Global Schools Forum: Networking, Dialogue, and Growth for Non-State School Organizations around the Globe

Global Schools Forum (GSF) is committed to strengthening the education sector by working with non-state organizations in developing countries that are serving children from low income backgrounds. Morty Ballen and Aashti Zaidi shared with us how they became involved in this work, found each other their “work soulmate,” and what is coming next for GSF. This is their story:

Aashti: I started working in international education after I graduated from college. I have experience working in a range of organizations – bilateral and multilateral agencies, including UK Department of International Development and the World Bank, non-governmental organizations, research firms, private foundations, and finally establishing and growing Global Schools Forum.

It was while I was working in India, supporting large government programs in primary and secondary education, that I started becoming aware of the increasing role of the non-state sector. At that time, about 1/3 of kids in India from all socioeconomic backgrounds were in private education or non-state education. Shortly after leaving DFID, I began working for a private foundation called the Children’s Investment Fund Foundation, where our focus was on early childhood education. At the moment, provision in these early years is primarily provided by the private sector, and as a result, I found myself interacting with organizations and individuals that were doing tremendous work to provide quality education to kids from disadvantaged backgrounds. 

It was from this foundation that GSF was born about 2.5 years ago–recognizing that the non-state education was a growing sector (1,500,000+ schools globally) and that no organization existed at a global level to bring together mission aligned organizations that were focused on providing quality opportunities for these kids. GSF’s focus is to bring together a wide array of non-state actors, including for profit, not for profit, NGO, community, and faith-based schools as well as intermediary organizations who support non-state schools to improve their quality through training or financing. We really see ourselves as kind of an umbrella organization that is trying to bring together all these players and enable them to collaborate and problem solve as a collective. To date, we have 49 members which collectively run or support over 17,000 schools.

Morty: My background is as a teacher. I taught in Louisiana, South Africa, and New York City in under-resourced communities and met really great, inquisitive, and curious kids and families who want the best for their children. However, I wasn’t always teaching in schools where the adults were on the same page and held high expectations. So I earned my principal’s license here in New York City and instead of becoming a principal in a traditional public school, I started Explore Charter School a K-8 academy.  Our mission was – and continues to be – to provide students with the academic skills and critical-thinking abilities they need to succeed in a college-prep high school. I ran that for about six years and then in 2008 we expanded to a network of 8 schools serving 2000 K-8 graders. About a year ago, I was ready for my next professional adventure and heard about GSF. I was curious if what I had experienced with Explore was transferable to folks doing the same work globally and I was curious what I could I learn from individuals starting non-state schools and non-state school systems. I reached out to Aashti and asked her if I could help; from there, she invited me to attend their annual meeting in Nairobi last May. I helped facilitate a session and I was really struck by the curiosity, passion, humility of their members who were working to improve leadership, teacher retention, school quality, and parent engagement. I became really excited by GSF’s mission, and decided to jump on board to help create content to support their members.

Aashti: While Morty has only been with us for a short time, he has been really intentional and has taken the time to speak to every single one of our members to understand what their needs and challenges are, and how we as a global organization might be able to ease some of those pain points for them. These efforts have really transformed us as an organization moving towards more holistic support that currently focuses on three main areas:

  1. Talent: How do you recruit, develop, and hold on to talented teachers? And how do you create a leadership pipeline to support organizational growth? 
  2. Early Childhood Education: How can I learn more about how to deliver quality education in the foundational years? What should I focus on and how should I assess the outcomes?

3.  Organizational culture: What kind of culture am I creating with my organization   and how does that culture propel our respective mission and vision?

The idea behind our upcoming South Africa convening on Feb 17-19, 2020 is that it is just one point in kind of a yearlong set of virtual and face-to-face activities that weave in one or more of these concepts. It will be a space where our members can engage with each other and external experts on a series of different events and opportunities.  

Morty: We want to provide our members with opportunities to build connections and share best practices because there are 101 solutions that emerge from their day-to-day efforts. On the first day we will be doing school visits, observing what our members are doing in their schools and creating space for dialogue, framing those visits around this idea of teacher and leader retention. From those site visits we will pipe in what the research says, building upon pre-readings focused on talent. On one of the evenings we will have a celebration panel where South African teachers can speak to their experiences grounded in the geographic context in order for attendees to have a deeper understanding of the South African educational context. Our members are really curious as to what it means to run a set of schools in South Africa and how this might be different from running a school or set of schools in their respective countries.

We are also making sure to invite intermediaries to the table that work with non-state sector schools. For example, there are intermediaries which support sole proprietor schools with their approach to teacher coaching; others support from a lending or micro finance perspective.

Aashti: An important part of the next phase for GSF is working towards being able to differentiate our membership offers for our different types of members. For example, we have some who run schools in the thousands whereas others might have three or four schools or just one–it can’t really be a one size fits all approach. A key part of this work though is also about leveraging the knowledge and experience that resides within our members and even finding ways to compensate or monetize them sharing their expertise with the rest of our network.

This is all a work in progress and as a young organization our team’s leadership style is to make sure we always see ourselves as a learning organization. We’re not afraid to acknowledge that we could have done something differently and better and we’re constantly learning from those mistakes and are always iterating and looking for answers and collaborations that can help our members.

Morty: We also have a strong organizational culture that values inclusivity in conversations and debate to get to the best idea. That coupled with a shared passion to help and support our members has led us to the success we have had thus far.

Aashti: In general, we are very excited about the idea of adding new members and expanding our impact, so if there are any organizations that would like to learn more, please contact us! While we have not charged any fees to date, we will be rolling out a membership fee structure in September 2020 that will be tiered based on the organization’s size. However, we don’t want the cost to be a barrier to entry, and we want to work with individuals to get it right across all country contexts. 

We look forward to hearing how the South Africa convening goes and to following their efforts. We are so glad Morty and Aashti found their “work soulmate” and are bringing this connection to help schools all around the world.

Thanks for reading!

Maxie and Paula