This situation has led to major population displacement and the closure of thousands of schools in the country. The COVID-19 pandemic has further affected this already weakened education system.

The deterioration of the security situation has highlighted the urgent need for reliable and updated information about schools, students and teachers to inform decision-making on emergency responses as well as medium and long-term strategies. “The modernization of the Education Management Information System (EMIS) currently underway will help strengthen the ministry capacity and leadership in education management, planning, budgeting, and communication in crisis,” says Jean-Claude Ndabananiye, programme specialist at IIEP and co-author of the report on Burkina Faso.

Learn more about ministry leadership in Burkina Faso (in French)

The experiences of these three countries highlight the diverse nature of crises in today’s world. At the same time, COVID-19 has emphasized the need for more significant investments in prevention of and preparedness for all types of crises within the education sector. The challenge today is to also avoid what the World Health Organization has termed, a cycle of “panic-then-forget” once a crisis is under control. Safeguarding the education and learning of children and youth in times of crisis is a long-term commitment worth the investment.

Join the upcoming IIEP knowledge-sharing forum on ministry leadership

IIEP is hosting a three-part knowledge-sharing forum to discuss opportunities for ministries of education to exercise leadership in the provision of equitable, quality education for all in times of crises. In a range of panels and working groups, participants will delve into key concepts on ministry leadership in crises, share country experiences with crisis response and help shape IIEP’s future engagement with countries in crisis settings.