Few countries in the world are worse places for children to learn than Liberia. The official UN statistics paint a picture of a country where most adults and children struggle with basic reading and writing. Civil war and the Ebola virus devastated not just people’s lives, but the majority of the education system.

At the 71st UN General Assembly (UNGA) education was a clear focus on the agenda. There is acknowledgement that the success of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) rests on the achievement of SDG4: universal high-quality education for all. The UN believes we need to make ‘unprecedented progress’ to achieve this goal.

I believe it can only be achieved through innovative models that deliver meaningful reform. The UN estimates that it will be 2042 until there is universal access to basic education. But that time frame means failing hundreds of millions of children who would not be educated over the next 25 years. The chair of the global Education Commission, Gordon Brown, described this as the “civil rights struggle of our time”. President Emmanuel Macron said at the UN: “Education is above all a global issue because regardless of the countries which have brought us together, regardless of our linguistic regions, if we want to meet the challenges of contemporary globalization, we shall do so only through education.”

There are around 600 million children and adolescents being failed worldwide today. Either they are not in school at all or they are in schools where learning isn’t happening. And aid is not bottomless. The education crisis needs to be solved in a way that is scaleable and sustainable. As Nobel Laureate Muhammad Yunus said at UNGA: “Social enterprise can be more sustainable than charity because you don’t have to go back every year asking for money.”

To provide hundreds of millions of children with a great school and to do so at speed, we agree with the UN that the public and private sectors must work together. SDG17 explicitly calls for global partnerships that encourage sustainable development and bring in external funding.

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. One of the leaders of the Global Education Commission, Dr. Amel Karboul, said: “Simply urging finance ministers to ‘spend more’ will not result in any significant changes, nor would it be efficient. More money alone will not magically solve the world’s education crisis.”

By demonstrating that much more can be achieved by spending current funds more effectively and efficiently, we will be in a better place to ask for additional funding. There is so often a lack of accountability at the school level, a lack of evidence of improved outcomes from increased spending, and a lack of performance metrics to show what is and isn’t working.

Against this backdrop, partnerships between government and the private sector have become a hot policy topic as fertile territory for education innovation where it’s most needed. One example in particular, the Partnership Schools for Liberia (PSL) initiative, has taken on substantial weight in this global debate. The Liberian government’s programme uses eight education partners - of which my social enterprise Bridge is one - to deliver education reform through a public-private partnership (PPP). The programme is transforming low-quality public schools into high-quality public schools, to help some of the poorest children in the world.

PPPs can be an effective and efficient solution: a vibrant private sector can help drive quality and innovation with measurable outcomes; while governments can provide schools, frameworks, pupils and teachers, retaining direct responsibility for the education systems operating in their countries. When there is a focus on delivery of learning and accountability measures, great things can be done on small budgets.

PPPs operate widely in many sectors across Africa. Healthcare, energy and infrastructure have long benefited from partnerships that improve services, but education lags behind. This is why the PPP taking place in Liberia has been the subject of international attention. The world is watching to see whether an education PPP could deliver impactful outcomes - the answer is yes. A recent report undertaken by the Centre for Global Development and Innovations for Poverty Action suggested a 60% increase in learning in PSL schools in just nine months. At Bridge, pupil learning was at double the speed of traditional schools.

Children sit in class in Monrovia, February 16, 2015. Thousands of Liberian children in pristine uniforms flocked back to school on Monday as classrooms opened their doors for the first time after a six-month hiatus designed to stem the spread of the worst Ebola outbreak in history. REUTERS/James Giahyue (LIBERIA - Tags: HEALTH EDUCATION DISASTER) - GM1EB2H06XD02
Children sit in class in Monrovia, Liberia
Image: REUTERS/James Giahyue

The PSL programme designed by the Ministry of Education in Liberia planned to quickly improve public schools by:

1) Lengthening the school day;

2) Reducing overcrowded class sizes;

3) Holding teachers accountable for attendance;

4) Tackling the issue of teacher-literacy and so-called ‘ghost teachers’ who exist on the government payroll but not in classrooms.

All these policies were focused on improving student performance.

We all want more children to benefit from the programme, so the government are confidently and rightly expanding it to reach 60,000 children in year two, increasing its scope to a total of 200 schools.

Alongside an increase in learning, the programme delivered substantial philanthropic investment in Liberia through a model which is forecasted to be sustainable and affordable by the government by 2020 with a budget of only $100-$110 per child. The implications for African countries that want to dramatically change their learning outcomes without relinquishing responsibility for their education systems are remarkable.

The World Bank has just published its first ever report focusing on education noting that when countries and their leaders make “learning for all” a national priority, education standards can dramatically improve. Highlighting PSL as a global example of positive policy action, the report argues that “early grade reading improved substantially within a very short time thanks to focused efforts based on evidence."

Other African governments are now asking what lessons can be learnt from the Liberian initiative to increase a government’s role, as a regulator, guarantor, and financer of education, while inviting partners to support the government’s role in delivery. It’s possible that the reforms that have been so effectively implemented in Liberia could be rolled out into other nations. PSL has shown what strong political commitment can achieve.