Leadership: the biggest thing missing in education?

24 Mar 2019 |

Few would argue with the assertion that every child has potential.

Yet in too many places, children do not receive the education and opportunities that allow them to reach that potential.

Meaningful change to achieve this is driven by leaders who believe in the potential of children and access to education that allows them to shape a better future for themselves and the world around them.

Too often that kind of leadership is the biggest missing ingredient in education today.

But in Africa, examples of this are emerging.

Leadership potential

At a grassroots level in Sub-Saharan Africa, a new generation of changemakers is working to challenge established norms, to transform classrooms, schools and education systems to one that befits African children today.

Some of those changemakers gathered at the Global Education and Skills Forum 2019 in Dubai to discuss how to find and develop the next generation of leaders that could power that transformation.

Folawe Omikunle, CEO at Teach For Nigeria, said that her organisation was already shaping those future leaders, by finding young Nigerians who committed to spending two years teaching their fellow citizens under the Teach for Nigeria programme.

“When I started the programme I was told I wouldn’t find any young Nigerians who would dedicate two years of their lives. We haven’t just found them, we have 216 of them who are teaching across 64 schools in three states across two regions in Nigeria.

“That’s not the only thing, they are identifying issues and coming up with solutions. What we are doing is creating a critical mass of changemakers and solution-driven leaders.”

The continent had no shortage of talent, asserts Tinacho Chitongo, Director of Development at the African Leadership Academy. The problem was the lack of opportunity to fulfil that potential. His organisation’s core mission is to develop the next generation of leaders, because, he says, “we cannot leave the next generation of leaders to chance.”

Perhaps no one embodied what opportunity can do more than Charles Obore, Fellow, Teach For Uganda, whose life was turned around by one teacher.

Charles was born in the Kumi district in Eastern Uganda, but conflict forced him to leave his village and live in a camp for the internally displaced.

“We were a community living in despair and abject poverty,” says Charles. “But a ray of hope came when the government introduced free primary education. Every day the primary teacher would cycle past my home on a decorated bicycle and I would run with him to the school.”

Charles ended up being the first member of his community to go to university, and now helps run the Ugandan arm of Teach for All, encouraging others from his community to go to school. “I had the opportunity to change my story. Now I have a great opportunity to be inspirational to others as that primary teacher inspired me.”

Investing for the long term

But improving education on a broader scale is much more complex, as Folawe ruefully admits.   

One of the issues is that often, political leaders want to see an immediate impact of education funding. “They are building and painting schools because the results are seen quickly, but we need to shift our mindset away from dealing with short-term solutions.”

Nedgine Paul Deroly, CEO of Anseye Pou Ayiti returned to her home in Haiti to overhaul the antiquated colonial system of education and transform it into something that would connect back to the Haitian culture. She says that this could only be achieved through collaboration and shared vision.

“We don’t say empowered, we talk about “in”powered - we are just unlocking and unleashing what our community leaders were meant to do. We redefined leadership as rooted in collective action,” she says.

While every country’s situation is different, Wendy Kopp, CEO & Co-Founder of Teach For All, says that the fundamental issues are similar.

“Education inequity is a complex problem that often we oversimplify. Disadvantaged kids go to schools without the resources that they need. Our most marginalised kids have every bit as much potential. It’s about understanding what it takes to meet their needs.

“The idea behind our work is to cultivate leadership capacity so that we end up with headmasters, ministers, teachers, social entrepreneurs, students and parents rooted in high expectations for kids.”

This is the kind of leadership we would like to see if Africa is to advance, concludes Dzingai Mutumbuka, former education minister in Zimbabwe and Consultant at Teach for All.

“We often talk about Africa as a poor country. Africa is not poor, Africa has abundant resources, what Africa suffers from is a poverty of leadership.

“The main focus now is how can we develop a new generation of leaders who take education to the next level. We really need young people both in Africa and the world at large to think outside the box to come up with solutions that have never been thought of. If we are not able to do this, we are not able to succeed.”