Around the world, some 263 million children remain out of school, and of those who do attend classes, 330 million are receiving substandard education. As a result, an estimated 617 million school-age children are unable to read at grade level.
The problem is a global one, but it is particularly acute in Sub-Saharan Africa, where 88 per cent of young students– some 202 million boys and girls – are not achieving a sufficient level of reading proficiency. And it is also here where solutions are being tested.
African governments and international donors have long paid lip service to improving educational outcomes, especially in basic skills like reading, writing, and math.
At a financing conference for the Global Partnership for Education in February, developing countries vowed to increase spending on education by $110 billion, and wealthy donors pledged an additional $2.3 billion to improve school systems in poor countries.
But as important as these commitments are, Africa’s education crisis will not be overcome by donations and pledges alone. A new approach is needed to strengthen struggling schools, train teachers, and ensure that every child can obtain the necessary skills to succeed. One pilot program being tested in my country, Liberia, has shown considerable promise.
Because low-income countries rarely have enough money to implement needed education reforms, pooling public and private resources is an attractive alternative.
Since 2016, Liberia’s education ministry has merged select public schools with various independent operators in an effort to increase educational quality in a tight budget environment. Early results are impressive.
For example, at the free public schools currently managed by expert contractors participating in the program, learning outcomes improved by 60 per cent in the first year. At the 25 schools operated by my employer, Bridge Partnership Schools for Liberia, average student test scores doubled in just nine months.
Parents and pupils have embraced these reinvigorated schools, with many calling them the best they have ever experienced. As a result, the previous government expanded the program, and the current one is committed to continuing support.
One of the most powerful components of a Bridge Partnership School is the pedagogy. For every lesson in every subject across every grade, educators have access to detailed lesson plans developed by academics. These plans help teachers prepare and deliver instruction to maximize learning outcomes. By assisting in classroom planning, Bridge ensures a degree of standardization across schools, and helps teachers focus more attention on individual students.
At first glance, Liberia’s school system might seem a poor fit for such an innovative experiment. Today, some 58 per cent of Liberian children are out of school, the literacy rate is among the lowest in the world, and teachers are in short supply. Moreover, the current government budgets just $50 annually for each child attending elementary school. The average in the OECD in 2013 was $9,200.
But programs like these are attractive for two reasons: they deepen a country’s access to educational expertise, and, more important, they open up new funding streams.
Developed countries have already recognized the value of strong public-private partnerships in education. Notably, the United Kingdom’s 2018 education policy encourages the expansion of such programs because they have been found to “improve access to education for poor and marginalized children.”
Not everyone will agree; partial partnerships with the private sector and NGOs in education generates considerable controversy, and there is little doubt that in Liberia, the Bridge model remains a work in progress. (A new impact analysis is due in the next academic year.)
But while costs were high, they are quickly falling. And continuous teacher training for those who are part of Bridge PSL is helping to increase the quality of instruction. As test results in Liberia demonstrate, children are learning more than ever. With the support of prominent global investors, our schools are achieving outcomes that were previously unthinkable.
From my perspective, the public-private partnership model has revolutionized education in Liberia, and I am confident that it can work in other parts of Africa, too. In countries where learning outcomes continue to lag, governments need collaborative solutions. And, as past failures have demonstrated, education systems in much of the Global South cannot succeed alone.
To achieve “education for all” by 2030, the target set by the UN Sustainable Development Goals, educators must embrace bold solutions like Bridge Partnership Schools. With millions of children still being denied the right to an education, the world can no longer afford the status quo. - Project Syndicate