By Esmail Bagasrawala, Gautam Anand, Adhishree Parasnis, Global School Leaders
The COVID-19 pandemic forced education systems to adapt and evolve. School leaders tirelessly worked to keep students connected to learning and faced unprecedented challenges that shifted their priorities. In 2020, school leaders prioritized student well-being, school finances, and online teaching. Whereas in 2021, school leaders prioritized loss of lives in their communities, the health and safety of students and teachers, and student learning.
As schools reopened in 2022, a survey by Global School Leaders (GSL) in collaboration with 14 organizations reported that addressing learning loss and mental health challenges among the school community were the highest priorities for school leaders. The World Bank found that 70% of children below the age of 10 in low- and middle-income countries could not read and understand a simple text. Coupling that with the extent of mental health challenges reported by school leaders, the challenges they face are enormously complex – making it imperative for them to prioritize both.
The Promoting Understanding of Leadership in Schools (PULS) Survey aims to inform policy- and decision-makers about the support that school leaders require in low- and middle-income countries and their day-to-day reality. In 2022, the survey of 2,646 school leaders in 11 countries shed light on challenges they faced, strategies they developed to address these challenges, and key recommendations that could inform policies and practices in 2023 and beyond.
Nearly a third of school leaders reported that over 60% of students have experienced learning loss due to pandemic-induced school closures.
This trend was particularly noticeable in lower-middle and upper-middle-income countries, and in government schools. Over 50% of school leaders from upper-middle-income countries, government schools, primary schools and urban areas claimed higher loss in literacy/language subjects than in numeracy. More than 25% of school leaders reported not receiving any support from the government to address learning loss, with the figure rising to 35% in lower-middle-income countries. Broader issues that affected learning outcomes included socio-economic conditions, lack of parental support, student absenteeism, and pressure to complete the annual curriculum.
In the face of these challenges, school leaders displayed resilience and proactively designed strategies to ensure students remained connected to learning. They offered remedial classes to students in need, worked with teachers to create specific plans, and used technology to address learning loss. They adapted these measures based on the availability of resources and capacities. School leaders from low-income countries focused on remedial classes, working with teachers to create plans, but also having students repeat a grade. Those from lower-middle and upper-middle-income countries also used technology-aid and re-incorporated basic concepts in the curriculum. For instance, one school leader from India reported that she used technology to encourage self-paced learning. She also created groups within the same class for different literacy and numeracy levels, ensuring separate teachers for each smaller group to help students learn.
Recognizing that the pandemic has been an especially complex time for most communities, more than 60% of school leaders reported issues related to behavior, health, and mental well-being among students as significant challenges. Additionally, over one in two school leaders from upper-middle-income countries reported that the mental health of staff and teachers was a challenge. The adverse effects of the pandemic on the mental health of students, teachers, parents, and school leaders themselves were evident, with 87% of school leaders reporting increased job difficulty and 79% experiencing heightened job-related stress in 2022. A lack of resources to implement mental health initiatives, followed by a lack of knowledge about solutions and time, posed major challenges for school leaders. These barriers were higher for school leaders in low and lower-middle-income countries.
School leaders also developed innovative, context-specific strategies to address mental health challenges within the school community. Many reported an increase in their commitment and the amount of time they spent at school. They reported organizing counseling sessions for students and parents, training teachers on mental health and well-being, distributing learning materials to help teachers and parents, and forming peer groups to provide support.
One school leader from the Philippines invited teachers and parents to attend virtual mental health and psychosocial support services seminars and distributed material they could use to support students. Although over 90% of school leaders developed some form of strategy, there remains a need for comprehensive support to strengthen their capacity and encourage all school leaders to prioritize mental health.
In line with other studies, the 2022 PULS Survey also found that female school leaders reported more effective strategies to address post-pandemic challenges. While displaying a greater focus on addressing learning loss, they were more likely to provide remedial classes to students in need than male school leaders, who were likely to offer remedial classes to all students. 63% of the female school leaders increased their commitment to their school compared to 50% among male school leaders.
However, they also reported higher stress levels (65%) compared to their male counterparts (60%). These findings point towards identifying gender-specific challenges and support school leaders require to help strengthen their capacity and reduce stress levels. Inspired by these findings, a key focus area of the 2023 PULS Survey will explore the intersection between school leadership and gender.
The Way Forward
The findings of the 2022 PULS Survey underscore the critical role that school leaders played during the pandemic in ensuring students remain connected to learning despite often lacking support. Furthermore, a majority of school leaders still reported the need for more skills to adapt to the changing environment brought by the pandemic.
This reinforces the need for robust policies and support systems that speak to the needs of school leaders. Enhancing government support in identifying, building understanding, and equipping school leaders with tools to address learning loss and mental health challenges can help them navigate these complexities.
Looking ahead, the 2023 PULS Survey will continue to amplify the voices of school leaders, providing deeper insights into the support they require to excel in their roles. The 2024/5 Global Education Monitoring (GEM) Report on ‘Leadership and Education’ is also expected to provide valuable insights into how education leadership contributes to better education outcomes. The report will also delve into the contextual factors that enable effective leadership and explore the policy levers that can be utilized to cultivate leadership skills across varied contexts, ultimately enhancing the quality of education globally.