Key lessons on effective leadership during COVID-19 and beyond
25 November 2020
Leadership at every level – from school leaders to district offices to ministries of education – is a critical part of education systems, and never more so than in the current context of the global Covid-19 pandemic. The waves of school closures and reopenings around the world have clearly demonstrated how important good leadership is to learning in all forms. Education leaders in these times cannot simply go about business as usual: leading in disruptive times and beyond means being able to navigate new pathways. Given the significance of leadership and the inevitability of change, we must consider how to best equip leaders to respond to the current crisis and create more equitable and resilient education systems beyond it.
The evidence of leadership’s impact on learning is significant: in one study, almost a third of the changes in learning were attributed to leadership – making it second only to classroom teaching in its impact on education outcomes. Leadership’s impact has been made very clear during the Covid-19 crisis, in which leaders have adapted and innovated alongside teachers to ensure education continuity for children and young people. Yet leadership is often given little attention, and there has not been enough investment to understand how to best select and professionally develop leaders so they can support a wide range of education outcomes for all students.
As the pandemic continues, we know that a return to ‘normal’ will not be enough to improve the life chances of the generation whose education has been so disrupted during this time. New thinking driven by strong leadership is needed if we are to create more inclusive, equitable systems that can promote quality education for every child and young person.
With this in mind, Education Development Trust and the Education Commission’s Education Workforce Initiative (EWI) came together in September to host a webinar on education leadership during and beyond Covid-19. To kick off the discussion, Commissioner Teopista Birungi Mayanja encouraged us to explore how leadership is currently evolving and what it means for education leaders moving forward. From the rich conversation that followed, we captured three key principles which will be especially important for leaders as they continue to respond to the crisis and move beyond it: harnessing new forms of collaboration, smart use of technology and data, and a focus on equity, inclusion, and wellbeing.
Harnessing new forms of collaboration can support leadership at all levels of a system and create the learning teams needed to provide quality education for all.
“One thing I’ve seen from an education standpoint in this crisis is the role of collaboration – among teachers, leaders, and parents – and it determined education success during this time,” said Dr. Asmaa Al-Fadala, Director of Research and Content Development at WISE. Education leaders need to build coalitions to create the teams necessary for providing inclusive and quality education for all – both in times of crisis and the long term. Collaboration between education leaders, teachers, and other important stakeholders – including families, civil society, health professionals and social workers, businesses, and the wider community – can enable more holistic approaches to education reforms and provide enhanced continuity and continuous improvement. This can also create opportunities for individuals such as teachers – and even those outside the education workforce – to step up as leaders at all levels of the system.
Such mobilisation of resources within a community may prove to be highly important in ensuring quality education for all in the Covid-19 recovery period and beyond, as indicated in Education Development Trust’s Learning Renewed report on school reopening in the Global South. It is an example of a first step in creating learning teams, or groups of education professionals and other roles that leverage diverse expertise and experience to focus on inclusion and progress for every child. For more evidence and examples of learning teams, see the Education Commission’s Transforming the Education Workforce report.
When leaders create a culture of collaboration within and between schools, they can powerfully impact teachers’ professional development and leadership skills. Communities of practice and networks of schools promote sharing of knowledge, innovations, and expertise, helping teachers to lead on improving their own practice. As we heard from Fernando Giménez Zapiola, Academic Director of the Varkey Foundation Argentina, over 10,000 teachers in Argentina have been making use of the Varkey Foundation’s social platform, Comunidad Atenea, to share initiatives and effective teaching strategies in an online community of practice during the crisis. Teachers in Malaysia have also been sharing good practice through online and WhatsApp groups in a collaborative way during school closures, as Cheryl Ann Fernando, Director of Global School Leaders (GSL) Malaysia, explained.
Smart use of technology and data can help leaders make evidence-informed decisions.
The pandemic has clearly illustrated the importance of effective use of technology and data for inclusion and learning during times of disruption. During the crisis, school leaders around the world rapidly adapted to new learning environments to comply with public health regulations and lockdowns. Given the lack of precedent (and in many cases, government guidelines), this crisis has been extremely challenging for school leaders but has also provided an opportunity for them to accelerate change at an unprecedented scale and pace. Cheryl shared that even though Malaysia has a very centralised education system, during the pandemic, leaders were given the freedom to explore and be creative with technology.
Globally, there have been unrealistic expectations placed on the power of advanced ed-tech and online solutions, which are not sufficiently accessible in many parts of the world, nor appropriate in many cases. In many contexts, low-tech devices, such as radio, have proven to be effective. In such contexts, it is critical that leaders make smart, evidence-informed decisions on appropriate and available technology – and ultimately, that they include plans for a ‘no-tech safety net’, as Tony McAleavy, Research Director at Education Development Trust, suggested.
Cheryl told us that around 57% of Malaysian students did not have access to data or devices during school closures, so GSL helped their school leaders combine low-tech solutions with high-tech solutions, with leaders providing lessons on WhatsApp and at the same time preparing homework packs that were passed to parents by school security guards. In almost every country, there are some students with almost no access to technology, and leaders need to ensure that provision is made for these students through hard-copy resources.
In addition to the smart use of technology, leaders must also make effective use of data for decision-making. Data literacy is an increasingly important skill for leaders at all levels of an education system as it provides visibility on many critical factors – from the distribution of specialist teachers in underserved areas to individual student engagement and progress – and facilitates strategic decision-making on interrelated factors. Indeed, Fernando described how leaders who based their decisions in data could help to improve student participation and narrow the equity gap. The availability of data for leadership is dependent on policy decisions and the management of data systems (for example, whether disaggregated data is collected), so countries must invest in and support the creation of robust data systems, as well as the professional development of leaders to be able to use them.
EWI Lead Amy Bellinger told us how in Sierra Leone, EWI has used Geographic Information System (GIS) mapping data during the pandemic to identify schools without WASH facilities, as well as other system data to index the most vulnerable schools, enabling targeted support from the Ministry (see the EWI Sierra Leone Country Report for more information). Such data-driven system-level leadership is especially important in addressing equity challenges at scale, and prioritising students and teachers who need additional support during but also beyond the crisis.
A focus on equity, inclusion, and wellbeing is foundational to effective leadership.
As Dr. Asmaa reminded us, the pandemic has brought the scale of the global equity challenge into focus, and school and system leaders are critical to addressing it. During the crisis, the best leaders have acted as champions for all students, but especially the most vulnerable, Tony emphasised. These leaders have focused on the impact on disadvantaged children and young people, especially marginalised girls, poorer households and communities, and students with special education needs and disabilities.
This impact notably includes students’ wellbeing, but leaders have also had to consider wellbeing and equity in the broader education ecosystem – for instance, among teachers and families. “The first thing my organisation (Global School Leaders) did was to reach out to school leaders… firstly, to check on their wellbeing and to also help them check in on teachers and students,” Cheryl noted.
The Covid-19 crisis has clearly demonstrated that the health of education systems is linked to the wellbeing of communities – with the disadvantaged often faring worst. Leaders need support and training to help them better ensure the wellbeing of their students and staff. In Malaysia, we heard that school leaders received full training on how to support students’ emotional and mental wellbeing as schools reopened. Students were also surveyed on their home learning situations to enable staff to look out for signs of trauma, which also serves as an example of the strategic use of data.
This focus on equity and wellbeing will remain critical as schools reopen and countries try to build more resilient systems. This will require the latest evidence on what is working. To help build this evidence base, EWI and Education Development Trust are collaborating to undertake rapid research on effective leaders’ responses during school closures and reopenings through learning partnerships with multiple countries. The learning partnerships will include an element of live research and analysis, as well as ongoing formative feedback to support potential policy response. The first country partnership, supported by WISE, is with Rwanda and is focusing on leadership for equity and inclusion during Covid-19 and school reopening.
As we move beyond the pandemic, education systems must accelerate transformation of education systems into more equitable and inclusive learning systems – and leaders have a key role to play.
Linking all of these principles together is the conviction that education systems must transform even more quickly in the wake of the current emergency to avoid exacerbating the learning crisis. As both Tony McAleavy and Education Commission Director Liesbet Steer highlighted in the recent event, many education systems pre-Covid were not working well enough for many – not least the disadvantaged and marginalised. This was a clear conclusion in both Education Development Trust’s Learning Renewed thinking, and the recent Save Our Future White Paper, Averting an Education Catastrophe for the World’s Children, which put forward an agenda for transformation during and beyond Covid-19. Leadership is a key area of focus for the latter in particular. Effective leaders will be instrumental in transforming systems, but policymakers, development partners, and civil society organisations, among others, will need to support and empower them to effect meaningful change and create more equitable, resilient, and responsive systems for our future.
 Leithwood, K. and D. Jantzi. 2006. “Linking leadership to student learning: the contribution of leader efficacy.” Educational Administration Quarterly 44 (4): 496-528.
 See EdDevTrust’s Learning Renewed: A safe way to reopen schools in the Global South