Final reflections on the Discovery Project

31 March 2021 by Andrew Jones, Discovery Project, Impact(Ed)

At the very beginning of the Girls’ Education Challenge, when we created our Strategic Partnership, we were broadly focused on girls’ education and life opportunities. We put a wide lens on the situation for girls in our project countries – Nigeria, Kenya and Ghana – and thought about what we, as Discovery Learning Alliance, now Impact(Ed), could bring to the challenges that girls were facing. We started with their access to education and their ability to learn in school, but also looked at social norms limiting opportunities for girls and worked to change mindsets towards girls’ education in the broader community.

When the GEC-Transition phase began in 2017, we all agreed to put a ‘laser focus’ on girls’ learning outcomes, aiming for real impact, first and foremost, on teaching and learning of literacy and numeracy. But Impact(Ed) was also committed to a holistic approach to the girls’ situations, tapping into our distinct capabilities and creating an enabling and supportive environment at school and in the wider community. Through our interventions - including My Better World, our new life skills media series created in collaboration with CAMFED - we hoped to increase girls’ self-confidence, agency and aspirations, while also shifting parent and community norms in support of gender equality and social inclusion.

One of the most challenging aspects of the project has been its ambition. Running that hard for that long has been demanding. We also had to adapt to and navigate some extremely difficult contexts. The conflict, insecurity and unpredictability in some areas of Nigeria and Kenya made our work difficult. Bombings struck very close to home and we had to contend with potential backlash and the displacement or flight of students and teachers.

Moreover, the social and economic pressures that disproportionately affect girls’ access to education run deep and the learning crisis is acute in the areas we were working, particularly in northern Nigeria and north east Kenya. Learning levels were extremely low. We knew it would be hard to move the dial in some of these places in a relatively short amount of time.

Successes stemmed from the project’s holistic design, with the combination of educational media, sustainable technology, teacher professional development, community action planning and school-based girls and boys clubs leading to significant, positive results. Most noteworthy in terms of impact were the project’s accelerated learning programme (ALP) and My Better World life skills intervention. Creating the My Better World content was demanding. We were committed to tackling important – but sensitive and controversial – topics and we knew that this would need to be handled carefully and comprehensively, particularly in more conservative areas. The production process was long and detailed, and involved feedback loops with educators, community representatives, governments and girls and boys themselves. However, this effort was entirely worthwhile.

It was really gratifying to see the demand for this media content across all three project countries and beyond. MBW was highly relatable, to both girls and boys, and struck a chord in an area – and time – of need. The programme recognises the hard realities that children and their families are facing but are full of hope and resilience. In a school-based club context, watching and discussing the series with peers, facilitated by trained mentors, proved powerful, leading to well-documented positive changes in girls’ life skills, attitudes and behaviours. Surveys also pointed to important shifts in boys’ attitudes toward girls, key to fostering a positive, enabling environment. With the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, and school closures, government educational broadcasters became even more interested in the ability of the programme to reach a wide audience and support life skills and distance learning. It was adapted for radio and has reached tens of millions of boys and girls and families over the last year.

Our accelerated learning programme (ALP) also took time to get right, but ultimately had real impact. Investments in teacher observation and coaching were deepened, focusing on common areas of weakness in teacher practice per project monitoring. In contexts where many children are progressing through their primary years without mastering basic literacy and numeracy skills, remedial classes were introduced and piloted with support from our Ministry of Education partners. Over time, these evolved to become more responsive and effective. Schemes of learning and accompanying guidance and content were adjusted to target documented literacy and numeracy ‘learning gaps’. Steps were taken to engage and support a critical mass of qualified and motivated teachers, challenging at the outset as we were asking them to take on extra classes, out of school hours. In the end, the small classes with trained teachers and a targeted, student-focused approach contributed to learning improvements. The programme was recognised as valuable by the governments in all three countries of operation, influencing their use of remedial education in national primary education strategies.

Time to learn
If we could do things any differently in the future, we would like to have more time built in for learning and adaptation with colleagues in the Fund Manager and the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Country Office teams – time to ‘breathe’ and reflect together. The level of ambition was especially high, reporting demands were very heavy, and, as is always the case, changes in governments’ own priorities and plans affected our ability to carry out our workplan. The adaptive management approach in the GEC-T phase was helpful, particularly in response to the pandemic, but dedicated time for joint project monitoring and learning across all partners and stakeholders – and greater flexibility for adaptations, including to the project timeline – would have been even more helpful.

Partnership played an important part of project delivery. Most importantly, we built close working relationships with government partners. This was crucial in enabling project success and sustainability. In the last year of the project, Impact(Ed)’s contributions were highly appreciated in the context of governments’ pandemic responses, including support in implementing Ministry of Education distance learning strategies and co-ordinated efforts to adapt to meet the needs of the girls during this time. In fact, the completion of the project in December 2020 coincided with school reopening, which was unfortunate timing. No doubt, further support for girls’ re-entering school would have been valuable.

Working with FCDO and Fund Manager colleagues in the field was positive in many respects, particularly in allowing the project to adapt in the face of Covid-19 and, throughout, in supporting the project’s development of technically strong interventions inclusive of important new requirements on gender equity, social inclusion and child protection. Being part of the GEC programme overall gave us an opportunity to go to greater scale and contribute in more substantial ways in all three countries. The FCDO partnership and ‘weight’ of the GEC increased our opportunities to engage and deliver nationally and internationally. It also has been great to be part of the wider GEC project community – sharing approaches, experiences, and key learnings.

Beyond government and FCDO, our partnership with CAMFED to produce the My Better World series stands out, but we also worked successfully with CAMFED in Ghana to jointly deliver an enhanced life skills and mentorship component and, through CAMFED’s bursary scheme, support the most vulnerable girls to stay in school.

Through our partnership with Cell-Ed, we were able to engage thousands of teachers in phone-based text and audio refresher training, further strengthening their commitment and capacity in effective literacy and numeracy teaching strategies. This took more time than anticipated, however, as Cell-Ed worked with telephone companies and within shifting government regulations to set up the mobile platform and make it user-friendly. When the pandemic hit, the Cell-Ed partnership allowed for text messaging on COVID-19 prevention and treatment and child protection and well-being to tens of thousands of families in project areas.

Advice for others
It may sound obvious, but deeply understanding and respecting local cultures and contexts is vital. Hiring people locally, including women in lead roles, who know how to relate to their communities, ensure that project approaches are appropriate, and move things forward in context – is also crucial. Local brands in Nigeria and Kenya were also important, in our case. In Nigeria in particular, the local brand for the project, ‘Fitila’, which means lantern (symbolic of light and knowledge), is widely known and appreciated and was embraced by local government partners and stakeholders who took it as their own.

Regardless of branding, a genuine process of project introduction and stakeholder engagement from the outset to engender trust and build ownership and support within schools and communities is essential to project success and long-term sustainability. Sustainability cannot be engineered in the project’s last phase; projects must be designed to be sustainable at the outset, laying the groundwork for local ownership and building capacities that can sustain promising approaches all the way through project implementation.

On the technical design side, sustainable, high-impact girls’ education projects should consider the whole of the girl and her environment and be designed accordingly, with sound strategies for addressing or at least mitigating the in-school, community and wider structural barriers, in context, that are impeding girls’ access, learning and transition.

Final thoughts
Looking back, I am most proud of the lives that have been changed, particularly in the most challenging, remote areas where we have worked, and, arguably, made the greatest difference. Not just in literacy and numeracy improvements, but also where we have been able to create greater levels of ambition and inspiration for girls who face discrimination and limited opportunities in life. We have also poured a lot into teacher professional development. At the end of the day, the girls are not going to learn even if a lot of other things go well if the teaching does not step up to meet their needs. I believe our sustained investment in teaching quality will have a long-lasting impact.

On a personal note, I am extremely proud of the Impact(Ed) teams working long and hard in all three countries and Imapct(Ed) colleagues working most closely with them. The depth of everyone’s passion for girls’ education and resulting energy and determination it has given me and my colleagues throughout this project really stand out. We know there is still a long way to go, but we also know that there are many girls supported by our project who are learning, transitioning to higher levels of education and expanding their horizons, and that is what will continue to fuel Impact(Ed)’s work in girls’ education going forward.


Further resources from the Discovery Project: 

Final reflections: Achievements and lessons learned by the Discovery Project

Short film: Fuseina’s story

Short film: Mayiannae’s story

Short film: Teacher Rita’s story

Short film: Marium's story 

Short film: Halima's story

Impact report: Ghana

Impact report: Kenya 

Impact report: Nigeria 

External evaluation: Endline report

External evaluation: Summary of findings