Six pieces of advice for businesses operating in the education market in Pakistan

Posted on 29 April 2019

The paper is primarily aimed at Ilm Ideas 2 funded businesses and other businesses, start-ups and not for profits, who have business-based solutions that are aimed at improving education outcomes for poorer and disadvantaged children and young people in Pakistan.

It is not intended to be definitive advice that guarantees success but rather an invitation to think about what next, or an aide memoire, during your business development journey.

Signed, sealed, delivered: it's yours

Posted on 23 April 2019

I should perhaps start with a bit of background. Education in Sierra Leone didn’t really happen for a whole generation of the population, due to the Civil War and then the Ebola crisis. Now, many of those who had their own schooling disrupted are parents themselves, and they are determined to give their children the opportunity to learn that they did not have.

This powerful aspiration is backed by the country’s president Julius Maado Bio and his government, who have made education a top priority. At the heart of the flagship Free Quality School Education programme sits the Leh Wi Lan (Let’s Learn) programme, funded by UK aid, which is focused on improving learning outcomes in secondary schools, especially for girls and students with disabilities.

And a cornerstone of Leh Wi Lan is the provision of handbooks to every junior secondary and senior secondary school student in the country. These lesson companions for maths and English classes are designed to support the curriculum and improve the examination pass rate. The vision of the Ministry for Basic and Senior Secondary Education is that children and parents take ownership of these books, looking after them at home to encourage community engagement in education. The books, which also have Braille versions, are then passed on every year, creating a cascade of learning. From the president to the poorest village people, these books are seen as a tangible symbol of hope.

Accountable for change

Our role at Cambridge Education was to deliver all 2.7 million books to their final destination in a fully transparent and accountable way. That qualifier was the most important part. Sadly, there are too many episodes in development history of containers dumped on the quayside, pallets abandoned in depots or whole dispatches stolen in transit. Our brief was to place the books in the hands of those who would learn from them.

The sheer volume of 2.7 million books needs to be seen to be believed. Getting them through customs was a challenge in itself. Next, we shifted them to the central receiving warehouse, before countless lorry loads transported the books to 14 vast depots, which became their staging post for the journey out to the 16 districts. Maintaining 24-hour security was integral to the success of the programme. This was probably our most vulnerable stage, in terms of upholding full accountability.

The unprecedented size of the load meant we needed to learn fast. For example, we employed and trained large gangs of workers on how to safely stack and then unload vast towers of book cartons. There was no guarantee of the number of books per carton, so the only sure solution was to count all 2.7 million individually by hand. We also had to check every book for printing defects before handing them over in the schools. I can now add deep, practical experience in spreadsheets and document management to my professional resume!

Reliant on local support

The programme for distribution was made easier by the team of 150 Sierra Leonean district and local school support officers, who were fantastic at preparing the route and also readying the schools for the arrival of their books. Their biggest task, however, is yet to come, as they will be responsible for monitoring the use of books and teaching, which is currently at a very low standard. We were also responsible for printing and distributing lesson plan manuals, which are fully aligned with the pupil handbooks. The support officers will help train the teachers on how to use them effectively.

While many of the recipient schools were in densely populated areas such as Freetown, Leh wi Lan’s commitment to every government and government-assisted school in the country meant getting the books to children in even the most remote, rural areas. So, their cartons were transported by a variety of truck, minibus, off-road motorbike, 4x4, ferry, speedboat, dug-out canoe, and eventually carried by hand when the road or river ran out.

This is a beautiful country, with terrain ranging from mountains and island beaches to swampy mangroves and thick jungle. Travel in this humid climate is always dusty and energy-sapping. We made a film of the distribution, following the books to the farthest reaches of the country. Again, this was entirely reliant on the local knowledge and connections of the district support officers and the Sierra Leonean production crew.

Part of the success of this programme was the support and good relations with the Ministry of Basic and Senior Secondary Education. The President hosted a two-hour book launch in Freetown, with music and entertainment, before regional Ministers held their own celebrations. This gave widespread coverage in all the media: the schools were expecting us.

I won’t miss the spreadsheets, but the logistical challenge was weirdly satisfying. Part of the reason I enjoy this profession is the sheer variety of assignments and there’s something very direct about putting a book into the hands of a child who has never owned one before. A book can spark a revolution, but it takes hard work to see it through.

Having witnessed the positive reaction among pupils, parents and teachers – and the commitment of the government and school officers – I’m really excited to see how the people of Sierra Leone rise to this challenge.

Leh wi Lan - Sierra Leone Secondary Education Improvement programme

Posted on 23 April 2019

After the country was officially declared Ebola-free by the World Health Organization in 2016, the government of Sierra Leone launched a nationwide recovery plan. Fixing the fragmented secondary education system was placed as high priority. The recovery efforts were largely successful and, with the emergence of a new government in 2018, the nation’s reform focus has shifted to providing Free Quality School Education from pre-school to senior secondary.


Today’s teenagers in Sierra Leone can expect to play a critical role in the development of their country over the next 50 years. However, they faced considerable barriers to an effective secondary school education – even without the interruption of Ebola. Most secondary students struggled to learn in over-crowded and ill-equipped schools. Teachers lacked basic training, as well as motivation, due to a backlog in payment.

For girls, challenges around adolescence and puberty, such as early marriage and sexual violence, were leading to high drop-out rates. Indeed, in half of the country’s districts, two in five teenage girls failed to bridge the divide between junior high and secondary school. Children with disabilities also faced obstacles in finding an education, due to lack of support from schools or their communities.


As a call to action within the Presidential Recovery Plan, the ministry of education launched the Leh Wi Lan (Let’s Learn) programme, which is focused on improving learning outcomes in secondary schools, especially for girls and students with disabilities. The programme expects to impact learning conditions for 1.4 million boys and girls, leading to improved secondary exam passes, by making the learning environment safer and more productive. This focus is expected to continue within the new Free Quality Education Programme.

Funded by UK aid, as part of wider support to the country’s transition from crisis to development, Cambridge Education provides expertise in a number of different workstreams:

  • Improving the learning conditions in schools
  • Systems strengthening within the government
  • Encouraging the enrolment and retention of girls
  • Improving the learning prospects for children with a disability
  • Improving capacity for research, evidence and learning

We are overseeing new measures in child protection and introducing reporting mechanisms in schools. If a child experiences violence in school, the school will now know what to do about it. Children will also understand that it’s ok to speak out about it. Regarding disability inclusion, which is a relatively new concept in Sierra Leone, we aim to change attitudes with a view to reducing stigma and prejudice in schools.

The recruitment of school support officers (SSOs), to ensure teachers have the right materials and lesson plans to follow, is a pillar of our work. This coaching model offers a positive shift from the traditional three-day training workshop, which can prove hard to implement when the teacher returns to school.

Another successful innovation, piloted on other international programmes, is the use of tablets to provide lesson observations and a rich source of real-time data. Teacher scores, strengths and weaknesses, are now key indicators on our fingertips.

In regard to governance, we are working closely with the ministry to help them better plan, manage and monitor priority programmes, as well as grow the capacity of districts to hold schools and teachers to account.


To date, we have helped to introduce 45,000 easy-to-follow lesson plans in English and Mathematics and helped train over 6,500 secondary school teachers in how to use them. Coupled with the accelerated syllabus which was supported by the UK in the early recovery to help children to catch up for school time lost because of Ebola, this is expected to improve learning achievement in these two core subjects.

The continuous, peer-to-peer support is helping to improve motivation and teaching skills among secondary school teachers. The SSOs bring huge amounts of enthusiasm, guided by qualified consultants. Education isn’t currently viewed as an attractive sector to work in by young people in Sierra Leone, so this incentivised programme aims to draw in talent who will lead the sector in years to come.