A visionary government leader in Nigeria is showing the rest of his country that free public education can be transformative for all children, with the right support.

Godwin Obaseki is Governor of Edo state Nigeria, home of the famous Benin city. He has embarked on a pioneering education transformation programme to radically upgrade every school in the state. His scheme already affects around 150,000 students and in the next four years will reach 300,000 children – giving them a far better primary and junior secondary education than has ever been seen in this south-west region of Nigeria.

Nigeria is often highlighted in global indexes because of its poor public education system. Low attainment levels in government schools have certainly been the norm in recent decades; half of those 15 years or older cannot read and write. The country has the worst numbers for out-of-school children in the world, with estimates between 12 and 13 million.

We know the scale of the learning crisis means that, without immediate action, a generation of children stands to be failed. But when leaders break with the patterns of the past and transform dysfunctional systems, things can change very quickly.

Strong political leadership and a clear vision demonstrate that state schools in Nigeria can be high quality, today. A generation of children can receive transformational learning opportunities enabling growth and prosperity in a state where 60% live below the poverty line.

Governor Godwin Obaseki is leading EdoBEST and so far the programme has been enthusiastically welcomed by government teachers who are going through new training courses and getting better levels of support than ever before for all their lessons. Technology is used to support teachers, track performance and enable better decision-making. Teacher motivation levels have soared. Students in the programme learn more quickly than ever and families across the state are eager to have their local school join in.

Bridge International Academies, where I work, is the technical partner for the teacher training and development pillar of EdoBEST. We are focused on helping to improve the effectiveness of thousands of government teachers. So far we have helped train 7,000 state teachers in Edo and are already seeing improvements in more than 600 state primary and junior secondary schools. Ultimately, the programme will affect 15,000 government teachers and reach 1,500 schools across the state.

This has the potential to be the most trailblazing education initiative in all of Africa. It is significantly bigger in scale than the government-led programme in neighbouring Liberia, in which Bridge is also a partner. EdoBEST demonstrates to African leaders and education advisors that is not only possible to quickly improve state education but it’s already happening at a significant scale with limited budgets.

Private sector support for government education improvement programmes is a shift increasingly endorsed by multi-laterals who have shifted the benchmark of success from access to outcomes. This change in support has been strongly endorsed by the International Finance Corporation’s president because the public sector does not have a great track record in achieving this alone. Now we can see practical models being delivered that demonstrate the possibility of immediate improvement and which could become an example for public system education reform across Africa.

Spending time in Edo public schools and talking to Edo Government teachers, I have seen what it means to give teachers the opportunity to be proud of their vocation and offer children the opportunity to actually learn every day. At last, they are getting a primary education that will enable them to create and find decent jobs, become civil and business leaders and shape their own destiny. This is the African demographic dividend in action.

Edo is not the only area to benefit from transformational learning. Elsewhere in Nigeria, the Bridge model of empowering teachers has received fresh recognition. The UK government’s recent Department for International Development (DFID) report, Learning in Lagos, compares Bridge community schools to other low-fee schools, medium-fee schools and government primary schools across Lagos state.

It’s a strong endorsement of the work done under the DEEPEN programme to increase learning for children living in poverty and, in particular, of DFID’s commitment to innovative private sector roles for the improvement of services and opportunities for these families. This report builds on the preponderance of evidence demonstrating that Bridge’s methods and the support it gives to teachers and students lead to higher learning than the alternatives.

Excitingly, the DFID study shows full equity in learning at Bridge community schools in Lagos. Bridge schools are places of equal opportunity and equal learning benefits for all types of children. Parental income, parental education and speaking English at home had no correlation on Bridge students’ academic performance. To quote the report: “[S]tudents from better socioeconomic backgrounds have higher learning achievement in private and public schools, but not at Bridge schools”.

This official finding is a significant outlier, at odds with decades of global education research which suggests family background matters more than the school a child attends, in relation to levels of learning – from Coleman’s landmark 1966 study of academic outcomes among US students to the OECD’s 2016 global study of excellence and equity in education. It is groundbreaking.

As the below graphs show, children from a range of backgrounds outperformed their peers, demonstrating that exposure to the Bridge model of teaching really does deliver equal outcomes for all.

Alongside the equity findings, the DFID study also suggests Bridge teachers are the most motivated. The data says that Bridge education is correlated with better literacy achievement, more well-managed schools and more motivated and effective teachers.

DFID has welcomed “the findings of the independent study that show the need to build the regulatory capacity of government to support school management systems and processes that are necessary for improved learning outcomes in both public and private schools. They hope “this study will contribute to the growing body of evidence on the role of private sector provision of education in sub-Saharan Africa and similar context” – so do I.

Innovative models, strong leadership and higher levels of learning attainment are all helping to transform state schools and community schools. Nigeria is a land of opportunity, full of young people who will shape the future of their country and the world. With this new higher quality of education available, for free, the future looks bright for Nigerians.