Gordon Brown: Using social enterprise to improve global education

Iana Williams, 8, who is homeless, reads a book at a School on Wheels' after-school program in Los Angeles, February 9, 2012. School on Wheels provides tutoring and educational mentoring to homeless children. A recent report by the National Alliance to End Homelessness found that California's population of homeless families increased by five percent between 2009 and 2011. It is estimated that there are over 300,000 homeless children in California.  REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson (UNITED STATES - Tags: EDUCATION SOCIETY) - RTR2XKVW

There are 260 million children not in school worldwide. Image: REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

Gordon Brown
United Nations Special Envoy for Global Education; World Health Organization Ambassador for Global Health Financing, The Office of Gordon and Sarah Brown
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An estimated quarter-million young people in Syria are missing out on college as a result of the civil war there. Now, thanks to the Institute of International Education, charities, philanthropists, and foundations have united to help refugee students find higher-education opportunities, and to provide safe havens for lecturers and professors persecuted by the Syrian regime.

The Platform for Education in Emergencies Response will connect college-ready Syrian refugees with refugee-ready colleges. In time, PEER will serve as a conduit to higher education for displaced students worldwide, and it will cater to all education levels, by providing web-based information, points of contact, and much-needed counseling and support.

PEER is one project the Catalyst Trust for Universal Education – an education charity founded by former New York University President John Sexton – is now supporting. The Catalyst Trust is also looking at projects to rethink school auditing, spur social-impact investing in the education sector, and introduce curricula to encourage inter-faith coexistence. Any projects the Catalyst Trust supports will have to prove their scalability and share the goal of providing universal education, for the first time, to an entire generation of young people.

With 260 million children not in school worldwide, education needs more champions to match the enthusiasm of advocates in, say, the global-health and environmental movements. There is more room for innovation in education than in any other international-development sector, especially as digital technologies and the Internet become more accessible even in the world’s poorest regions.

The education sector has so far been too slow to adapt to our changing world. Despite momentous technological advances, classrooms – unlike workplaces or homes – have remained largely unchanged since the nineteenth century. It is past time for reforms that empower teachers and transform schools into twenty-first-century learning hubs.

Not even universal primary completion will be achieved by 2030 in low and lower middle income countries, on past trends
Image: UN GEM 2016

In recent years, private-sector funding options – such as venture capital, targeted-investment funds, and new asset classes – have opened up countless new opportunities for education-sector social entrepreneurs. However, as with technology, the public and nonprofit sectors have been slow to keep up; both still need to recognize the value of social enterprises focused on education.

This gap point to a unique opportunity to realize social enterprise’s underappreciated potential. To grasp this opportunity, we should first acknowledge that too many ideas emanating from the nonprofit sector are stillborn or unfeasible, often for lack of finance. So we should do more to provide seed capital for education start-ups like Catalyst, which can then help to scale up successful pilot programs.

This strategy will create a virtuous cycle whereby initial innovations spur further innovations across the education sector. Reformers should take a lesson from Sir Ronald Cohen’s pioneering work in social-impact investing. And, indeed, the Catalyst Trust is already exploring how best to measure outcomes in developing countries’ school-assessment systems, and determining which metrics are most relevant to unique educational environments. A team of New York University professors – building on previous findings from UNESCO and the Brookings Institution – will work with a global network of researchers at local universities in several countries to examine the most appropriate methods for evaluating success and failure in education systems worldwide.

In another effort, the Catalyst Trust is looking at pilot projects in human-rights education across Eastern Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and the United States to determine how school curricula can best cultivate inter-faith understanding. It is time to counter the extreme idea, currently popular in Western politics, that coexistence is impossible. Schools are the first places where we can and should be promoting inclusive citizenship.

A curriculum fostering inclusion must go beyond optimistic appeals to universal religious dictums such as “love thy neighbor” and the Golden Rule. To that end, the Catalyst Trust hopes to support the development of curricula that teach pupils the value of diversity for strengthening social cohesion and harmony.

In its effort to help refugee students, the Catalyst Trust is examining how companies, foundations, and public-sector donors can make resources more consistently available for displaced people. Every time there is war or a natural disaster, the international community passes the hat for donations to finance UN peacekeepers or World Bank development grants. But education for displaced people is lost in this framework between humanitarian aid, which focuses on immediate needs such as food and shelter, and development aid, which targets longer-term projects. The Catalyst Trust hopes to help shape a better system that delivers emergency aid more effectively and accounts for neglected needs like education.

There are many worthy projects that deserve consideration by organizations such as Catalyst. One example is a pilot that would help the two million students who are blind or visually impaired, and whose educational needs have long been neglected. With new technology, we can now leapfrog the 150-year-old braille system and instantly render text into audio recordings, making all types of learning materials accessible to the visually impaired. This technology is ready to be deployed so long as we can muster the resources to train teachers and visually impaired students to use the new tools.

For anyone who cares about education, our task is clear: to furnish millions of poor people, especially in the remotest parts of the world, with the innovations they need to transform and improve their lives through learning. As the Catalyst Trust intends to show, a little social enterprise goes a long way.

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