There’s nothing like sitting in a room full of people who build and run schools in the developing world to make you feel pretty inadequate. At least I did, last week at the Global Schools Forum. It can feel like a pretty long and abstract chain from the kind of policy research and evaluation that I do through to better policies and better outcomes, and I envy being able to see directly a tangible difference for real people.
You may have heard of the emergence of some international low-cost private school chains such as Bridge International Academies, but the movement is growing quickly, and there are many new organisations trying to do similar things that you probably haven’t heard of - some profit-making, some non-profit, some that charge fees, some that don’t, international, local, big, small, and everything in between. The biggest school operator you don’t hear that much about is the Bangladeshi NGO BRAC, who run thousands and thousands of fee-free schools.
Last week a whole range of school operators and the donors who support them gathered at the 2nd Annual Meeting of the “Global Schools Forum” (GSF); a new membership organisation of 26 school networks (of which 14 for profit and 12 non-profit) operating in 25 countries, and 17 donors and financing organisations, with networks ranging from 1 to 48,000 schools. Running one school is hard enough; trying to disrupt a dysfunctional system by growing a chain of schools is harder. One of the goals of the GSF is to help create a community of practice for school operators, and a “How-to Guide” for scale, sharing information about the best IT and finance systems, the best assessments for tracking performance, or the best training consultants. It’s a place to connect operators with new people and new ideas.
This year we heard more about public-private partnerships than last year, in part because of the presence of several of the operators in the Partnership Schools for Liberia (PSL) pilot. Government schools (with government teachers) will be managed by a range of local and international providers, including the Liberian Stella Maris Polytechnic and LIYONET, international NGOs (Street Child, BRAC, More Than Me) and school chains (Bridge International Academies, Rising Academies, Omega Schools). Other operators at the forum came from India (Gyanshala, Seed Schools, Sodha Schools), South Africa (SPARK, Streetlight Schools, African School for Excellence, Nova Pioneer), and East Africa (Peas, Silverleaf Academies, Kidogo, Scholé), to name just a few.
The number of non-state school operators planning for scale is rapidly increasing, but even at dramatic rates of growth, it would take a long time to reach any kind of significant proportion of schools. There are two possible routes to scale - either growing chains and networks to scale themselves, and/or acting as demonstration projects for government, to prove what is possible. This second route was highlighted by a number of speakers. Anecdotally at least, many exciting school reforms seem to come from the personal experience of government Ministers actually seeing something better in practice with their own eyes. More rigorously, Roland Fryer has demonstrated in the US with a randomized experiment that it is possible to “inject charter school best practices into public schools” and achieve positive gains in learning.
To find out more about the Global Schools Forum keep an eye on the website (coming soon) globalschoolsforum.org and follow @GSF_talks on twitter.
The Global Schools Forum is supported by The Education Partnerships Group (EPG) @EPG_Edu, UBS Optimus Foundation @UBSOptimus, Pearson Affordable Learning Fund @AffordableLearn, and Omidyar Network @OmidyarNetwork.