Women school leadership in Madagascar: Promising lessons for gender-transformative education in sub-Saharan Africa

With one the highest proportions of women in school leadership positions in sub-Saharan Africa, Madagascar is leading the way in promoting a strategy towards greater professionalization of school directors. A new report provides insights for strengthening their role, acknowledging progress, and offers recommendations to overcome their challenges.

April 02, 2024 by Carolina Alban Conto, UNESCO International Institute for Educational Planning (IIEP), Fabricia Devignes, UNESCO International Institute for Educational Planning (IIEP), Nathalie Guilbert, UNESCO International Institute for Educational Planning (IIEP), and Nelly Rakoto-Tiana, UNESCO International Institute for Educational Planning (IIEP)
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5 minutes read
A public primary school principal sitting at her desk in Antananarivo, Madagascar. Credit: Ministry of National Education of Madagascar
A public primary school principal sitting at her desk in Antananarivo, Madagascar.
Credit: Ministry of National Education of Madagascar

Globally, women are over-represented in the teaching force at primary level. However, sub-Saharan Africa stands as the only region where women are the minority of primary teachers (47% of total).

Furthermore, data from countries that participated in the regional learning assessment PASEC 2019 show that the gap is even more acute among school leadership where only 19.6% of principals were female.

With one the highest proportions of women in school leadership positions in sub-Saharan Africa, Madagascar is leading the way in promoting a strategy towards greater professionalization of school directors.

As part of its partnership compact, the Ministry of Education and its partners have decided to prioritize a more structured competency framework, institutionalized recruitment and career development processes, tailored training, and strengthened supervision and support mechanisms for primary school principals.

This initiative holds great promise for overcoming barriers to a more equitable participation of women in school leadership which shows potential in enhancing gender equality through all levels of the education system.

A new report from IIEP-UNESCO, the Gender at the Centre Initiative (GCI), in partnership with the Ministry of National Education of Madagascar, provides valuable insights for strengthening the role of primary school directors, acknowledging progress and offering recommendations to overcome the challenges for greater influence in the transformation of the sector.

This work is integrated in "Women in Learning Leadership"(WiLL), a joint initiative of IIEP-UNESCO and UNICEF Innocenti contributing to identifying and scaling up gender-transformative school leadership practices while promoting a better representation of women in school leadership roles.

WiLL is underway in several sub-Saharan African countries. It is supported by GPE through a grant from the Knowledge and Innovation Exchange (KIX) in four countries: Benin, Ethiopia, Guinea and Madagascar. GPE is also a technical partner of the Gender at the Center Initiative (GCI).

The influence of women school leaders on students’ learning

Considered to be the second most important factor for learning after classroom teaching, school leadership is a key lever for improving education outcomes.

Emerging evidence has documented that gender matters in meaningful differences in leadership styles, highlighting a favorable relationship between women’s school leadership and student education outcomes in certain contexts.

Specifically, according to a WiLL multi-country analysis of the 14 countries involved in PASEC 2019, four countries demonstrate a positive and significant association between students’ performance in reading and mathematics and the presence of a female director.

Improvements range between 0.17 and 0.34 additional standard deviations in standardized tests scores for students attending schools led by women in Benin, Madagascar, Senegal and Togo. The observed positive influence extends to both female and male students with some slight variations across countries.

Despite the increased participation of women in the teaching force in Madagascar (up to 47%) and their higher academic and pedagogical qualifications, social norms, the absence of institutionalized processes for recruitment and training and challenging working conditions hold women back to engage stronger in school leadership in Madagascar.

Recruitment and the training of teachers and head teachers are part of the PAEB program implemented by the World Bank and financed by GPE.

At the national level, women hold 35% of public primary school leadership positions, but representation varies significantly across regions with urban districts like Fianarantsoa registering 80% women directors and remote ones like Befotaka, Port-Berge and Midongy-Sud having less than 10%.

Share of female primary school directors by district.
Share of female primary school directors by district.
Disclaimer: “The designations employed and the presentation of the material in this publication do not imply the expression of any opinion whatsoever on the part of UNICEF, UNESCO, or IIEP concerning the legal status of any country, territory, city or area, or of its authorities, or concerning the delimitation of its frontiers or boundaries.”

Analysis of female leadership on learning results and girls’ attendance

Schools operating in disadvantaged areas face constraints that make school management duties more challenging, especially for women.

Lack of support and limited resources are key to explain the underrepresentation of women as school directors in these settings. Factors such as insecurity, extended travel distances, lack of jobs for husbands, and the prevalence of gender stereotypes and restrictive norms imposed on women also play a role.

Analyses show that there is a positive and significant association between student outcomes and having a woman as a school director, even after accounting for differences in school environment and characteristics such as infrastructures, size, staff’s gender and qualification, etc.

Despite obstacles, women principals have a positive influence on vulnerable groups and challenging settings. Students in women-led schools have a 0.34 percentage point higher probability to be promoted to the next grade, with this gap reaching 0.55 percentage points in the specific case of girls.

Besides, the magnitude of the correlation increases as girls make progress through their education journey, suggesting that women school leaders are succeeding at reducing girls’ school dropout.

Figures show that in Madagascar, although a larger proportion of girls aged 6 to 10 attend school compared to boys, girls face a higher likelihood of discontinuing their education in difficult circumstances, particularly in impoverished and rural areas.

Learners, both girls and boys, in women-led schools are also doing better in the CEPE (Certificate of Primary and Elementary Studies) where the probability of passing is 0.89 percentage point higher compared to that of students in men-led schools.

The correlation is stronger in rural areas (+ 1.8 percentage point), although statistically significant only for girls in the most isolated areas, confirming that women directors can benefit girls’ education in remote settings.

More support for women school leaders in Madagascar

By implementing strategies aimed at professionalizing school directors and providing tailored support mechanisms, Madagascar is paving the way for greater women representation and gender equity in education.

The efforts highlighted in IIEP-UNESCO’s new report underscore the importance of addressing gender disparities in leadership roles.

Despite social and cultural challenges, limited training and substantial teaching responsibilities, there is emerging evidence suggesting that adopting pathways toward a more gender-equitable approach can yield a positive influence on student outcomes, particularly for vulnerable groups in unfavorable environments.

The evidence suggests that investing in women's leadership and management skills not only improves learning outcomes for all children, but also contributes to reducing dropout rates, especially among girls, even in the poorest communities.

As Madagascar continues its journey toward improved education, leveraging the potential of women leaders remains a crucial step in fostering equitable and quality learning environments for all.

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