31 May 2017

How to solve the global education crisis

By Jay Kimmelman

Most people don’t realise there is a global education crisis. But on current trends, over half the world’s children, around 800 million, will not be ready for the modern work place by 2030. They won’t have the basic skills. Today, 330 million are in school not learning, while 263 million are out of school. The number of children not in primary school is increasing.

Gordon Brown, the UN Special Envoy for global education, recently called education “the civil rights struggle of our time”. Indeed, education is one of the most effective methods of ending the poverty cycle many countries find themselves trapped in. Education drives prosperity and growth and the lack of of it drives inequality and instability.

In 2015, the UN Sustainable Development Goal Four was established to help all governments strive towards inclusive, equitable and quality education for all children by 2030. Private sector engagement is deemed key to effecting this change, and was the theme of a report backed by USAid and DFID, which encouraged private partnerships with governments to help design and deliver education in Africa.

We at Bridge International Academies have discovered that there are new, innovative ways of plugging the huge gap in education provision if governments and the private sector work together.

According to the research, 21 per cent of all children in Africa are already in some kind of private school, a number which will increase to 25 per cent in a few years. It identifies an investment need in private-sector education in the region of $16–$18 billion over the next five years.

Only private investment can bring these new funds to a sector that otherwise would not attract capital. It can fund R&D in pedagogy and pay for sorely needed materials, particularly in developing countries. But private actors bring more than money, they also bring their strategic and structural knowledge to bear on the academic sector.

Even though the global spend on education currently stands at $1.2 trillion, many are calling for donors to invest more. But more money isn’t always the answer. There is so often a lack of accountability at the school level, a lack of evidence of improved outcomes from increased spending, and a history of misused funds in fragile or corrupt states. Arguing about the need for more investment per child is to miss the main issue – effectiveness of investment.

A vibrant private sector can help drive access, quality and innovation. But governments must be held accountable for the money being invested in education. When there is a focus on delivery of learning and accountability measures, great things can be done on vanishingly small budgets.

It can be hard be hard to imagine, when you live in a country that spends over £4,000 per child for primary school, that an education which not only delivers mastery of the core sciences, social studies, language, and mathematics, and which also empowers a child with self-confidence, leadership, and problem-solving skills can be had for less than $350 per child (the sum that most lower and middle income countries spend per child).

Yet it can be done. Nine years ago, I co-founded Bridge International Academies (Bridge), and today, with the help of numerous investors, we are teaching over 100,000 children every school day in our nurseries and primary schools. I know our model works, and independent government exams and tests have verified that our pupils out-perform their peers, with 74 per cent of students who’ve been with Bridge for four years passing national examinations, rather than the national average of less than 50 per cent.

Our schools have prepared thousands of children to attend secondary school, and are on very different life paths than were thought possible to them. More than 100 attend elite national secondary schools in Kenya, and eight attend top boarding schools in the US.

We work in partnership with parents, donors, and governments to offer low-cost high-quality schooling, using technology and a scalable model to roll out education reform. We are helping governments to accelerate education improvements and expand capacity scross five countries.

In all of those places, there are children who are simply not sent to school because their parents have lost faith that learning can happen in a classroom. In some places, there are simply not enough government schools to serve the population. Our partnerships are about proving what can be delivered if the mechanism of delivery and instruction is re-imagined, and a school is made accountable for ensuring a child learns.

In Nigeria, for example, 34 per cent of children at primary school age are not in school. Having recently opened more schools there, we now have over 7,400 pupils and 37 academies across Lagos state. In Nigeria, we’ve also been selected as partner to the Lagos government for a new initiative called CodeLagos. The scheme aims to equip one million young people with coding skills to help them access modern jobs.

In Adhra Pradesh, we have an infrastructure partnership with the local government to help them transform run-down school buildings into high-performing centres of learning.

In Liberia, we are managing a number of public schools on behalf of the government. As one participant in their highly innovative Partnership Schools for Liberia programme, we are helping the government re-build their education system and help young children in a country that has been scarred by Ebola and civil war.

In every one of our schools, we give all our teachers handheld computers so they can access high-quality, new lesson plans to give children a great learning experience. This device also frees Bridge teachers from the time-intensive planning and administrative tasks, allowing them to focus on individual students in order to identify where they are in their learning, and help them where they are struggling.

Data from the teacher’s computer is used to create a dashboard of critical information for management decision-making. This includes teacher and pupil attendance, learning gains, and direct, daily communication with teachers. A recent World Bank report indicated the average teacher absentee rate in Ugandan schools is 56 per cent, and 47 per cent in Kenya; Bridge schools have achieved an unexcused teacher absentee rate of less than 1 per cent.

As a social enterprise, we expect to become self-sustainable in the next couple of years. Our focus is on scalable sustainability, while providing access to quality education for people whose budget – whether parent, donor or government – means they can’t afford schools that actually delivered learning.

We stand with Unicef in believing that education cannot wait. From working in development and education over the past 10 years, we know how devastating it is to have no option other than a failing school or no school at all.

From working with 250,000 children in Kenya over that same period, we’ve also seen the transformation of a child’s body and mind as they come to believe in themselves, and are empowered to not only have dreams, but make them a reality. In order to provide hundreds of millions of children with a great school and to do so at speed, we agree, with the UN and the SDGs, that the public and private sectors must work together.

What we do – combining the third sector, the private sector and the leadership of national leaders – disrupts the status quo, and we know that can be upsetting to those who want things to stay the same. However, today’s status quo is simply unacceptable for so long as millions of children around the world are without high-quality education.

We can’t ask children to wait decades while laborious improvements may or may not be implemented by public school systems in the developing world. In the passing of only 10 years, a five-year-old child has become a 15-year-old young adult. There is no time to lose if we want to create a learning generation.

Jay Kimmelman is CEO of Bridge International Academies