Papering Over the Cracks in the System

Trevor Male, Director of the London Centre for Leadership in Learning at University College London, critiques changes to the state funded school system in England.  He presents the background to the challenges school leaders face with regard to issues of social mobility. This discussion reminds me of Raj Chetty’s recent work at the Center for Equality of Opportunity at Stanford.  Paula


Can the changes to the structure of the state-funded school system in England enhance social mobility?

The headline from the most recent state of the nation report on social mobility in the United Kingdom, published at the end of last year, is that there is no overall national strategy to tackle the social, economic and geographical divide that the country faces. The report from the Social Mobility Commission (November 2017)[i] decried a ‘lamentable social mobility track record’ and demonstrated that individual chances for young people to achieve adult success were overly reliant on where they were born or lived. The government response has been to publish a plan for improving social mobility through education[ii]. I will argue in this blog that the ability to enact aspects of that reasonably well funded plan in England may be compromised, however, by changes to the structure of the state-funded school system and because of the motives for bidding for such funds.

Changes to the structure of the school system in England

England has its own school system, which differs in structure from the other three countries that together form the United Kingdom (Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland). Since 2010 there has been a determined attempt by central governments to shift the locus of power and control away from local democratic control in England, mainly through a process of academisation. For those readers not familiar with the notion of an ‘academy’ these are state maintained independent schools which formerly were run by elected local authorities. Following their introduction in 2002 as a designed intervention in parts of the country where schools exhibited chronic student underperformance, they grew steadily in number through the rest of the decade to a total of 207 academies by 2010. [If you want to find out more about the genesis and subsequent growth of academies I refer you to a background briefing paper I published in December, 2017 –].

In 2010, however, we saw a new coalition government formed which demonstrated a determination to turn as many schools as possible into academies under the guise of developing a school-led improvement system. By 2015, and following the election of a Conservative government, the move to academisation was deemed to be the major education policy, with all state-maintained schools expected to become academies by 2020. Whilst this requirement has subsequently been dropped due to there being a less stable Conservative government in power following the 2017 election (triggered by the vote for Brexit in 2016), nevertheless it remains the preferred government outcome for all state maintained schools to become academies. By the beginning of 2018 the number of academies open, or in the pipeline, were just over 8000 out of a total of some 21,000 schools in the country. The number of schools disguises the impact, however, with 65 per cent of secondary schools now being academies. There is a good chance, therefore, that approximately half of the school population is within academies. Whilst those numbers are not clear, what is apparent is that we have a dual system of state funded schools in England, comprising academies and maintained local authority schools.

A lamentable track record on social mobility

Meanwhile, the UK is a deeply divided nation in terms of class, income, gender and race, but the factor receiving greater focus through the work of the Social Mobility Commission is geographic in nature.   Through the application of an index which assesses the education, employability and housing prospects of people living in each of England’s 324 local authority areas it has shown that large parts of the country remain ‘cold spots’ in terms of social mobility, with no evidence of that having changed over previous decades. The most recent report shows five million workers – mainly women – in a low pay trap with only one in six of those workers having managed to find a permanent route out of low pay in the last ten years. At the other end of the labour market professional staff continue to be unrepresentative of the public they serve, with only 6 per cent of doctors, 12 per cent of chief executives and 12 per cent of journalists coming from working-class origins. The Social Mobility Index reveals a growing gulf between major cities (especially London) and towns and other areas that are being left behind economically and socially limited.

The initial government response has been the identification of Opportunity Areas, for which funded strategies have been established[iii]. The 12 areas identified so far are in a variety of settings – rural, historic market towns, post-industrial towns and coastal areas – but all feature a common theme: young people from disadvantaged backgrounds face far higher barriers to improved social mobility than those who grow up in cities and their surrounding area.   The areas most affected can be seen in the following figure:


More funds have now been found since the identification of opportunity areas, however, to expand the response through education. The range of central government grants now available totals c£800m which is being made available to parts of the school system over the next two the three years. Certain conditions are applied to each grant application which are designed to ensure funding is appropriately targeted, but in the main the response to continued disadvantage is to be through school-led improvement mechanisms rather than through the local authorities.

The challenges of addressing social mobility through education

Although there are obvious logistical issues associated with the management of multiple grants, the critical concern is the lack of strategic oversight of the state-funded school system that is a product of successive government policies since the introduction of the Education Reform Act of 1988. Following the second world war there was an intention to establish a social welfare state in the UK which provided health, education and social care to all its citizens. The 1944 Education Act was a part of that overarching policy and set up a national system of education that was to be delivered locally and, originally, through a system of local authorities who were elected democratically. The first break in that pattern of intermediate government was in 1988 when, as part of the legislation, schools in England were given direct control over their student related funding. This process was known as the Local Management of Schools (LMS), with some schools also being allowed to leave local authority control completely and become Grant Maintained Schools (GMS) and receive their school funds directly from central government. What has followed for the next 30 years has been an inexorable erosion of the control and contribution of the local authority to school improvement, coupled with a reduction in their capability to sustain their remaining schools effectively.

This is a significant factor as the 150 local authorities no longer have the capability to be strategic in relation to the support, advice and guidance they give to state-funded schools. The process of academisation has atomised the national system, meaning there is no longer much in the way of local delivery. Instead, a system of Regional School Commissioners (RSC) was established in 2014, with a national commissioner to oversee their work following two years later. There are eight RSCs whose principal job is to coordinate the academies within their region (and across the country), but as things stand until very recently they were the only government mechanism to have any overview of the coherence of the state-funded school system. Clearly the work of 150 local authorities could not be covered by the eight commissioners, so other mechanisms have been devised to provide the necessary strategic management of the school system. We now have 33 sub-regional improvement boards (comprised of RSC, local authorities, diocesan boards and teaching school alliances) which are expected to ensure consistency across their part of country, especially in terms of identifying where support is needed for schools which are not performing to expectations. There has also been the appointment of Regional Directors of Delivery (RDD) from the Department for Education and Coordinators for Opportunity Areas. What is notable is that none of these intermediate government structures have been elected, effectively stifling local democracy. The question that emerges, however, is whether such a system can have any effect on social mobility?

A school led response to social mobility

The direction of travel favoured by the Department for Education and its component parts, such as the RSCs, is to persuade schools to collaborate and federate through the supporting the development of multi-academy trusts (MATs) and teaching school alliances (TSAs). Normally a MAT will have a lead academy which will set up a trust by which all member schools will be governed. Currently these vary in size between a single academy (with permission to expand to become a MAT) to the largest which has 81 schools. The promotion, and to some the extent the management, of academies is a responsibility of the RSCs who are now seeking for MATs to have a local, rather than national, footprint[iv]. Teaching school alliances are normally led by a school deemed ‘outstanding’ which is a designated teaching school (i.e. it can run its own teacher training programmes which lead to recognised professional qualifications). Again, they vary in size, but are more of a soft federation than a formal structure, with each school retaining its own identity and governance structures.

As indicated above, by December 2017 the government had issued a plan for improving social mobility though education with a report entitled ‘Unlocking talent: Fulfilling potential’. This was statement of policy based on the personal statement of Justine Greening, Secretary of State for Education, that “everyone deserves a fair shot in life and a chance to go as far as their hard work and talent can take them”. Whilst this is a laudable ambition it is undermined by two key factors: the (probable) inability of a school-led system to effect endemic improvement in student attainment and achievement and the longevity of government ministers. In fairness to Justine Greening it was not her fault that Theresa May, Prime Minister, decided to remove her from post as part of a government reshuffle triggered by Brexiteers, but it is an example of short-term political gain overcoming a desire for long-term substantive change. The consequence, however, is that the policy may not be championed by the new incumbent who is likely to have other priorities. That accident of political history aside, the fundamental question, remains as to whether the new dual system of state-maintained schools evident in England can deliver on this social mobility agenda.

Can a school-led improvement process lead to systemic change?

The early signs are not promising with evidence of multi-school organisations frequently seeking to address chronic situations by either changing the school population or reducing the intensity of public scrutiny. The most common approach to dealing with challenge in terms of student engagement is to remove them from mainstream schools, either through a process of exclusion or through restructuring of the school federation to relocate students to alternative provision. Exclusions, either permanent or resulting in home education, are rapidly increasing with one local authority (ironically in a ‘cold spot’) reporting a five-fold increase in the last year[v] from a typical figure of 80 to over 400 students.   Another, perhaps more subtle way of avoiding the challenge of overcoming sustained underperformance, and thereby lack of social mobility, is the reorganisation of the multi-school organisation to remove the outcome of some students from the public accountability gaze engendered by the focus on student attainment. In keeping with most countries, especially those seeking valediction of their school system through international league tables such as PISA, England is seemingly obsessed with equating ‘good’ schools with outcomes of student attainment as measured by standard tests. To sustain high proportions of success it is possible for multi-school organisations to remove the scores of lower performing students from their average scores through relocation to other types of provision. New types of schools, created by the Academies Act, 2011, is one such way of shifting the accountability focus.   The introduction of University Technical Colleges (UTCs), for example, could allow for a less scrupulous interpretation than intended by the legislation whereby troublesome teenagers are directed toward vocational education rather than traditional academic qualifications.

The final question that emerges, therefore, is why should any federation of schools wish to engage in improvement activities in the quest to enhance social mobility through education when recent history has shown individual schools and multi-school organisations demonstrating self-interest rather than holistic strategies for equality of opportunity? There is no doubt that the policy of enhancing social mobility through education is clearly an objective underwritten by high moral values, with which few members of the school workforce in England would disagree, but is it likely? It is still much too early to be anything other than cynical at this stage, but early indications from the round of bids that have been submitted for the various funding sources now available show two trends. The first is that the bids are led by the usual suspects, the perennial harvesters of additional funds, and the second is that favoured bids are those that focus on STEM subjects rather than more esoteric aspects of education of a young person that affects their motivation and attitude towards learning. Let us hope my cynicism is unfounded.

Meet Dr. Male




[iv] Some of the early academy chains were entrepreneurial in nature and exhibited a national footprint. These have been seen to be problematic in terms of cohesion and consistency, producing overly demanding managerial responsibilities. Some chains are resizing or regionalising to counter these issues.

[v] The name of the local authority remains anonymous in this paper, but follow-up questions are welcomed from readers.

What Teaching in Jordan Taught Me about Becoming a 21st Century Leader

Guest post from Kelly Lyman who is the Superintendent of Mansfield Public Schools in Connecticut. Through her work as an instructor in the University of Connecticut’s Administrator Preparation Program, Kelly has been supporting school leader development in Jordan.
We hear much today about the importance of preparing our students for a rapidly changing, global world. A world where many of them will be employed in jobs that are not yet invented. We know world conditions necessitate citizens whose skills in communication and critical and creative thinking are more important now than ever. As superintendent, I have been working with my staff to develop our vision of learning for our 21st century children. What I didn’t realize was that I too would be a student of those skills.  In addition to my work as a school leader, I serve as a professor of practice in the Educational Administration department at the University of Connecticut (UCONN). In 2013 UCONN began a partnership with the Jordanian Ministry of Education, the Queen Rania Teacher’s Academy (QRTA), and the University of Jordan to provide advanced training to Jordanian principals. As soon as I heard about the opportunity, I signed on to help develop the program and serve as an instructor to the Jordanians. The program’s foundation is the University of Connecticut’s Administrator Preparation Program, a two year, thirty credit, cohort graduate program for aspiring administrators. The core elements of this graduate program are presented in a four-module sequence to Jordanian public school principals. The course work addresses the Jordanian standards for school leaders and the expectations identified in Jordan’s Continuous Professional Development for Leaders Framework. Each module is taught in a single week with assignments and collaborative experiences as a follow-up. In addition, the program uses a gradual release trainer of trainer model to prepare QRTA staff who will continue the program on their own after year three.
There have been many challenges in this work and I have utilized every one of those 21st century skills that have become part of my district’s vision for learning.  My first challenge was not a surprising one; it was communication. Our UCONN course materials all had to be recreated. We had to meet the standards and expectations of the Jordanian Ministry, we had to design assessments that the University of Jordan would accept as they were providing a certificate to the participants upon completion, and we had to limit our print materials as every reading, every Powerpoint slide, and every handout had to be translated into Arabic.  I learned to be concise and to stay focused on learner outcomes.
But these communication challenges were nothing compared to what I experienced when I arrived in Jordan for the first instructional week. The first cohort of principals were hand selected and identified as some of the best public school principals in the capital area. It was hoped they could manage instruction in English with some support, however, within the first ten minutes it was clear that full translation would be needed. No professional translation services had been secured for this first week so I had to quickly adapt and learn to teach with a QRTA staff member providing side-by-side translation. I would speak a few sentences and then hold my thoughts while the QRTA staffer repeated my words in Arabic. Similarly, when the principals spoke, the QRTA staffer would stand next to me and whisper the words to me in English.   As the week went on, I found there were many phrases and concepts that did not translate well. This certainly caused me to carefully consider the message I wanted to send, to conserve my language, and to listen carefully. I experienced what it meant to communicate, not just across languages, but across cultures.
Kelly Lyman with Jordanian School Leaders
Using critical and creative thinking skills went without saying. Our first challenge was the redesign effort. Together, a group of four instructors, a director, and coach carefully articulated the outcomes we sought, considered the on-going support that could be provided to principals in Jordan, and created a program held together by a clearly articulated logic model, detailed learner outcomes, and practical performance assessments. We learned all we could about the Jordanian education system so that our work fit within their context.
What surprised me most was how this experience stretched my teaching skills. The language barrier meant I was at the mercy of the translators (professional live translation delivered via headsets was provided after that first week’s experience). Gone was the easy give and take of teacher-student interaction and circulating around the room to converse with students required that a translator follow me. I did not always know immediately what the participants were saying in response to my teaching making monitoring and adjusting a much slower process.
My students also wanted to be actively engaged, not just cognitively engaged but physically active. Sitting for more than 15 minutes was met with pleas for “more activities.” Each evening that first year I revamped my plans for the next day, carefully balancing providing foundational information with the request to be active. Strategies to do this came from my observation and analysis of effective instruction in my own schools. My repertoire of effective practices grew as I was determined to provide the Jordanian principals with learning experiences that they could take back to their own schools.
Collaboration was a necessity from the start. Those of us on the American side worked closely with each other as the modules were designed. We traveled with a coach who became our instructional partner.  The coaches, whose primary purpose was training the QRTA instructors, demonstrated the coaching process by coaching us after each day’s instruction. We debriefed after each week of instruction and engaged in a thorough revision after the first year. Collaboration with the Jordanians did not end after the instructional week either. In between we used video conferencing to stay connected, discuss revisions, and review student assignments.
Perhaps the greatest expansion of my own 21st century skills was learning what it means to be a citizen of the world. Jordan was a country I knew little about before this work. I came to understand the challenges this nation and region face in a new way.  The nomadic nature of its indigenous people, the strong identification with tribes that still exists, and the impact of living in a place where water, the most basic of the natural resources is in short supply all took on new meaning.   Jordan has no oil resources.  They are not a wealthy country but they are founded on the belief that people who come from different backgrounds can live together peacefully.  They recognize that with good education they can keep radicalism at bay.  So their public schools accept all students.  For one elementary principal I met that means 1000 students in the first shift and 700 Syrian refugee students in the second shift.  Classrooms of 40 students are the norm beginning in first grade.  English is taught beginning in kindergarten and they devote significant attention to building strong character.  They are facing enormous challenges but they are determined to build a better world for their children while promoting respect and acceptance. The children of Jordan are taught that they hold the future in their hands.
It is this last ideal, the belief that we must educate today’s children to be the stewards of the future, that has taken on new meaning for me. As school leaders in the United States we have an obligation, now more than ever, to instill in our young people an understanding of what it will take to live in harmony with others, with the environment, and with the politics at home and abroad today and tomorrow. I am grateful for the experience of this work and the opportunity to be both a student and a teacher in the 21st century.

Meet Superintendent Lyman

Leading Literacy Learning: Sharing Leadership at its Best

Tony Townsend,  Professor of Educational Leadership, Griffith Institute for Educational Research, Brisbane Australia, writes about an Australian initiative that supports school leaders in playing a key role in improving children’s reading literacy.

Meet Dr. Townsend

We all know that learning to read well is the key to the development of many other skills later on, but how many know that the role that school leaders take in this enterprise can have a massive impact on moving young people from “learning to read” to “reading to learn”?

All of the improvement literature suggests that when it comes to factors involved in improving student learning in schools, what the teacher does in the classroom and the influence of the home environment have the greatest effect sizes of all. A much lesser emphasis is placed on the impact that school leaders can have on achievement. In fact, it has been documented that the direct effects that school leaders have on student achievement is limited to somewhere between 5 and 15%. So, whenever a focus is put on improving student learning in a specific curriculum area, most of the emphasis is placed on changing what teachers do in classrooms by improving teaching practices, assessment practices, improving student-teacher relationships, and so on.

However, the indirect impact that principals, and other school leaders, can have on student learning in these curriculum areas is an important, although an often-neglected factor. School leaders are a key to many things, to school culture, to where resources are directed, to communicating and involving the community outside the school, and to monitoring teaching practices. So, when we see that the two main factors in improving student learning and the classroom and the home, the principal is the major link between the two.

The Australian government recognised the importance of this link when it decided to fund a pilot study called Principals as Literacy Leaders (PALL) in 2009. The research had suggested that, although overall Australia had performed quite well on international comparative studies such as PISA, TIMSS and PIRLS, there was quite a gap between those doing well and those doing not so well, sometimes up to three or four years in the same classroom. Through its “Closing the Gap” initiative, the government funded 43 different projects designed to improve the performance of students in literacy and numeracy. Forty-two of those projects were aimed at classrooms and teachers specifically and only one, PALL, looked at the broader canvas of the school and its community.

The PALL program is a two-year development program for school leaders designed to provide principals (in particular) and also other literacy leaders in the school with knowledge and skill development related to taking a leading role in improving children’s reading ability. It argues that the responsibility for leading learning must be taken by the principal and can’t be passed off to someone else. What school leaders do is critical to improving reading learning for students and the school principal is the key leader of the initiative. The purpose of the first year of the program is to develop an intervention plan that considers a particular aspect of reading improvement for a particular group or groups of students (for instance, improving oral language for junior school students). The intervention plan will then be implemented in the subsequent year. The program has five modules, two in term one (on two consecutive days) and one in each of the other three school terms. After each of the module sessions school leaders are expected to take what was learned back to their school, work with staff and the school community and then bring what they have learned from this process back to the following module.

Module 1 focuses on what constitutes effective leadership in a world where change is a constant and introduces participants to what is called the Leadership for Learning Blueprint. Module 2 recognises the argument that school leaders must have content knowledge about the discipline they are leading and outlines evidence-based research about the effective teaching and learning of reading and they are introduced to the BIG 6 of reading; early oral language experiences, phonological awareness, letter-sound knowledge, vocabulary, fluency and comprehension. Module 3 examines the different forms of data necessary for leaders to understand the factors in schools which are influential in supporting literacy learning and exposes principals to data analysis and use in establishing priorities for reading interventions with their teachers, which is then picked up in Module 4 which examines the actions school leaders need to take to plan and implement effective literacy interventions, particularly those in reading. Module 5 then prepares school leaders to examine changes in literacy teaching and learning and to develop their capability to lead the evaluation of literacy interventions in their schools.

Modules 1 and 2 are conducted on two consecutive days in term 1, and Modules 3-5 are conducted in terms 2, 3 and 4. In between each of the modules, a series of tasks is undertaken back at the school, based on what was learned in each of the modules and leading towards a fully developed intervention plan to be implemented in the subsequent year.

Since 2010 more than 2000 school leaders from across Australia have participated in the Principals as Literacy Leaders (PALL) program and there have now been seven research studies related to the implementation of the PALL program to identify its efficacy and to look at its effect on leader and teacher behaviours as they relate to the teaching of reading. Four of these studies were quantitative in nature, one from the original pilot project, others from cohorts supported by the South Australian and Tasmanian Departments of Education and a fourth that focused particularly on leadership of reading within Indigenous communities. Three other studies were qualitative and collected data, initially in 2014 through case study research of five Tasmanian and four Victorian schools where the leader had completed PALL in the previous year, together with a subsequent study in 2016 of five Victorian schools, three of which had previously been involved in the earlier case studies. The results of the first six of these studies were compiled into the Springer published book Leadership and Literacy: Principals, Partnerships and Pathways to Improvement (Dempster, et al., 2017). Some key outcomes from PALL have been:

  • The PALL project has assisted school leaders by developing and honing their skills to more effectively support and guide teachers in regard to orchestrating curriculum development and monitoring learning and teaching practice.
  • The BIG 6 is seen, by both school leaders and teachers, as being a powerful organizing framework for teaching and learning in reading.
  • The overall organization of reading activity, including data analysis, changed teaching practices, focused curriculum and assessment activity, higher levels of engagement and students being more articulate in talking about how they learn, is starting to pay off. Schools are now able to document improvements in children’s achievement in both school-based and standardised assessments.
  • Similar to previous research, parent and community support was the area in which principals reported they most struggled.

PALL continues to support school leaders to improve reading in their schools. In 2018, nearly 300 participants, in 3 cohorts from Tasmania and 2 cohorts from South Australia, will complete the PALL program. Since principals and other school leaders are the key to connections between what happens in classrooms and families all around the world, a program like PALL is worth considering in countries where trying to improve literacy skills is a priority. The program is inexpensive to run and focuses on the context of each school by supporting schools to use their data, their resources and the power of shared leadership as a strategy for improving the life opportunities for their students.

More information on the PALL program can be obtained from Tony at


Dempster, N., Townsend, T., Johnson, G., Bayetto, A., Lovett, S. & Stevens, E. (2017) Leadership and Literacy: Principals, Partnerships and Pathways to Improvement. Springer, Cham, Switzerland, 209pp.

Girls’ Education Goes Beyond Getting Girls into School

Since we’re launching this website on International Women’s Day, I’d like to take you on a field trip to two schools for girls in two sub-Saharan nations.  I’m on leave from the University of San Diego and I’ve been assisting a few NGOs that work in low and middle-income nations. Working with these NGOs allows me the opportunity to visit many schools and those schools serving only girls intrigue me.

I’ve selected two different but compelling examples of schools offering far more that only access to an education for girls; one school was founded by a couple from the US working in Kenya (Daraja Academy) and the second (F-SHAM of Faith Girls’ Academy) was founded by five Liberian women.

First, a little background on Girls Education…

In spite of the gains made in education with the 2000-2015 Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and now with the 2016-2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), millions of girls around the world are still being denied an education. According to the Global Partnership for Education (2015) an estimated 131 million girls worldwide are out of school and face multiple barriers to education. This includes 32.4 million girls of primary school age, 29.8 million girls of lower secondary school age, and 68.7 million girls of upper secondary school age.

Development economist William Easterly’s book The White Man’s Burden comes to mind. Although it was written in 2007, his opening description from a BBC broadcast of a 10-year old girl named Amaretch reminds me of how things have still not changed for many children. Amaretch woke up at 3 am to spend the day collecting eucalyptus branches and leaves to use as firewood; yet she dreamed of going to school instead. Poverty remains the most important factor for determining whether a girl can access an education. Other barriers include cultural norms and practices, distance to school, school-related gender-based violence and early or forced marriage. Yet, we know that keeping girls in school and ensuring they can learn in a safe and supportive environment leads to many benefits for the girls themselves, their families, their communities and their nations.

F-SHAM of Faith Girls Academy, Monrovia Liberia 6° 16′ 60.00″ N 10° 42′ 59.99″ W

School leader Sarah Taylor welcomes families to an F-SHAM school event.

“Women have to be educated…we have to put more of our time in investing our resources in educating young girls.” Sarah Taylor, principal

 F-SHAM is an unusual name for a school. It refers to the first letter of the names of the five women who were the founders: Fannie, Sarah, Helen, Alitha, and Mildred. Towards the end of a particularly brutal fourteen-year civil war in Liberia, these five women founded the school in the Paynesville section of Monrovia. Their goal was to empower girls through skills training. This low-fee private school began with 135 girls in pre-school through fifth grade. By 2008 F-SHAM was educating girls through senior high school grades. Today the school has nearly 450 girls and 54 staff members. F-SHAM offers a high school curriculum that prepares girls for college and also offers skills training that includes information technology (they have a solar-powered lab), baking, sewing, and cosmetology. Information technology is compulsory for all students and after seventh grade the girls can choose to specialize in one of the other three areas. Parents told me they appreciate the school because it is all-girls, offers skills training which will make their daughters more employable, has strong academics and is a safe and supportive environment.

Daraja Academy,   Nanyuki Kenya 0.0074° N, 37.0722° E 

Daraja means bridge in Swahili and was founded by Jenni and Jason Dougherty. I’ll never forget the day in 2008 when this young couple from the Bay Area came into my office and said they were starting a boarding school for high school girls in Kenya. I asked ‘Why girls?’ and they had all the right answers. Daraja, now in its tenth year, is providing an amazing education for approximately 120+ young women.

This photo shows a group of Daraja girls learning life skills in their Transition Program. This is a short gap-year program between the end of high school and college or work. Students learn life and job skills, sex education, and leadership skills. “Daraja is in the business of educating leaders”

Daraja is one of the only tuition-free, and non-religious secondary schools for girls in sub-Saharan Africa. The school has many unique features, including staff traveling all over the country to conduct interviews with prospective students. As I write this post, the school is sending out 340 letters of regret since Daraja has only thirty available seats for the incoming freshman class. The school’s educational model combines a traditional Kenyan curriculum with innovative teaching practices, including project-based learning (PBL), research field trips, community partnerships and service learning. A particularly unique aspect of Daraja is a girl’s empowerment curriculum called: Women of Integrity, Strength and Hope (WISH). I wish all girls in Kenya could have a Daraja education!

A commonality among Daraja and F-SHAM is their founders’ recognition that many girls in sub-Saharan African nations are not graduating from secondary school and many are not even entering. So, these school leaders created a learning environment that has the following components:

• Girls feel safe while in school;

• They provide proper sanitation facilities and private, safe places to study;

• The curriculum encourages them to make decisions about their own lives;

• They are supported throughout their schooling so that they acquire the skills necessary to effectively compete in the labor market;

• The schools provide opportunities to learn the socio-emotional and life skills necessary to navigate and adapt to this changing world; and,

• The curriculum provides opportunities for the girls to contribute to their communities and the world.

Both schools have had amazing success. Their attendance, retention and graduation rates are high, and dozens of girls have already obtained good jobs or entered higher education. And the leadership provided by the founders of these schools and in particular by the principals—the instructional leaders–Sarah Taylor principal of F-SHAM and Victoria Gichuhi, principal at Daraja, has been key!

There has been a lot of progress in low and middle-income countries in ensuring primary education, but secondary education still remains elusive for millions of children, particularly girls. Both F-SHAM and Daraja are providing remarkable opportunities for young women who may never have attended secondary school if these two schools did not exist. There are a growing number of other schools for girls in Africa as well. I could have taken you on a field trip to Gashora Girls Academy of Science and Technology – a boarding school in Rwanda whose motto is: “Educate a Girl. Inspire a Community. Transform a Nation”.  Or, the low-fee private school,  College de Jeunes Filles de Loumbila, a boarding school founded in 1963 for girls in junior and senior high school in Burkina Faso.

If you’d like to learn more about the amazing women who have founded schools in sub-Saharan Africa, my colleague Corinne Brion and I recently published an article entitled  Women School Leaders: Entrepreneurs in Low Fee Private Schools in Three West African Nations 

We know that better educated women tend to marry at a later age, have fewer children, be healthier, participate more in the formal labor market, and achieve higher standards of living. All these factors combined can help lift households, communities, and nations out of poverty. As Erna Solberg, the Prime Minister of Norway said:  “When you invest in a girl’s education, she feeds herself, her community and her nation.”

These two outstanding schools would not be so successful without the principals who are committed to the school’s vision and provide the instructional supports necessary so teachers can excel. Daraja and F-SHAM are very special learning environments for girls. I wish Ethiopia had had schools like this for Amaretch.

UntitledYou really should consider taking a field trip and visiting Daraja and F-SHAM sometime!