Uncovering Innovation and Lowering Barriers to Collaboration in Non-State Education

Colin Felsman

Colin Felsman is a Senior Program Associate at Results for Development Institute

Countless reports and blog posts lament the lack of access to and poor quality of global education, or cite the disheartening fact that despite notable progress 57 million children remain out of school. I was regularly reminded, during a recent visit to CEI’s South Africa hub, that in South Africa education is often regarded as being in a state of “national crisis.” Still, when I reflect on a series of insightful meetings with promising education organizations I see cause for cautious optimism.

Over the course of my visit, several models emerged as illustrative of CEI’s approach to “identify, analyze, and connect non-state education innovations.” Edunova, a group  which makes IT accessible and engaging to both students and educators, is just one example of the multitude of promising programs dedicated to improving access to quality education for the poor. The prevalence of such promising education models in South Africa reinforces the need to begin from what Scott Clarke; founder of Amandla Development, refers to as an “assets-based approach.” Put simply, uncovering and building on the strengths that already exist within communities is a powerful way to enhance access to quality education for the poor.

Recognizing the inherent value in an assets-based approach, CEI aims to enhance coordination among existing networks and promote knowledge and best practices around non-state education. Be it at the community, country, or even global level, identifying and documenting innovative models is a critical first step to building the evidence base around mechanisms that improve access and quality of education. By capturing the rich level of innovation that already exists, CEI will help expose gaps and, of equal importance, highlight opportunities to heighten the effectiveness of particular interventions.

Drawing on the insights and networks of our CEI Hubs (in South Africa, East Africa and India) and other global collaborators, CEI strives to collaboratively apply Clarke’s assets-based approach from the bottom up. For a global project to translate into sustainable change, those at the community level must have a voice and feel a sense of ownership. With this in mind, the Bertha Centre is proactively working with local programs and practitioners to identify promising levers to transform education.

Yet even in a country like South Africa that boasts passionate practitioners and a robust civil society, obstacles remain that prevent key stakeholders from sharing lessons with one another to ultimately improve and scale their impact. How can we empower innovative models and transfer their success to other contexts both within South Africa and ultimately across regions?  

When asked how CEI could support the initiatives already underway in South Africa, LEAP Science and Math Schools Founder and Director John Gilmour succinctly captured this challenge, suggesting that someone needs to “lower the barriers to collaboration.” Creative solutions to entrenched social issues are rarely crafted in isolation; more often than not they emerge from collective and iterative interaction. Though most institutions and individuals express an interest in collaboration, many lack the time to contribute to and benefit from networks. To overcome these barriers Gilmour launched Bridge, a group that links South African innovators in education through communities of practice.

Beyond workshops, technology offers another mechanism to creatively facilitate connections between different stakeholders and lower the barriers to collaboration. With this in mind, our dynamic platform strives to make it easier for practitioners focused on similar challenges to link with each other in meaningful ways. Given our shared desire to lower the barriers to collaboration, the Bertha Centre, our CEI South Africa hub, is partnering with Bridge. This will merge Bridge’s success hosting regular convenings around targeted education issues with our own efforts to heighten engagement both within countries and across regions. The partnership could include connecting practitioners to align support behind innovative policy, sharing lessons between similar organizations in South Africa in India or even forging links between international and domestic funders.

While there are no silver bullets to transform education, the high number of programs and creative practitioners both in South Africa and around the world is encouraging. By combining an assets-based approach that identifies and documents education innovations with a concerted focus on lowering the barriers to collaboration, CEI will work with partners to support those seeking to translate this optimism into tangible improvements in education for the poor. 


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