Education System Resilience (ESR): Moving Beyond the Buzzwords

By: Leanne Cameron Posted: 04 July 2024
This blog was originally published on the NORRAG website on July 4, 2024. 
Aranaputa Nursery School, Region 9, Guyana.
Credit: GPE/Kelley Lynch

Across the world, disruptions to education have steadily grown, with increasing rates of natural disasters, conflicts, climate change impacts, pandemics, and more existential threats to education, such as the rise of generative artificial intelligence, with questions about the role of teachers and the purpose of academic learning more broadly. Improved ‘resilience’ is offered as the solution for these challenges, and so, especially since the onset of the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic, interest in resilience had grown: Google Trends shows that searches for ‘education resilience’ have grown steadily since 2019, spiking in March 2020, and almost doubling in the years since. Across education literature, and within national policies and COVID recovery plans, efforts to cultivate more resilient education systems is proposed to ensure better response and recovery for present crisis, and increased preparation in the face of new shocks and disruptions. However, across literature, there is a wide spectrum of uses and definitions for what education system resilience is and looks like, and what is required to help build it. Without a focused, shared understanding, there is risk that education resilience will become another education buzzword like learner-centred pedagogy, which has been widely named and integrated into policy and curricula but, as recent studies show, is often misunderstood and misapplied, with the term ‘LCP’ itself becoming too broad to serve a functional purpose.  

To move beyond ‘resilience’ as a buzzword, we propose a framework for understanding and examining education system resilience (ESR) especially at the policy and planning level. The framework is based on the different uses and definitions of the term found across literature and national policies in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs). It was developed as part of the scoping study commissioned by the Global Partnership for Education Knowledge and Innovation Exchange (GPE KIX) and implemented by Education Development Trust. The study included academic and grey literature review, policy analysis, and key informant interviews with education planning officials in ten LMICs, all GPE partner countries. A key outcome of this study was the development of a framework for conceptualising ESR and drawing out the different activities and purposes that resilience-building policies and plans should include.  

As illustrated in Figure 1, a resilient education system includes several common components. It is characterised by policies and plans to embed overall system strengthening, to anticipate risk, to plan for and to respond and recover in times of crisis, and to prevent and mitigate future disruptions.  

Figure 1. Emerging framework for conceptualising ESR  

Figure 1. Emerging framework for conceptualising ESR  

Each activity is summarised here, with a brief example of what it could involve: 

  • Strengthen: a resilient system is in a continued cycle of strengthening to ensure it is reliable and flexible, regardless of emergency status. Activities for system strengthening vary widely and could include attention to financing, supervision and support to schools, quality teaching, curriculum and assessments, data, planning, monitoring, and accountability, and governance and management. 

  • Anticipate: activities for risk analysis consider potential crises that will impact education, including ‘known’ disruptions that may look like past or current crises (such as natural disasters, violent conflicts, pandemics) and ‘unknown’ disruptions, like emerging climate change impacts or GenAI, which represent new experiences that were not experienced before.  

  • Plan: planning includes all efforts to document strategic objectives, to codify rights and responsibilities, and to propose a course of action. Education sector plans, along with specific plans for disaster risk reduction (DRR), crisis-sensitive education planning (CSP), and climate resilient education (CRE), are common approaches to plan for day-to-day operations and consider crisis and emergency circumstances.   

  • Respond and Recover: response and recovery plans go into effect when a crisis or disaster hits, and effective plans include strategies for short-, medium-, and long-term timescales. Thus, there is great overlap with the ‘Plan’ and ‘Prevent and Mitigate’ components, as these plans are often found within DRR, CSP, and CRE planning documents.  

  • Prevent and Mitigate: policies and programmes which attempt to prevent future crises and mitigate the impacts of ongoing disruptions demonstrate a form of resilience and feature in this component. Activities in this area could include curricular and programming to reduce conflict and violence, education for sustainable development, DRR and emergency preparedness, and efforts to improve or retrofit infrastructure.

An additional and essential aspect of the framework concerns attention to gender equality and social inclusion (GESI), which cuts across all components in our framework. Crisis and disaster situations disproportionately impact marginalised populations, including women, girls, people with disabilities, and those in poverty, particularly in rural areas. However, marginalised groups are often excluded from meaningful participation in crisis planning processes, and the existing plans and targets produced often under-emphasise their particular needs. As such, for each component within the framework, marginalised populations need to be included in policy development activities and extended attention to their needs, and better understandings of how crisis may differently impact each group, needs to be foregrounded in final products.   

There are several caveats for understanding and applying the framework. This framework was developed to focus on policy and planning levels, rather than bottom up ESR activities which build resilience at an individual, teacher, school, or community level, which is a limitation for its application. Further, it is important to emphasise that the policies and plans are often overlapping and interdependent, with a single policy document having multiple functions across all the components: DRR policies anticipate forms of risk and plan a response for each, along with providing medium-term recovery activities and ensuring that built environments, such as school infrastructure, are climate resilient to prevent future catastrophe. Thus, one DRR policy may fit within multiple resilience components in the framework, capturing activities for anticipate, plan, and recover and respond. Thus, we have identified it as ‘emerging’: as a tool developed from one study, it is available for development and revision as researchers, policymakers, and practitioners use it for conceptual development during policy and planning activities.  

Framework in action and next steps  

The framework was developed alongside data collection activities in our scoping study and was tested out during the analysis stage when reviewing interview and policy data. The full study report synthesises our key findings, but overall, use of the framework demonstrated a few key findings across the LMICs studied: 

  • As with ESR itself, understandings and examples provided for system strengthening activities varied widely across the data, indicating a further need to more clearly define each component in the framework.  

  • Across contexts, we noted gaps in systematic risk management and mapping as an aspect of Anticipate.  

  • In line with the literature cited above, the data from the informants and the policies indicated gaps around GESI, with limited attention to specific GESI needs in both key informant and policy data.

Building on these initial findings for the framework in action, we now turn to research and practice communities to respond to and test the framework itself. Potential next steps could include the development of a checklist, which uses tests for different framework components in distinct policies and draws attention to the inclusion of GESI needs. We look forward to more development and refinement in understandings of ESR to ensure that policies and plans are indeed codifying and strengthening resilience across nations and that it does not turn into a mere buzzword. 

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