Improving Lives: One BRAC at a Time

Bangladesh is amongst the world’s ‘newest’ countries, starting life in 1971 when it declared independence from Pakistan. It is a country of 150 million, of which 46.5 million (31%) live on less than US$2/day. And, much like its neighbour — India — limited opportunity and accessibility in Bangladesh has prevented millions from obtaining a quality education. It is against this backdrop that many organisations are now leading the way in the fight against poverty and illiteracy.

One such organisation is BRAC, an international development organisation based in Bangladesh, which is also now the largest non-governmental development organisation in the world. They are delivering schools for those currently being failed by the system.

BRAC’s annual event Frugal Innovation Forum in Dhaka, is now in its fifth year. The 2017 event explored education innovations and sought to connect innovators, social entrepreneurs and emerging leaders. Bridge was proud to play a part.

Asif Saleh, from BRACFrugal Innovation Forum, shared a poignant photo. In the photo, a mother is getting her daughter ready for school. Their home is an open concrete pipe in a slum community in Dhaka. From what can be seen in the photo, the family owns very little. Yet, this mother is obviously unwilling to let her current circumstance dictate the future of her child.

Asif Saleh reminded the audience that we were there to serve this mother and child and so many like them, who are, despite all odds, seeking life-changing education.

It is at such moments that you realise how important the vision and purpose behind Bridge’s ongoing effort to make quality education accessible to the marginalised. Every day, our team across four continents is working tirelessly to serve such families and communities. In all, Bridge’s work today touches more than 100,000  underserved families, making education not only accessible but potentially life-changing. It fills a sorely felt development need that has the opportunity to impact the entire development of a community or country, and set them on a different development path.

The Frugal Innovation Forum, as the name suggests, was about frugal means to scale up quality education. With so many panels, debates and pitches from thought leaders and practitioners from around the world, the buzz in the air was palpable. The scale of the learning crisis is enormous and solutions will need to be innovative to be impactful.

The UK’s Department for International Development (DfID), spoke about ‘quality’ as an essential evaluation tool for their aid programme since the number of children receiving an education vs. those receiving a high-quality education in worldwide is so disproportionate. This has been reflected recently in the five year strategy revealed by their investment arm the CDC.

Education Alliance spoke about a rising movement in India to create Public Private Partnerships with government schools. Bridge had much to offer following the recently released results from the Liberian PSL RCT, which revealed a 60% increase in learning across the program over just 9 months. Everyone in the audience was left inspired by the illustrative use of simple everyday materials to create hundreds of toys in order to teach pupils the basic laws of science.

There was also the opportunity to go out to the field and see government and BRAC-run schools in action. Currently, BRAC is running more than 22,000 pre-primary and primary schools and learning centres, serving more than 800,000 children in Bangladesh. They’ve achieved significant scale by keeping costs low and putting the parent and the forefront. Many of the principles we use at Bridge, such as hiring and training teachers from the community and providing lesson guides, were also seen in action at BRAC.

Three key themes emerged:

Use of Technology to drive quality

Many speakers spoke about various ways they were trying to use technology to improve the quality of education. Particularly exciting was Mindspark, which uses an adaptive learning software to put the teacher at the centre. Conversely, others cautioned that if technology is used without understanding or applying it to the context, it is likely to fail.

At Bridge, all of our technology was developed specifically to be used in our schools. We track attendance and performance of teachers and pupils even in the most remote school and use it to adapt and iterate. Our teacher tech is used to improve learning outcomes by providing world-class lesson plans.  Additionally, our School Leaders are each equipped with tech that helps them manage every aspect of the school, making their jobs significantly easier!

21st Century Skills

Another key theme was this idea of 21st-century skills. A number of speakers spoke about how the changes in the global economy is making the many skills currently taught in the education system, less relevant. Skills like communication, collaboration, problem-solving and teamwork are going to be much more important.

The discussion was a perfect platform to talk about how Bridge focuses extensively on building many of the above-mentioned critical skills in our students both inside and outside the classroom. In the classroom, our lessons include small group activities to encourage collaboration and teamwork. Outside the classroom, our children participate in a wide variety of co-curricular activities – ranging from mixed martial arts to dance.

Rise of alternative school models

Most speakers at the forum acknowledged that governments are struggling to deliver adequate education in the global south. As such, it is necessary to create space for affordable schools and explore the benefits (as is being done in many countries) of Public-Private Partnerships. Aashti Zaidi Hai, the director of the Global Schools Forum, said it best when she spoke about how it’s important for governments to ensure every child is receiving a great education but not necessarily always be delivering that education themselves.

Here too, Bridge’s pioneering work in developing a powerful model of scalable affordable schools can provide the guidance, acting as a learning lab for others. Read about our recent learning gains in Liberia’s pioneering PPP, Partnership Schools for Liberia.

The Frugal Innovation Forum helped participants to realise the depth and scale of the issues we are grappling with. However, there was also real hope in the room. All of us have a deep commitment to solving the problems we face with innovative, scalable and adaptable solutions. However, to succeed, it’s going to take a greater willingness to invest in innovation and a real openness to alternative approaches for delivering education.