Going back, to look forward

Posted on 05 October 2017

When I returned to Gansu with my fellow programme leaders Hu Wenbin and Zhao Jing, I was largely optimistic about what we’d find. After all, the project was ‘A’ rated throughout its life with numerous achievements including over 14,000 scholarships given to poor children in remote schools (of which 70% went to girls). We had built or rehabilitated 197 schools, and trained 6,200 teachers and 700 head teachers multiple times.

However, few consultants ever get the chance to review the work they did more than 10 years ago – and discover if it still survives. So, there was excitement, curiosity – and quite a bit of apprehension.

As it turned out, the overwhelming feedback we received from people was very positive. We were pleasantly surprised how many people were genuinely enthusiastic about the legacy of the project. Ten years on, many educators and officials recalled the way the project impacted them personally. “Without the project I would not be the me you see before you,” we were told a number of times. We weren’t leading the witness. There was no courtesy bias. This was heartfelt – and heartwarming.

Equity was another lasting success. People we met said that since the project they have taken a different approach on how to address the needs of the poorest in their communities. One teacher explained that if they wanted to build a new school in the past, it was always a political decision. Now, the site was chosen to ensure those in greatest need could participate.

We met with six of those children who had received scholarships, including four girls who travelled to Beijing to meet with Tony and Cherie Blair in 2003. In almost all cases we found that the lives of these six young adults is now considerably better as a result of the financial support from GBEP. It is a fair assumption that these six stories can be multiplied hundreds, even thousands of times, so disrupting the intergenerational transmission of poverty to their own children. This legacy on its own would be justification for the project to claim to have created a sustainable impact – but we wanted to know whether the change had gone further and deeper.


As educators, we were especially interested to see whether our training on participatory teaching had embedded and endured. The approach centres on the child rather than the teacher, encouraging them to ask questions, work in pairs and groups and be more active in the classroom. The classroom scenes now are unrecognisable from 2000, when children learnt by rote, chanting from books in serried rows. However, the good examples of interactive teaching we saw were in the minority. The teacher was usually still dominant: walking and reading from the textbook, occasionally asking a child or the class a question. It seemed to us that in many classrooms participatory teaching was used rather superficially – as a number of handy techniques – rather than a deeply held philosophy for engaging children. We were all a bit disappointed.

Yet, were we right to feel this way? Teachers we spoke to felt they were teaching differently, that they were engaging the children more actively. Certainly, they are if the comparison is with rote learning. So, what defines sustainability? If teachers feel they have changed, within their own culture, and that their practices have improved – is that more important than outsiders saying “this could be better”?

Questioning the definition of sustainability also means questioning how we measure success and impact. Results that are measurable: learning gains, schools rehabilitated, teachers trained etc. are important, but wider impact is harder to measure. It resides in the less tangible ‘software’ of education – capacity built, skills developed, confidence gained, performance improved, opportunities opened. For example, we spoke to some headteachers who said their schools’ results lagged behind others, yet they were proud that a more inclusive learning approach made their children more eloquent and articulate, more socially confident and better at working collaboratively.

In other areas such as school development, planning and inspection, we could see that some of the new methods we tried in GBEP were clearly now part of the educational culture – and not just in Gansu. Like throwing stones into a pond, the ripples get bigger, but also overlap with each other in unusual and unexpected ways. So, we found, the influence of the project extended into similar initiatives in other provinces – even nationally and internationally. And always it was led by people who had been engaged or influenced by the experience of working in the project.

These intangible, unmeasurable benefits, these “multiplier effects” are rarely defined or captured in project logframes, but they are perhaps one of the most sustainable legacies of GBEP – a lesson for donors and designers of future projects.


This was not rigorous research, but we feel confident that our review revealed other valuable insights – especially around the politics of embedding and then protecting gains. While we encountered numerous instances of individual change, that on its own isn’t enough to successfully and sustainably transform the culture of an institution. For that you also need critical mass and reinforcement. Now that the generation of educators who developed, experienced and implemented GBEP is starting to retire – some of the GBEP legacy looks like it may go with them.

Could that have been avoided? Perhaps yes, if the timeframe of projects was lengthened – if, instead of four and five year-long projects there were eight and ten year-long projects. The “big bang” nature of projects doesn’t lend itself naturally to sustainability. Real change – particularly in education with its annual cycles of terms and holidays – takes place over much longer periods than we care to admit. So, a project focused on sustainable outcomes might still have a big bang, but then have a much longer tail focusing specifically on embedding gains.

We left Gansu with a sobering thought. GBEP had arrived at the right time and the right place: just as the Chinese economic miracle took hold and government funding expanded significantly. People were receptive to external catalysts – eager for change – and ultimately, they made the changes, not us. Yet, if a country developing as fast as China struggles to sustain some of these gains, what does this tell us about other, more dysfunctional education systems? Are our ambitions for sustainability largely rhetoric and wishful thinking?

That may be going too far. But the lessons of this review are that we should be realistic in our targets, especially in short timeframes. Sustainable results are better value for money than quick wins that don’t last. We need to be ambitious, but ambitious at the right level. By understanding sustainability better and by designing it in from the start, we will ensure taxpayers’ money is spent on development not aid.

For us this return visit to Gansu was both moving and rewarding. All our work is focused on helping developing countries, governments and ministries of education to improve their systems. Visits like this remind us that those systems have many individual faces and their development is the result of many individual changes. It was an emotional experience to see those, now older, faces again – reflecting our own – and to realise that some of the best years of our lives had been spent on this work. We found ourselves united in pride – to have played our part in a ground-breaking project that made a huge impact on people’s lives.

Andy Brock is the managing director for international education, Cambridge Education and was the consultant team leader on GBEP.

Ma Zhengqing - trying to reach the unreached

Posted on 03 October 2017

Having suffered from polio as an infant, Ma Zhengqing was one of 200 disabled children who received a scholarship, enabling him to start school aged ten.

We find Ma Zhengqing, now 26, waiting for us at his old primary school. He shyly introduces us to his wife – the two recently married. She is also disabled.

Ma Zhengqing lacks confidence and speaks softly as he tells us repeatedly how life has not been easy. He dropped out after the first year of junior middle school as the facilities in the school were not accessible enough for him – for example there were too many stairs in the building – and he lacked the additional learning support he needed.

He now looks after sheep and goats for his brother and dreams of opening a small store selling clothes in his township. He remains limited by his poor mobility. Still he is more fortunate than others – his father and brother are trying to help him build a house, which should be completed soon if he gets some financial support from the local government’s special budget for the disabled.

He appreciates his limited education experience very much as GBEP gave him the chance to visit Beijing, and reading enables him to know the "big world outside". He wants to have a boy who will be able to help him to do things. Ma Zhengqing hopes his son will finish primary school so that one day he can realise his father's dream of opening a clothes shop.

Wang Guocai - the new inspector

Posted on 03 October 2017

Wang Guocai, from Jishishan County, was one of the first officials to be trained as a GBEP inspector and during the project life did much to bring inspection and school development planning together.

Now as one of the key technical staff in the Jishishan Education Bureau, he is leading the county inspection team and sustaining the GBEP model.

When we meet with Wang Guocai, he comments that the GBEP “bottom-up” inspection style is much friendlier. The inspectors are not there to find issues in the schools, but to help headteachers and teachers to find solutions to any issues themselves. Inspectors spend at least 50% of their time observing classroom teaching (aiming to cover all teachers and most subjects) – the focus is on helping teachers rather than ticking compliance boxes. He believes that the GBEP inspection model is more effective as it acts as a partnership rather than top-down checking.

Wang Guocai tells us that GBEP changed him personally and professionally. Before GBEP, he was very shy and lacked confidence. Working alongside the project consultants, he began to understand that the process of doing things properly is as important as the final results. His self-confidence was built up gradually with GBEP’s capacity building activities. Today, he is very confident and feels comfortable sustaining GBEP initiatives without any further consultancy support.