Leadership is needed to secure Ukraine’s educational future – here’s how the UK can help

Educational leadership is not a discipline often taught in Ukraine, but as the war continues, this needs to change. Ivanna Kurtyk, deputy chief executive of the Ukrainian Leadership Academy explains

Ivanna Kurtyk is Director of Operations and Finance at the Ukrainian Leadership Academy

Ukrainian education is facing significant challenges, ranging from infrastructure damage, ongoing bomb shelling, to the extensive displacement of teachers, learners and often even whole educational establishments. Additionally, the sector is undergoing reforms that encompass both secondary and higher education levels – some of these as part of the de-russification process that has been underway in Ukraine for many years already.

These types of challenges are justifiably referred to as “turbulent times” and are characterised by surprises, inconsistency, unpredictability, and uncertainty. In such times public institutions leaders must not only ensure organisational resilience but also adapt and transform dynamically. This certainly rings true for Ukraine.

The dependence on professionals during turbulence highlights the need for effective leadership to navigate uncertainties, prioritise the alignment of resources, and maintain a focus on creating public value, even in the face of intense challenges. Thus, leadership plays a crucial role in Ukrainian educational institutions. The war not only requires continuing everyday operations despite all disruptions but also achieving institutional goals such as implementing educational reforms.

Ukraine needs leaders, not just managers

We know that both international research and policy documents, for instance those from the Council of the European Union, emphasise that effective school leadership significantly improves the learning environment, boosts aspirations, and supports students, parents, and staff, leading to higher achievement levels. But in the Ukrainian educational system, leadership roles are under-emphasised, be it at the level of state policy or in the professional field. After analysing a series of laws and policies, it became evident to me that “educational leadership development” is neither explicitly prioritised in Ukraine’s strategic documents nor practised or taught at the level of undergraduate or postgraduate teachers’ training.

Looking at this omission in more detail, one of the goals outlined in the newly presented National Educational Vision (Vizya) emphasises that “heads of schools are leaders of their teams, implementing school processes based on New Ukrainian School principles and effectively responding to everyday challenges.” It appears that the primary focus is on “effective response to challenges” (management) rather than on “leadership of school teams” (real leadership). My question then is whether the transformation of education requires leadership or management.

After all, senior leaders in educational institutions play a complex role, contributing to various aspects of the institution. They balance both operational and strategic responsibilities, collaborating with colleagues to ensure a high-quality education for all students. This role requires a deep understanding of the school’s context, community, and individuals, along with expertise in key areas like curriculum, assessment, and behaviour management. Clearly, in the Ukrainian context this broader educational leadership perspective should be promoted on macro, meso and micro levels in the form of respective policies, institutional practices, and classroom behaviours.

Noting our sizeable challenges, we should in fact aim to promote a form of educational leadership that goes even further, and transcends ritualization, as described by Fitzgerald and Savage (2013). We should be moving away from scripted, routinised leadership dictated by educational policies, and instead embracing a pedagogical approach, acknowledging multiple audiences, and drawing on personal skills, authentic leadership and expertise for improvisation.

Achieving this goal might be easier said than done due to historically strong traditions of centralised management of educational institutions in Ukraine. We also have limited traditions of decentralisation and institutional autonomy within the educational sector. In this tradition, leadership tends to be associated more with authority than with fostering positive change and making a meaningful impact. And so a major part of our educational change is a change in leadership.

How UK institutions can support educational leadership development

To address these challenges of educational leadership in Ukraine, cooperation with UK institutions can be instrumental. School and university leaders would benefit from advice and support and the exchange of experience and expertise. This could involve consultations, workshops, or seminars conducted by experienced educational leaders from the UK to share best practices and provide guidance on effective leadership strategies. Due to the circumstances, such development opportunities are best achieved through online means, or as part of other collaborative projects that may already be in place. Twinning universities especially, may wish to establish matching programs between institutions which facilitate educational development opportunities for both Ukrainian and UK educators. This could involve program leaders from each institution working together to design and deliver workshops, conferences, or training sessions focused on leadership development.

Perhaps easier to organise are mentoring programs between existing UK-Ukraine partners, providing guidance and support exchanges between counterparts in both institutions. Such mentorship could be tailored to address specific leadership challenges or career development needs identified by Ukrainian educators. Similarly, visiting arrangements (where visa regulations allow) tend to be very well received by Ukrainian educators, to visit and learn from their counterparts in the UK. These learning exchanges could usefully include observations of leadership practices, participation in workshops or seminars, and networking opportunities with educational leaders in the UK.

There are currently also opportunities for Joint Degree Development, supported and part funded by the Ukrainian President’s Fund. Part of the joint delivery could be the provision of leadership insights: to develop joint degree programs that incorporate leadership components. These programs could offer a comprehensive understanding of educational leadership alongside core subjects, ensuring that future educators are equipped with the necessary skills to lead effectively.

Even simply within institutions in the UK there are possibilities to support our change efforts. Most UK universities now have amongst their staff displaced Ukrainian colleagues. Many Ukrainians in the UK are still leading and contributing to academic and educational efforts in Ukraine, and so support to their professional development may well translate directly into positive outcomes for their ongoing (volunteering) work in Ukraine as well as the institution itself. Where possible, inviting displaced academics and other colleagues to join a university’s own leadership programmes, may make a world of difference.

Sometimes UK institutions have even designed specialised educational leadership programmes tailored to the needs of Ukrainian educators. A good example of such a programme is the Leadership for Educational Transformation Programme – University of Warwick’s programme for Ukrainian educational leaders, developed in cooperation with Ukrainian counterparts and with the support of key governmental agencies. Such programmes focus on addressing the unique challenges and opportunities within the Ukrainian educational context, equipping participants with practical skills and strategies for effective leadership.

By exploring such collaborative opportunities, Ukrainian educational institutions can benefit from the expertise and resources offered by UK universities. Through mutual cooperation and exchange, both countries can work towards strengthening educational leadership as a powerful tool that helps professionals navigate uncertainty, nurture resilience, and make a difference in spite of the impact of war. Moreover, when victory ultimately arrives, the groundwork for collaborations on the European continent with a nation that is rich in expertise, very highly educated and eager to prosper, is already done – and may well lead to mutually beneficial future collaborations.

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