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Bridge 246Creating a world where every child can access education 

From a keynote by Dr Shannon May, Chief Strategy and Development Officer and Co-Founder, Bridge International Academies

Dr Shannon May, Chief Strategy and Development Officer and Co-Founder, Bridge International Academies gave a keynote address at Business Fights Poverty NYC 2019. She told of her journey from being a teacher 15 years ago in the US and China to founding Bridge, the largest network of technology-enabled nursery and primary schools in Africa and Asia.

With a mission to help create a world where every child can access the life-changing education they deserve, Shannon recognised that often the key barrier is not a lack of infrastructure, but continuous and rigorous support for teachers. Since 2007, Bridge has reached 750,000 children through hundreds of schools across Africa and India, with a focus on re-engineering every part of the education system, from teacher training and support, to lesson delivery, construction, and financial administration; making government schools and community schools as effective as possible. 

Here are some extracts from her address:

Five years ago, it was much more likely for an 18 year old girl in Liberia to be a mother than to be able to read. In Nigeria, 10 million children were out of school, many due to the conflict by Boko Haram in the Northeast and in the Southeast where government provision of education was so abysmal and jobs so scarce. Trafficking of girls was at crisis levels. Go there yourself and you will cry and I've cried over it many times.

At Bridge, our purpose is to follow the data where it leads to where schools are failing to deliver on their promise. To deliver social justice and to right that wrong by empowering teachers and school leaders to leverage learning science and effective management to transform schools so that they bridge the achievement gap every day, everywhere.

The problem in our learning crisis today is not the child nor is it the teacher, but a system that fails them both. There are 300 million children who've been in school for four years or more and they still can't read and millions more are not in school at all. It can be hard to think through why. Unfortunately the reasons are much more banal and easy to explain than you might think, but the required changes are hard and systemic. Based on my experience as a teacher and an anthropologist, the reason is not a lack of infrastructure but the lack of rigorous and continuous support for teachers.

Our contributions at Bridge are what are core to our business. We leverage the science of learning and using data to manage performance for one very focused goal, ensuring that every school becomes what it's intended to be. A place where every child learns regardless of their parents' income or education, where children's minds are awakened and hearts are expanded and foundations of future peace and prosperity are built.

This work happens in incredibly complex ecosystems in collaboration with local, state and national governments, with community organizations and religious leaders and with teachers unions and parents and children's rights organizations. The research we have done into learning science and developing and testing effective methods couldn't have happened alone. We've had incredible support through our own finance partners, through development finance institutions such as CDC and the IFC. We've expanded our geographic reach through our services with contracts, with DFID and with state and national governments.

Sometimes even knowing whether children are learning or not is politicized and so education is often the most critical area of development with the least productive engagement from the private sector and civil society. If we hear the statistics of millions of children in school and not learning and we think the solution is just to tell teachers, just do better, just try harder, we will fail.

Also, if we think that the solution is just spending more money on something that isn't working today, that won't work either. What we have to do is to change behaviour, to change behaviour of our support systems of our teachers themselves and of their school leaders. And, when we change the behaviour that happens inside the classroom and inside the school, is when we can change how children learn.

It's going to take courage, the courage to look openly and honestly at the state of our schools. Identify what current incentives and systemic structures in education lead to dysfunctional schools. And the courage to work in partnership with government bodies, finance institutions, civil societies, teacher's unions, and the private sector to unravel those dysfunctional knots and together reknit a tapestry that supports teachers daily practice.

In Liberia a few years ago, private partners were asked to step in and to support a transformation of public schools. Three years later, 88% of fifth graders in the schools who were in the programme can now read. That's transformational. Across Nigeria, governors are looking to a programme led by the Edo State Government called Edo Best, which invited private technical partners to support them in a statewide transformation, which has already showed learning gains in the first year and increased enrollment in a state with a large out-of-school population by 22%.

Across these cases, a government leader had the courage to stand up and actually look at what was happening in his or her schools. And to ask for support.

We need to be relentless in our service to children and their families. Working where they need us to support children, who otherwise would be left behind, so they can stand up, move forward and succeed in life. We need to be bold and to work with urgency because the time it takes a curious and hopeful child to become a disaffected and angry adult passes in an instant. We need to work at scale because, while each and every child's development is important, it is by empowering a generation that will transform an otherwise limited future into a bright and prosperous one.

We need to support governments to create powerful public schools. And where governments are not yet able to provide those, we need to support parents and community organizations to create schools in their own communities. Every child matters today. We need to be pragmatic, work together and be energetic. It's time to put aside any differences and to do everything we can today to ensure that we don't fail the generation of tomorrow.

Listen to Sharon in this 8 minute keynote:

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From a keynote by Bridge International, 19/02/2020

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