Lessons in educational policy-making: highlights from the IIEP Strategic Debate

22 November 2018


Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, Deputy CEO of IPSOS and former Minister of Education for France, and Stefania Giannini, Assistant Director-General for Education at UNESCO, and the former Minister of Education for Italy.

For ministers of education worldwide, the stakes are undoubtedly high. “When you touch education in a country — in all regions of the world — you touch something that is crucial for everybody’s life,” said Stefania Giannini, Assistant Director-General for Education at UNESCO, and the former Minister of Education in Italy from 2014 to 2016.

Giannini joined Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, former Minister of Education for France from 2014 to 2017 who is now the Deputy CEO of IPSOS, on stage for IIEP’s 7th Strategic Debate of the year. Moderated by IIEP’s Director, Suzanne Grant Lewis, the wide-ranging discussion saw both former Ministers describe a politically charged environment where the clock moves fast and the critics are never far behind.

Below are some highlights, but the full discussion is available to watch here:


Moderator Suzanne Grant Lewis first asked the Ministers “What do you wish you’d known before taking office?”

Giannini, who has had a lifelong career in education and understands its value because of what it has allowed her to accomplish, stressed that she would have benefited from knowing more about what the position actually entailed at the outset and the challenges involved in raising the level of public debate.

“Being Minister of Education can be more dangerous than swimming in a pool surrounded by sharks…but I survived just knowing that education is the most important thing you can deal with,” Giannini said.

Vallaud-Belkacem echoed Giannini’s sentiments, adding that she would have liked to understand the gap between public debate and opinion and the actual challenges in education today. Her advice to any current minister of education would be that it is important to bear this gap in mind and know that actual educational experts suffer from a lack of public recognition and legitimacy.

Both Ministers came into office in 2014, when the world was taking stock of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and starting to design what were to be universal goals, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Grant Lewis asked, “What influence did this have on your time in office?”

Vallaud-Belkacem stressed that in France, the public debate on education issues has remained largely national. Compared to other countries, for example in Africa, there is little public knowledge about the SDGs. However, she made an interesting point: while French students may not know the formal language of the SDGs, they still understand its overarching concepts, from becoming global citizens, tackling climate change, and achieving gender equality.

Similarly, Giannini said the importance of sustainability and the 2030 agenda was not on the public’s radar while she was in office. However, her Ministry tried to convey one important element of this global agenda: that if the school system can be more open and embrace the right policies, it can be a real driver for a more inclusive society.

Both Ministers were then given an opportunity to discuss a signature reform.

In Italy, Giannini developed and implemented a structural reform of the education system to open up the school to society, centred on social inclusion. It was an ambitious project, she said, which included professional development for teachers and an evaluation system, a national platform for digitalization allowing students and teachers to use technology as part of the learning process, and a school to work scheme, among other initiatives. She also made the important point that while education is a field where you need time to see the impact and consequences of your actions, “politics cannot wait.” It is here also that communication - and the role of the media - is so crucial in disseminating the intentions and facts of a reform.

Vallaud-Belkacem, whose multifaceted reform included reaching disadvantaged youth countrywide, teacher training, and an overhaul of secondary school curriculum, also faced the challenge of misinformation and fake news while in office. Sometimes, teachers would first learn about the reform from social media and the news, which ran the risk of disseminating inaccurate information.

Another important observation she made was that students were often not at the centre of discussions on educational reforms. She recounted her first weeks in office. With papers stacked high on her desk, she was whisked from meeting to meeting with teachers, unions, and others, with the looming pressure of making quick decisions. Two weeks in, she recounted to a cabinet member, “I have seen many, many people, but sorry, when do you ever talk about the students?”

Turning to the policy-making process, Grant Lewis asked how the former Ministers were able to use data and evidence to inform the design of policies. 

For Giannini, she remembers it was very difficult to collect homogenous and well-structured data. However, the Ministry started to build a database and draw from external sources, as they understood its importance in policy-making. Meanwhile, Vallaud Belkacem said in France it was not an issue of having too little data, but rather that the public and the media would select and highlight only certain data. For example, she said that articles on reforms to address the major issue of school dropouts in France kept referencing 2012 data of 140,000 dropouts rather than the progress reported five years later in 2017, which revealed that the level was now 80,000.

Looking beyond a political term

This Strategic Debate provided a rare opportunity to delve into the minds of two former Education Ministers. The two guest speakers had much in common: two female politicians - from two countries in close proximity - who had strong ambitions to reform their education systems. Neither expected the challenges to be so vast, and expressed the importance of harnessing the power of communication to explain their intentions and impact to a broad spectrum of actors, from fellow politicians, the unions, and the press, to the students, teachers, and parents who all have a stake. They both understood clearly the speed in which politics moves, and that reforms can be implemented and undone just as fast. However, what does not change is the potential impact of education and its ability to foster a more inclusive, integrated society for all.