Why Social Enterprises Can Lead the Way in Education Provision

Special Focus : Can Social Enterprise Lead Innovation in Education?
Higher Education March 07, 2016

As we embark on 15 years of daunting and extremely demanding targets we must, as a collective, accept that the way to make a telling change is to push ideological differences aside and accept that national governments won’t be able to fund and deliver these bold targets on their own.

Fifteen years ago, when the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) were launched, I was a 20 year old student preparing my first trip to Uganda. On that visit I witnessed the injustice of an education that ended when the primary school gates closed. Scores of children were not fulfilling their potential because secondary schools were too far from home or too expensive. 

Naïve, perhaps, I returned with a conviction I could do something in education that hadn’t been achieved before. I wanted to support the government to educate in hard-to-reach communities offering those children the same chance regardless of their socio-economic background or location in which they were born. I founded PEAS.

So far, so good. Sort of.

Since beginning the first school in 2008, PEAS has created 14,000 school places in 30 sustainably run schools across Uganda and Zambia. But should an organisation like ours be entrusted with educating a nation?

Involvement of organisations like PEAS is often brought into question as a non-state provider of education. A recent Brookings study, compiled by former Australian Prime Minster Julia Gillard among others, looks at “whether non-state provision is consistent with the principle of education as a human right, and (raises) serious empirical questions relating to quality and equity implications.”

On a daily basis we tackle those principles head-on demonstrating one pupil at a time, why social enterprises can lead the way in education provision.

In Sub-Saharan Africa alone there are currently around 22 million children, of secondary school age, with no access to the classroom. With over 60% of the demographic in Sub-Saharan Africa under the age of 25 and the population becoming younger rather than aging, the demand for secondary education is overwhelming. This is a demand that the State cannot fulfill alone. The educational ecosystem must develop and diversify to enable access to learning on the scale required. 

That is not to say that these providers should not be accountable to ensure quality and access, but instead of debating whether non-state bodies should be providing education, should we not work together to better understand how to grow a rich and diverse ecosystem capable of meeting the need? 

The key differential between the MDGs and the SDGs is that while universal primary education is something the state can conceivably achieve themselves (between 1999-2012 international primary school enrolment has increased from 82% to 92%), universal secondary education is not.  

In terms of educational quality this is a valid concern raised by the Brookings report. What is the point of providing an education if that education is not a good one? I can only speak on behalf of PEAS where we invest heavily in Education Specialists who work on delivering the curriculum and teacher training across our school network. We also work to regularly monitor and evaluate the performances of our staff and systems to ensure the students are receiving the highest quality education available. This level of observation and evaluation of performance is vital to ensure dynamic and varied learning and we’d encourage other non-state actors to employ the same transparent tactics.

We know that our focus on quality is driving results, particularly on a “value add” basis taking into account prior attainment. Most students begin at PEAS schools with a lower than average attainment due to prior learning experiences. The 19 schools benefiting from our girls education program, in partnership with DfID, are now in the top 10% on a value add. 

Non-state providers are building new schools in communities that have not had access before resulting in a first generation of secondary education in a family. In terms of innovation, PEAS has created a sustainable model which ensures all schools are self-funding and operate without international aid within two years of funding for the school to be built. This unique approach means that should our organization cease business tomorrow our schools will continue to educate children for many years to come. It’s an approach that has never been done before and requires the collaboration of PEAS, the state and corporate partners to open the doors and continue educating.

The international community must accept that incorporating private and NGO actors into the education scene is a necessary evolution to achieve the goals we’re all aiming for.

The SDGs have created a fork in the road. Two paths lie ahead: the well-trodden route that countries, like Uganda, have prioritized before with a conclusion of unskilled employment; or a much more difficult route, uneven and less chosen, but with a potential to end the cycle of poverty. Non-state actors are helping to pave this route to increase accessibility and ability to reach the goal at the end.