Catherine O’Farrell, Director-Knowledge Hub, iCademy Middle East, & Founder, Incluzun

Catherine O’Farrell is an experienced educational leader and consultant. She is the Director of the Knowledge Hub at iCademy Middle East and founder of Catherine hosts an international voluntary forum for Inclusion & Wellbeing leaders. She is an advocate for inclusive education and sustainable improvement of educational practice across the MENA region working under the Global Sustainability Network striving toward the UNSDG Goal 8. Catherine is a regular media contributor and conference speaker.


COVID-19 Outbreak resulted in tremendous effect in education causing almost 100 million students in MENA region to be out-of-school due to school closure” – UNICEF, 2021 

With nearly half of the population of the middle east under 25 years of age, ensuring that our school going population is operating and operating optimally, is vital not only to the educational growth of the region but to the economic, ecological and psychological stability of its people.  

So how are students, leaders and campuses responding to the new norms being experienced across the MENA region?

 A recent study in Educause Review 2021 states “awareness that one size no longer fits all is critical to understanding the circumstances affecting student success within the diverse pool of students now attending {educational institutes}”.

After a year of “emergency remote teaching” the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center reported on Spring 2021 enrollment data based on 12.6 million students in US educational institutions. They concluded that it is critical that educational leaders abandon preconceptions around traditional education and move forward with a more robust, data driven model – that model is increasingly remote and digitally based. 

Within this new model it is vital to construct event oriented, solution focused systems that are dynamic and flexible. For decades we, within the education field, have been mired in tradition and fixed structures. Little growth or development has occurred in educational practice  – until COVID. We can, in ways , look at this as the catalyst that was very much needed in the educational sphere which has catapulted us from our fixed ways into a spiraling evolution that has become agile and responsive, moving and evolving.  

Our next step is to move beyond “Pademic Talk” shake off our “Pandemic Fatigue” and look to the future, a future that is bright and new. Educational leaders are now holding a widely shaken up and loosened out system that is fully ready for flexion. How we reform that system is up to us – with so many models available to chose from the educational world is our oyster!

Choosing the right path for your school

As an educational leader this is a truly exciting time. Institutions are agile and change ready. Now is the time for growth. We can embed all of the innovative practices, the research-based methodologies and student driven tools that have been stuck around the fringes of mainstream education, unable to breach the parapets of the old fixed ways. We can breach the walls and drive development and growth that will support the student of today not the student of the pre-industrial era. 

How can we create this educational utopia?

First and foremost, we need to appraise our educational landscape. Institutions in Lagos look very different to institutions in Dubai and with good reason. As we navigate this change it is vital to take a step back. Appraise your demography, economic needs and most importantly cultural and social needs. Move from the macro to the micro tunnelling down from the country’s agenda to the individual needs of your student body. 

Careful appraisal of where your school sits in this broad landscape is vital in understanding how you can institutionalize ongoing agility for a more agile world. 

“It’s now painfully clear that schools ought to have had more robust disaster-preparedness plans in place in the event of interruptions in their campus operations.” – Michael Horn, cited in Lederman (2020), ‘Inside Higher Ed’.

If we build our institution to be continuously agile and flexible, we will become much more capable of coping with sudden change. Not only this, but we will instil this flexibility in our students, ensuring that they too reflect agility and growth potential. 

Core to this enterprising and innovative model is student wellbeing.

“In order to fight the negative impacts of this pandemic, we need to make sure our students have the mental health support necessary to cope” UNESCO 2021. 

In line with the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 4: Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning for all it is critical that schools structure conscious support for student wellbeing within their new systems. It cannot be taken for granted, left to chance or assumed. It must be explicit, clearly defined and structured to sit within the moveable new norm. 

The repercussions of COVID have been monumental in terms of wellbeing and people’s ability to interact with the world in positive ways. The majority of the region has experienced full or partial isolation due to governmental restrictions. This has lead to reticence, fear and even anxiety in the general student and faculty populations. Educational leaders must factor this into their planning, reflect it in the curriculum and embed it in their physical spaces. Promoting positivity and connectivity is vital to ensuring that the New Norm is accepted and celebrated.  

How do we begin this journey, how do we clearly define wellbeing? 

The World Health Organization’s (WHO) early definition of wellbeing is that it  “…is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity’ (World Health Organization [WHO], 1948), it is associated with personality factors such as extraversion, optimism and an overall sense of personal competence.

Attention in the United Kingdom has recently focused upon the concept on a national level. Resulting from a 6-month National Debate, three domains of national wellbeing emerged: individual wellbeing (such as life satisfaction), factors that directly affect individual wellbeing (such as health, relationships, where we work and where we live) and contextual domains (such as the economy and natural environment) (Burns, 2020).

This debate has lead to the conclusion that one of the key factors to promoting wellbeing in schools is a well facilitated lived environment. This lived environment interacts with how we experience relationships, how we perceive ourselves and can influence our staff and students’ readiness for learning. Ensuring that students feel safe and protected, stimulated and engaged can greatly increase their sense of wellbeing and thus their ability to grow both socially & emotionally as well as academically. 

Synthesising the best of pre-COVID models with the great changes brought about by the pandemic can lead us to a destination where education is agile, evolving and meeting the needs of each individual student. Where student wellbeing is embraced and protected, nourished and blossoming. Where academics reflect the industries of the present and of the future. Where staff feel valued and advancing. Ultimately, while COVD has been undoubtedly one of the worst events in human history, it has also brought opportunity and it is that opportunity that we, as educators, must embrace.

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