What current education ministers can learn from their predecessors

By Andreas Schleicher
Director, Directorate for Education and Skills


Photo credit: © Varkey Foundation

Last October, I attended the inaugural meeting of the Atlantis Group – an organisation comprised of former education ministers from across the world. Over the course of two days, these former ministers shared their experiences and insights in tackling common challenges, and discussed the role of political leadership in education.

It was fascinating to see former leaders share insights and common practices. But two things struck me as particularly interesting: virtually every former minister said they wished they had known on their first day what they knew on their last day; and nearly everyone wished they had been far more courageous and aware of the policy space for deep and lasting change that had actually been available.

While some new ministers will have access to a body of research and data to inform their decision-making, few will have the opportunity to learn from their predecessors – the former ministers who sat behind the same desks, faced the same issues and asked themselves the same questions. The Atlantis Group is helping to fill this gap, drawing on its members’ combined 70 years of experience in running public education systems.

“Every new minister wants to show rapid results and impress in the first few months,” says Silas Lwakabamba, Rwanda’s former education minister. As a leader known for implementing an ambitious programme of change while in office, he argues that new ministers should start by figuring out what’s already working.

“There are no jobs which are more challenging in society than political leadership in a period of change.”

“The challenge is to quickly identify the positive efforts or low-hanging fruits left by the previous minister and leverage the same for quick wins,” Lwakabamba says. “Unfortunately some new ministers tend to ignore or dismiss the efforts of the previous ministers, at their cost.”

For others, a minister’s priority for their first weeks in office should be to identify where – and who –the current system is failing. In the words of the former Philippines education minister, Brother Armin Luistro: “A new education minister will have to go beyond the usual queries about the status of current programs and begin asking the difficult questions about learners who are lagging behind, at risk of dropping out or, worse, who dare not dream of going to school.”

While in office, both Professor Lwakabamba and Brother Armin pursued far-reaching reforms that expanded free universal education and rewrote curricula. Today, as leading members of the Atlantis Group, both men want to pass on what they have learned to a new generation of ministers.

The Atlantis Group is an advisory body that works to provide expert, not-for-profit counsel to current ministers of education. An initiative of the Varkey Foundation, the group consists of 25 former ministers of education and heads of government.

Asked to reflect on their own time in office, the former ministers described some of the ways in which they made education a top priority for their own government, from the diplomatic (sitting down with teacher leaders to end a country-wide strike); to the astute (bringing in international experts); to the flat-out audacious (door-stopping officials for a greater share of resources). As one former minister noted: “There were several billion dollars that were committed to education [in my country] by sitting outside of the president or the minister of finance’s office forever and becoming relevant by force. You have to be there because otherwise there’s another minister that’s going to sit there and fetch that money.”

But beyond these political tactics, the former ministers overwhelmingly concluded that they had been most effective in office when they informed their decision-making with data, not ideology – and that good data had helped them to become better leaders. Indeed, many pointed to the publication of OECD reports and PISA data as watershed moments in their own countries that spurred reform.

In a new briefing, the Atlantis Group draws upon these discussions to set out four basic principles for ministers of education to succeed and lead effectively in office. They argue that a minister must have:

  • the respect of their government and other stakeholders; 
  • the conviction of their beliefs; 
  • the resilience to lead their departments through crises; 
  • and that ministers must reform education by fostering leadership and accountability throughout the system. 

The Atlantis Group hopes that these principles will help guide current and future education ministers as they work to overcome significant global challenges. As the Group notes in its new report, the international community today risks falling short of its 2030 Sustainable Development Goal, which calls for delivering inclusive and quality education for all, and promoting lifelong learning. Millions of children are leaving primary school without basic writing, reading and math skills, and at least 264 million are not in school at all, according to UN figures.

This is truly a global crisis, and one that urgently demands political leadership. As one former minister put it: “There are no jobs which are more challenging in society than political leadership in a period of change.”


Read more: 

Learning to Lead
PISA 2015 Results
Education Policy Outlook

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