A public-private partnership is changing Liberia's education system – despite poverty, pandemic and civil war.
If one had set foot in Malema, Liberia in August of 2016, one would have been at a loss to identify the local school. The building serving as the schoolhouse was dilapidated and desolate; no sounds of children at play were emanating from the schoolyard; the classrooms were devoid of teaching materials; and only two staff members remained at the school. Fewer than 50 children were officially enrolled, a number that should have been four times higher. Of those enrolled, most had given up on attending school, as there was rarely someone present to teach them. Children were afraid of being beaten if they produced the wrong answer. The Malema community had lost all confidence in the school’s ability to educate its children.
The Malema school is one of thousands of public schools that were utterly ravaged during Liberia’s recent history of conflict and disease. 14 years of civil conflict, lasting until 2016, shattered the country’s education system by destroying 80% of all school infrastructure.
The Ebola epidemic, which gripped the country from 2014 to 2015 and took more than 200,000 lives, exacerbated the country’s dire educational prospects. In 2016, less than 40% of children were attending primary school and more than 80% of all schoolchildren were too old for their grade. Only one out of five girls in fifth grade could read a full sentence. The years of civil conflict and the Ebola epidemic had decimated infrastructure, left the economy in shambles and broken Liberia’s education system.
In 2016, in order to improve the quality of primary and pre-primary education in government schools, the Ministry of Education decided to transform Liberia’s education system through the “Liberia Education Advancement Program” (LEAP) , a public-private partnership (PPP). The Ministry of Education selected several successful non-state school operators to run 93 government schools. Under this arrangement, government teachers provide free education in collaboration with both non-profit and for-profit school operators.
The PPP model allows operators to apply their proven, effective education strategies in public schools. Some of the strategies are as straightforward as identifying the need for government to renovate facilities, ensuring that teachers show up to class and conducting regular learning progress checks. The non-state operators’ structured and innovative systems have allowed the Ministry of Education to analyze cost/benefit ratios, as it works towards instituting an effective and affordable public education system.
From the beginning, the program’s funders, among them LGT Venture Philanthropy (VP), ensured that the partnership was based on the condition that government increase domestic funding towards public primary education in Liberia. The goal was to increase the amount of spending by USD 50 per student per year. Currently, the government spends USD 50 per child per year and has committed to increase this figure to USD 100 over time.
The PPP model has allowed public schools to innovate and optimize learning outcomes. James Bradley, Managing Director at Rising Academies Liberia, one of LEAP’s most successful operators, explains Rising Academies’ new system of measuring student learning, which the provider developed and fine-tuned during the last two years: Over the course of two weeks, Rising Academies sends out a team of 13 staff to administer a learning check at each of their 95 schools. By providing real-time, detailed comparisons, “those quick assessments tell us a huge amount about how a school is doing, how the students are performing on particular objectives, what kind of training the teachers might need and a great deal more. There are so many factors that drive learning outcomes, and we want to identify and analyze each one of them.”
Bradley emphasizes the importance of regularly administering these checks, so as to continuously optimize learning outcomes at each individual school. “We want to find a way to get information quickly and frequently enough to be able to course correct as we go along. It’s not enough to just find out about large gaps in student learning at the end of the year.” The Ministry of Education analyzes which LEAP innovations have the highest impact and best cost-benefit ratio, and chooses which mechanism should be rolled out, not only to all LEAP schools, but all public primary schools nationwide. Some of the LEAP innovations, which are now embedded throughout Liberia’s public primary education system, include a stronger emphasis on gender equity within schools, full-day instruction and labor reforms to ensure all teachers are on the government payroll.
LEAP has witnessed substantial growth over the past four years. Today, there are 323 LEAP schools in Liberia, compared with 93 at the start of the program. 65,713 pupils were enrolled in LEAP schools during the 2019-2020 school year, which is a material increase from the 27,000 in 2016.
In 2019, LEAP conducted a randomized control trial (RCT) to test the performance of each operator. Among the well-performing operators, students progressed twice as fast as children in comparable government schools. Children enrolled in LEAP schools were learning 60% more than their peers in purely public institutions. Attendance for students was far greater in LEAP schools than in standard public schools and LEAP students spent nearly an hour more on academics each school day compared to their peers at other institutions. The results also showed that teachers were devoting 73% of class time to academics, which is more than the 60% in comparative countries.
While the RCT confirmed the strengths of a subset of operators, it also flagged flaws in certain operators’ methods, such as cost inefficiencies and continuing instances of corporal punishment. Addressing the results of the RCT, Bradley explains: “At the time of the RCT, we were not hitting the USD 100 per student target we were given, as it was difficult to be cost efficient at such a small scale. Now that we have 95 schools, compared to the 29 at the start, we have been reaching that target. We needed some economies of scale to reduce our cost.”
Another critique of the public-private partnership model is that it creates a system within a system, a network of public schools detached from the wider education structure. Despite LEAP schools being tuition-free and teacher salaries being paid by the government, critics of the PPP model argue that this could lead to a two-tier system, with non-state school operators threatening the future of public education. Bradley defends the program against these detractors: “In 2016, the Liberian public education system was left in shambles. Something radically different needed to happen to change the situation. LEAP brought in the providers with expertise and gave them a license to innovate and show what could be done with increased funding through philanthropic capital. Over time, this approach has proven to be effective and successful.”
One of the biggest criticisms of the program after the RCT was the lack of safeguarding protocols in LEAP schools. Since then, the program’s safeguarding innovations, such as teacher and administrator training, reporting mechanisms for suspected cases of abuse and community outreach, have not only been applied at LEAP institutions, but also at non-LEAP public schools nationwide. A 2020 survey of principals from 234 LEAP schools showed that 82% had a child protection policy in place and 99% had provided safeguard training to their teachers.
LEAP’s successful and agile response to the Covid-19 crisis accentuated and solidified the effectiveness of the public-private-partnership model. LEAP program operators, core funders, and local and national government had to work together closely to find solutions to the obstacles the pandemic created, thereby accelerating the efficiency and effectiveness of the existing collaboration.
Bradley emphasizes the importance of the partnership between government and operators: “We have worked to build a close relationship with the Ministry of Education over the past four years – local education officials have really been able to make things happen in the schools.” Just a month after schools closed, the first lessons were aired on Liberia’s radio, as part of the program’s TeachByRadio distance learning solution, which turned out to be so successful that it has been established as a complementary tool to the standard public education system.
Bradley underscores the involvement of Rising Academies and other operators in the Covid-19 response: “Not only could we contribute to the national response through teaching-by-radio, we also put a huge amount of energy into keeping our presence in the communities, visiting the schools, talking to parents, school leaders and community leaders, providing WASH materials for support and providing home study packs.” LEAP’s function as a key partner to the Ministry of Education during the pandemic confirmed its legitimacy as a national education program.
Since the beginning of their engagement in 2017, LGT VP has been one of LEAP’s main funders. The foundation has provided the program with USD 5.3m in grants. With these grants, LGT VP has financed operating costs, COVID response mechanisms, independent impact evaluations and professional fund management. As one of the first and largest funders, LGT VP took a strong leadership role early on in the program, facilitating the collaboration of all stakeholders, improving communication among operators and pushed the program’s fundraising efforts.
Bradley praises LGT VP’s work: “I cannot speak any more highly of the support LGT VP has shown us and the faith they have put in us from the start. In addition to providing us with financial support, they have been a crucial friend and thought partner, asking us the tough questions at the right moments.” Tom Kagerer, Investment Director at LGT VP, adds that the foundation’s value-add for the program lies in their connection to a wider audience: “The critiques were dominating the conversation at the start of the program, and our engagement helped to change the public perception of LEAP. Through support of LEAP, we’ve been able to effect systemic change in Liberia. With our engagement, we want to create enough scale, visibility, cost efficiency and evidence so that larger bi- and multilateral funders like USAID, the EU and the World Bank are attracted to the program and make it a more sustainably funded program.”
LGT VP recently decided to provide an additional USD 2m to the program. LEAP used the money to expand by 9%, from 297 to 323 schools, to support the Ministry of Education’s plan to have 500 LEAP-managed educational institutions. Ultimately, LGT VP wants to help LEAP transition from a philanthropically funded program to engaging in a PaymentByResult funding mechanism with a larger entity such as USAID.
Since 2016, Rising Academies’ engagement has transformed the school in Malema. Enrollment has more than doubled and corporal punishment has been entirely eliminated. Water and sanitation facilities have been fully modernized, and there are enough chairs and learning materials in the classrooms for every single student. The school day now runs until 3pm, to ensure that children spend sufficient time engaged in learning. Eight fully qualified teachers walk the halls of the school, instilling in their pupils a sense of curiosity – and the stepping stones of opportunity.
LGT Venture Philanthropy (LGT VP) is an independent charitable foundation striving to improve the quality of life of disadvantaged people, contribute to healthy ecosystems, and build resilient, inclusive, and prosperous communities. LGT VP deploys philanthropic capital to organizations with effective, innovative, and scalable solutions to social and environmental challenges, thus directly contributing to the Sustainable Development Goals. The foundation primarily supports organizations based in emerging markets, focusing on high-impact sectors, including education, health, and environment. LGT VP is the venture philanthropy arm of LGT Group.