PlanED Episode 1: Ministry of Education leadership in crisis situations: What does it mean and why does it matter?


Education systems throughout the world confront crises of varying degree – from disease outbreak, conflict, to natural disasters. Ministries of education on the frontline must take on a leadership role to maintain quality teaching and learning for all. What factors influence leadership, and why does it matter. In the first episode of PlanED, IIEP-UNESCO programme specialists Stephanie Bengtsson and Anna Seeger sit down with Professor Leon Tikly and Dr Rafael Mitchell from the University of Bristol to explain.


Full transcript:

Stephanie Bengtsson: This is PlanED, where we take you inside education systems to learn about the policies and strategies helping to create a more equitable and sustainable future in and through education. I’m Stephanie Bengtsson.

Anna Seeger: And I’m Anna Seeger, and we are both program specialists at the UNESCO international Institute for Educational planning working specifically on crisis-sensitive planning.


Stephanie: COVID-19– now in its third year – continues to disrupt education.

At the peak of the crisis, school closures affected 1.6 billion students worldwide. Today, children’s safety and well-being continue to be at risk and new inequalities have started to take form.

To many education experts, this is a crisis within a crisis.

At IIEP-UNESCO, we’ve been working with ministries of education on planning and management for six decades, and over the past two we’ve helped countries build their capacities and skills to better prepare, prevent and respond to crises affecting the education sector.

The pandemic is putting these techniques to the test - and ministries of education - worldwide are feeling the pressure to lead crisis response efforts…

But what does leadership really mean in the context of a crisis - and what facilitates or hinders ministries of education from exercising a vital leadership role in these situations?

Anna, you’ve been supporting ministries of education in the context of conflict, natural disasters, and displacement for many years. Why do you think the concept of leadership needs unpacking and why in particular is this so important for education planners and managers? What’s at stake here?

Anna: So, the concept of leadership is quite blurry even though – in our professional lives and as citizens – we constantly demand state leadership to ensure the provision of basic social services – may it be health, education, public transport, and so on. In education, it is obviously the ministry of education that is responsible for education provision. And this doesn’t change when a crisis hits. During a crisis, ministries of education remain the primary duty bearers. 

Stephanie: Yes, and I think in crises, the ministry is also responsible for the coordination of relief efforts, including coordinating support that is provided by international partners.

Anna: Right. And the good news is that in the past decade or so we’ve seen a shift towards strengthening state authorities to manage crises. This shift happens on both sides – on the government side, and on the international community side. So, what we are witnessing in our work at IIEP is that governments show increased interest in being prepared to manage crises and ideally prevent them from happening rather than constantly being in a sort of firefighting mode. On the other side, international agencies are increasingly following their commitments to align support with national agendas and to strengthen national structures.

So, despite all these positive developments, in our daily work we still notice a lack of technical capacity, coordination and collaboration structures and perhaps sometimes also a lack of shared values to manage crises collectively. So, what we wanted to do is study what ministries of education need to have in place to cope with crises… and how external partners including international partners can support ministries of education to take the lead.

Stephanie: In parallel, we also took the opportunity to reach out to a thought leader in this field, the University of Bristol’s Centre for International and Comparative Research in Education - which is known as CIRE - to help us develop a conceptual framework to demystify the concept of leadership and to make sense of our observations.


Stephanie: I’m very happy to welcome two lead researchers from CIRE, Professor Leon Tikly and Dr Rafael Mitchell. Between them, Leon and Rafael have extensive experience both as researchers and educators working on a range of topics relating to sustainable development and education policy and planning. Leon is also the UNESCO chair in inclusive, good quality education, and global chair in education at the university of Bristol. Leon, let me turn to you first- if we would like to better understand how to enable ministry of education leadership during crisis, what would you recommend we consider as a starting point?

Leon: An important starting point is actually to consider the nature of crisis itself. Because I think what many education systems today are facing are multiple crises, and they all interact with each other in very complex ways of course we're very aware at the moment of the COVID-19 pandemic. And we know that some education systems sadly are dealing with crises caused by conflict and natural disasters. But of course, underlying that is the ongoing learning crisis that affects many low and middle-income countries, where large numbers of learners are not meeting basic threshold standards in literacy and numeracy. And of course, the thing about all of these crises is that they all reinforce each other. And of course, you know, some groups suffer more from crises than others, and we need to be really aware of that. So, understanding how crises reinforce complex inequalities is very important.

I think crises within complex systems also require us to rethink traditional conceptions of leadership in education. I think what we need to do is to move away from top-down models. We need to understand or to develop more context-sensitive approaches, that we've described as endogenous systems leadership. And I hand over to Rafael now who can perhaps say a little bit more about that

Rafael: So endogenous systems leadership - endogenous in that it derives from a particular national context and respects local values and agency. When we think about what enables the leadership of ministries, we need to think about the kinds of countries that IIEP is often supporting and these are countries which are furthest from achieving their global targets- low and middle-income countries. And those that have experienced conflict over a number of years. So, these tend to be formerly colonized countries, which are still experiencing these enduring legacies of colonialism and inequitable power relations in their dealings with agencies in the global north. So, in these contexts, then, one of the barriers to ministries' leadership can be the activities of international organizations themselves. Which are often well-intentioned, but which can uh override local decision-making. So, we see this in evidence from IIEP's own research in countries from Burkina Faso to Kenya and elsewhere. So, part of enabling ministry of education leadership is about recognizing local values, knowledge, practices and institutions as well. In many contexts we've got to acknowledge that the status quo doesn't achieve that, even outside crises. So, it does require quite a radical transformation of the status quo.

Anna: Can you give us an idea of what such a radical transformation needs to include?

Rafael: Yeah, so this has to involve democratizing the governance of education and ensuring that decisions around education are informed by the perspectives, experiences and outcomes of different groups. So many ministries of education are currently in the process of decentralizing governance to bring in these different voices and capacities and resources at different levels. This is particularly important at times of crises because leadership for inclusive, equitable, quality education during crisis- it requires drawing on the perspectives and capacities, which are widely distributed across different tiers of the education system. So that is at the ministry level, yes, but also importantly… the regional or the district level, as well as the local level- people in schools themselves. So, this does require an understanding that leadership is a collective, social process rather than just a position.

Anna: Rafael, when you say that leadership should be considered as practice rather than a position, what do you mean?

Rafael: I mean, at its heart when we talk about leadership we're talking about influence. So influence occurs within the formal bureaucratic structure of an education system. But importantly we've got to recognize it occurs outside that. And it doesn't just occur in a top-down way. So, we need to take a more extended view of leadership within education and just acknowledge the influence of teachers themselves and others in school. But in addition to that, parents, and other people within the community, as well as in many contexts religious groups and civil society organizations.

Stephanie: So, you're speaking about something quite different from a typical top-down or more authoritarian approach to leadership- that we might be more used to thinking of in a crisis situation where you'd want everybody to kind of follow the rules. So maybe Leon, can you say a little more about systems leadership for education in crisis, and perhaps provide us with an example of what this might look like in practice?

Leon: So, I think, systems leadership as an idea, is something that is increasingly accepted as a useful idea, not just in education but in other systems, like health systems and responding to the Covid crisis and so on. And I think at its heart is the idea that, you know, if you're going to deal with crises, then you really need to mobilize and harness leadership from right across the system. And that's particularly important when it comes to crisis, which may involve changes to different parts of the system but doing it in a coordinated way. But I think another aspect of systems leadership is the importance of information. Of having really good data about how crises are affecting different groups of learners at different points in the system. And I think, you know, the EMIS, the education management information systems that many ministries of education rely on there's a lot of work going on in some uh ministries to try and provide more up-to-date information about how changes to education systems are affecting different groups of learners. And this kind of information is absolutely crucial.

Rafael: So, one example of this kind of systems thinking in operation during a crisis situation is the Rwanda learning partnership. This is a study which looked at school-level leadership practices during the COVID-19 pandemic, with a special emphasis on support for the most vulnerable and marginalized learners. Now what this work shows is that school-level innovation is necessary, and feasible in crises. And in fact, it's obvious that it's necessary because solutions can't be centrally mandated, because they're not yet known. So, ministries need to foster an enabling environment for local innovation, improvisation. So as Leon says this is about establishing two-way communication from the local level to the ministry, so they can learn from that and scale up what is working. But this very much runs counter to the kinds of top-down bureaucratic systems that we've inherited from the age of empire.


Stephanie: In our work on crisis response with stakeholders at multiple levels of the education system it's almost inevitable that the issue of financing or resourcing comes up. And I believe that this is a key issue that you are attempting to address in your work. So, what would you say are the biggest challenges when it comes to funding? Maybe I can ask you Rafael 

Rafael: Thanks Stephanie. So, I think what we see is a disconnect between global policy statements on financing and reality on the ground. A disconnect, really, between humanitarian funding systems and development-focused ones, and different time scales. And really what we need is greater coherence between these different elements, which allows just a longer-term, more strategic decision-making in education, in crises and outside it.

Leon: I think it's also very much about developing that coherence- on the one hand between national priorities and the priorities of donor agencies. But also, between different donor agencies. I mean often different donor agencies might have very different priorities. And I think developing a joined-up sectoral approach towards budgeting and financing in crisis is critical.

Anna: In your experience, why do you think this is so difficult to achieve a coherent approach?

Leon: Well, I think part of it goes back to the whole question of endogenous leadership, of actually, you know, making sure that it's local leaders who are at the forefront of identifying problems and solutions. Sometimes I think it can be the other way around that you know, donors come in with their own agendas and priorities, and ministries are expected to respond to those. So, you know the more coordination and the more emphasis that can be given to strengthening endogenous leadership I think is important here 

Anna: I think this resonates really well with you know what we experience in our practice and often we observe that ministries are extremely busy, and much capacity is you know taken up with coordinating the different interests of partners. But also making sure that the response …that there's a certain level of accountability to the partners.

Leon: And so, it's about changing the emphasis, isn't it? and the focus for decision-making… Making sure that, as you say, ministries themselves have greater capacity to lead in these decision-making and coordination processes, rather than being reactive to external agendas. 

Stephanie: That certainly relates a lot to some of the work that we've been doing in looking at refugees for example. I know that in Jordan, there are big efforts to kind of mainstream refugee education into the national system, and what was really surprising to us- in a good way- is examples of leadership happening at the school level, where school principals were able to sort of speak to the local level government, as well as donors and ask for more even distribution of resources between host communities and refugee schools.

Anna: But that also requires the ministry of education to listen, obviously, and in Jordan I know this is the case- to listen, you know, to the middle tier, and supervisors playing a very important role when it comes to responding to refugee needs in schools, but also listening to schools. So, I was wondering, Leon and Rafael, do you know of other examples where ministries succeed in providing this platform for citizens- providing a platform for their own education staff to really make sure that their interests and their rights are protected, and that their voices are being heard? 

Rafael: In Ethiopia, we see structures in place at the school level, including parent, teacher and student associations- which have decision-making powers at the school level, as well as forums where parents will come in and raise concerns. So, where this is in place, and what research shows is that this can address issues and have these addressed by people at leadership level in schools.

Leon: and you also see in relation to disaster management committees that are set up at a local level, often involving different stakeholders and different agencies that need to be involved, health and education, as well as perhaps other humanitarian agencies at a local level.

Stephanie: What makes this work particularly exciting for me is that when you are talking about encouraging democratizing education governance, and all of these things, is that you then have schools where students and communities actually learn how to do this.  Once you make those adjustments to allow for these types of leadership practice to happen at multiple levels, then that actually helps people learn how to become democratic citizens how to live together in their communities.


Leon: I still think, though, that there's a crucial role for the ministry. The ministry needs to create the culture within the education system that will make sure that you know, there's a really clear vision that can bring people together around dealing with crises. And also, that there are processes of communication across the education system, and also between the education system and other agencies- and external partners- that is really important. 


Anna: We've discussed now the different elements that are part of a leadership concept. But I was wondering if each of you could share your working definition of leadership. Maybe I’ll turn to you first Leon. 

Leon: So, I think it's possible to define systems leadership then in terms of, the ability of a system an education system in this case to develop a response to crisis through developing leadership at different levels of the system and coordinating leaders at different levels of the system.

Rafael: My understanding of leadership in education, and what distinguishes it from leadership in health or leadership in other sectors, is that education is - at its heart is this relationship between teachers, students and curriculum- content. And we've inherited bureaucratic structures for the leadership of education provision, from the 19th and 20th centuries but here we are in the 2020s we've got to recognize that leadership and education is drawing on influences from outside the civil service structures as well. And so, our models of leadership need to acknowledge that and accommodate that.


Anna: We’ve been talking with Prof. Leon Tikly and Rafael Mitchell, from the University of Bristol’s Centre for International and Comparative Research in Education - CIRE. 

This is Plan-Ed – a podcast from IIEP-UNESCO.

Produced by Alexandra Waldhorn, edited and mixed by Sarah Elzas. 

Music by Robert Meunier

You can find more information on our website

Join us next time for more insight into the policies and strategies helping to create a more equitable and sustainable future, in and through education.