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Perivoli Schools Trust’s approach is to show nursery school teachers the importance of play, which is not well understood in an African context where parents tend to outsource education to teachers who are invariably untrained.

Successfully running a charity in Africa with digital

In this article I want to explain how my UK registered charity operates to run a nursery school teacher education programme in countries across Sub-Saharan Africa. I will discuss the methods we use to achieve the otherwise daunting task of tackling a huge problem on a highly controlled basis incorporating effective performance and governance.

Let me first explain the scale of the challenge we have to meet so you can appreciate how adroitly we are doing so.

Problem of nursery education

Population numbers in many African countries are doubling every eight or so years. Indeed, the continent is forecast to account for over 40% of the global population by the end of the decade from 17% currently.

It’s not clear that this will come to pass given the implications of climate change, particularly on Sub-Saharan Africa. But, if it does, this magnitude of population growth is likely to impose a great strain on natural resources, food availability and employment opportunities in the area.

Statistics show that a girl in Africa who can read has two children, whereas a girl who can’t has five. It is clear that education must play a big part in addressing the increasing demographic burden; and, in particular, nursery school education.

Increasing demographic burden

UNESCO estimates that 42% of children will drop out of education before completing primary school. That number rises to almost 60% by the end of secondary education. Each year, over 10% of children are required to repeat a year and only 9% of school children in Namibia end up reaching university.

The challenge is that children appear to be poorly equipped for primary education on account of inadequate stimulation in their early years. For those who attend nursery school the lack of trained teachers and resources means that they get sub-optimal benefit from the experience.

Governments recognise the problem but, it being a fragmented and hard to reach sector, appear to struggle to come up with viable solutions against competing demands for their scarce financial resources.

As a result early childhood development (ECD) receives very little attention. In Namibia, for example, the authorities spend only USD 20 on ECD per child versus the USD 1,000 spent per child on primary and secondary education.

Affordable and scalable model

I founded the Perivoli Schools Trust in 2012 with the aim of finding an affordable and scalable model to address the problem. I came to understand that building schools and equipping them with materials and toys wouldn’t work. It was hard to find qualified teachers and the toys walked out of the door.

But after a while I hit on a model that focuses on training teachers rather than building buildings. A training model is very much more scalable as trained people can train others and it doesn’t matter if they move about. But given the scale of the challenge - there are an estimated 1.2 million nursery school teachers in the ten countries of sub-Saharan Africa we aim to address - it needs to be affordable.

Our approach is to show nursery school teachers the importance of play, which is not well understood in an African context where parents tend to outsource education to teachers who are invariably untrained - with many not having had a formal education themselves.

The simplest way to describe our training programme is that it’s a sort of “Blue Peter on steroids”. In essence, we show the teachers how to make educational activities out of recyclable materials, encourage them to be creative in this respect; and we show them how to organise their classrooms for the benefit of the children.

Just by using bottle tops, empty bottles, egg trays, empty cans, loo rolls, seed pods, spent yoghurt cartons, cardboard, old clothes, sheets of discarded paper and shop posters one can come up with a toy shop, matching puzzles, a reading corner, a dressing up box, a nature corner, a pretend kitchen, a music corner etc.

The materials cost nothing and the teachers take great pleasure and pride in equipping their classrooms which are otherwise invariably threadbare. They love to compare notes with ideas that they have come up with; and the toys do not walk out of the door as nobody wants to steal an empty Coke bottle or a used loo roll.

The children like to collect items to bring to school, make choices as to which activity to get involved in, learn to take turns and allow their imaginations to stretch.

How it works

We rely on trainers - we call them Perivoli Trainers - and now have almost 200 in our service. They are assigned to train groups of up to 25 nursery school teachers at a time, drawn from the locality where they live so they are already part of the community.

They deliver 16 training modules to the group over a two year period which shows the teachers the importance of play and how to stimulate various aspects of a child’s development. An individual trainer might be running two to three groups in parallel, i.e. interacting with as many as 75 nursery school teachers.

In between modules, the trainers run support groups where the teachers come together to exchange experiences and show to each other some of the items they have made for, and with, the children in their classes. These events engender a sense of community and shared experience, as being a nursery school teacher can be a lonely activity.

An essential part of the programme are the class visits. The trainers visit teachers in their classrooms once a month in the first year, and once every second month in the second year, to help with the implementation of the programme and to track how teachers are performing.

These visits are an opportunity for one-on-one attention and are invariably the only in-class support a teacher ever gets. Consequently, they are much valued and a strong relationship develops between trainer and teacher.

The aim is for each classroom to end up with twelve so-called Perivoli Corners - areas of play activities. We measure a teacher’s progress according to the rate at which they have established these corners.

Once a teacher has completed the two year training programme they are invited to attend a graduation ceremony where they are awarded a Perivoli Certificate. This is invariably a moving event with teachers turning up in gowns and singing songs. It is often the first time they have ever enjoyed formal recognition.

After graduation, we make sure to retain contact with teachers through so-called maintenance class visits, which take place on a termly basis. This allows us to continue to keep a watchful eye on the teachers, help them as needs be and offer further instruction. For example, recently we have introduced a programme whereby the trainers show cartoons to the children on their tablet computers.

Original model still going

We started in Namibia with the originl model in 2013, where we have now trained the vast majority of the country’s nursery school teachers, then began in Malawi in 2018, where we have reached about 15%, and Zambia in 2019; and will be launching in Uganda and Botswana in 2022 still with the same model.

We have Tanzania, Burundi, Zimbabwe, Angola and Mozambique all in our sights. In total, we have trained over 10,000 teachers already and target reaching 200,000 over the coming ten years.

Our only costs are the amounts we pay our trainers: USD 30 for a module delivered, USD 15 for running a support group, and USD 10 per class visit (plus travel costs). Our trainers make between USD 250 to 300 per month, a reasonably high number in a local context, which is why they have tended to stay with us over many years.

On the assumption that there are 25 children in a classroom (invariably there are many more) the programme costs only about USD 3 per child per annum.

Our management structure

Our trainers are organised in teams of four or five which report to a regional coordinator who keeps an eye on them, directs them and verifies their activities.

The regional coordinators report to three or four senior regional coordinators per country who report to the CEO team, a husband-wife combo, Maya Kufuwa and Titan Madomba, who happen to be based in Malawi but who oversee all countries from there.

Maya and Titan report to me as Programme Director. I visit the region frequently (about three or four times a year pre-Covid) to visit schools, assess progress, meet ministry officials and develop plans for launching in additional countries. Beyond me, everybody else involved is local from within Africa.

Strong digital backbone

One of the greatest assets we have is our strong digital backbone. This has been purposely designed by us for our requirements. It was built by a firm based in Malawi and has cost over £150,000 to customise and roll out.

Each trainer is equipped with a tablet computer with which they are required to record information about the teachers and children at each of their interactions. For example, at a class visit, the trainer would record which children attend and track how the teachers are progressing with establishing the Perivoli Corners.

The data is held in a central database made available to the regional coordinators. They use the information to direct trainers to provide more support to teachers making the least progress with implementing the Perivoli Corners. The tablets are fitted with geo-location capabilities. Any data entry that was not entered from the location of the school in question is flagged up which helps to ensure that class visits do actually take place as reported.

The database is also used to measure the regional coordinators’ effectiveness, with the possibility of six-monthly bonuses dependent on the overall performance of their T trainers.

Real time data helps me keep an eye on our progress in terms of the number of teachers in the programme, numbers of class visits and numbers of children addressed. For example, in 2021, and despite the disruption of Covid resulting in some schools not opening, the tablets allow me to see, at a glance, that we interacted with 5,883 nursery school teachers in 2,988 schools and undertook 23,177 class visits across three countries - Namibia, Malawi and Zambia.

The existence of the database ought to make it possible to scale to the 200,000 teachers that we target over time.

Governance and stakeholders

We take governance very seriously. We seek the consent of all stakeholders at all times. This means requesting the trainers, the nursery school teachers and the parents or guardians of the children to sign consent forms. This is not strictly speaking necessary under local laws but we set ourselves UK-level GDPR standards. We already have in our database photographs of over 32,000 consent forms.

We also interact with local government ministries. This means both the Ministries of Gender and Child Welfare, who have oversight over very young children, and the Ministries of Education, who overlook five-year-olds upwards. The fact that ECD falls under the auspices of two separate ministries explains, in part, why these countries tend to struggle with ECD.

Before commencing our work in a given country we always establish a local charity within which to house it. This can be an arduous and costly process but helps us to be taken seriously. We like to invite local government officials to hand out the Perivoli Certificates at the graduation ceremonies.

Funding and venture capital

The Perivoli Schools Trust has been funded hitherto by the Perivoli Trust which I established in 1999, following the gifting of my stake in an investment management firm that I had co-founded in 1996 called Arisaig Partners. My job as an emerging markets fund manager took me around the world including to Africa where I began to see at close quarters some of the challenges the continent faces.

In 2016, a new trust was established called Perivoli Innovations which invests in early stage, venture capital type opportunities in medical, life science, digital and climate change focused technologies. I advise the trustees in selecting investment candidates. Most are spin-outs from UK universities but some are located in Africa.

Profits from this trust will go towards funding the Perivoli Schools Trust in due course. Over 50 investments have been made to date with many showing strong early promise. Indeed two have already exited profitably. So I am hopeful that there will be ample resources to fund the programme over the foreseeable future without needing to resort to third party support.

I have no doubt from my visits to the region and many days spent visiting nursery schools - I must have visited well over one hundred - that the Perivoli Schools Trust has a very positive impact. It seems to be much appreciated by our trainers, the nursery school teachers and the parents of the children.

Impact assessment

That said, I wish for a more formal measure to assess its impact. As our database records which primary school each child goes onto from nursery school, we are able to track the children as they progress through their education. We have been given permission by Ministries of Education to do just that, although this process has been set back by Covid.

I’m keen also to see the programme’s impact assessed by a third party. So, we are in the process of commissioning a study by the University of Bristol in combination with the University of Namibia to assess its impact in that country. I’m hoping it will report its findings by early 2023.


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