What next for Liberia's controversial education experiment?

Students reading books at a school in Brewerville, Montserrado County, Liberia. Photo by: GPE / Kelley Lynch / CC BY-NC-ND

LONDON — A controversial education partnership in Liberia has been given a new name and the green light to continue for another school year by the country’s new government — but with longstanding donors yet to commit to more funding, the program’s future remains in doubt.

The Partnership Schools for Liberia program has seen 200 primary schools contracted out to private education providers over the past two years and has sparked fierce debate, both domestically and internationally, over the role of for-profit companies in education.

It was unclear whether the program would survive a government transition in January. However, in August, after months of silence, the Liberia Ministry of Education announced it would continue PSL for at least one more year under a new name: The Liberia Educational Advancement Program, or LEAP. It will not expand the program for now, whereas the previous government had overseen a rapid scale-up.

“Following productive discussions with a range of stakeholders, we have developed a strategy to restructure the program, instilling a higher level of collaboration and accountability,” Education Minister Ansu Sonii said in a statement. “We look forward to working with providers and stakeholders … with the aim of building on the positive learning outcomes evidenced thus far.”

Approving the third year of operations, the ministry announced a slew of reforms, including stronger oversight of operators and improvements to school infrastructure, and said it was exploring a payment by results framework with some donors.

LEAP operators and funders told Devex they welcomed the reforms, but voiced concerns about sustainability as LEAP’s previous international funders, most notably the UBS Optimus Foundation and the Mulago Foundation, have yet to commit to year three despite the fact the school year has already started.  

Kevin Starr, head of Mulago, told Devex they are waiting for a signal from a “big aid” agency, such as the World Bank or a bilateral donor, that they could scale up the model. “It’s been a bit of a waiting game,” he said. “Now the ministry is committed we are all waiting on ... what progress we can see on getting the transition from philanthropy to big aid.”

It is unclear whether all seven LEAP operators will be able to continue running their schools if the philanthropic funding does not come through.

Moving on from controversy

Launched in Sept. 2016, the original PSL was presented by supporters as a bold experiment to help transform the country’s education system. Originally slated to run for three years, it has seen primary schools contracted out to mostly international private providers, including for-profit groups and NGOs. The schools remain free to attend and are staffed by government teachers, with operators receiving funding per student from donors.

While supporters see the program as a much-needed experiment in the face of failing education models, critics — including teachers’ unions in Liberia and abroad — have raised fears around the privatization of education in lower-income countries and about the practices of some operators.

A randomized controlled trial, conducted by the Center for Global Development and Innovations for Poverty Action, reported impressive learning gains among students, but also noted concerns about the program’s cost-effectiveness and its potential to negatively impact nonparticipating schools in the country by draining resources.

The ministry’s steps to address these concerns include the introduction of a “robust performance framework” which looks at teachers’ professional development, school leadership training, and school monitoring including classroom observation, as well as additional performance indicators to “enhance transparency and oversight,” according to a press release.

Other reforms are aimed at improving collaboration between the operators, as well as with local government and teachers’ unions. The National Teachers’ Association of Liberia, which has previously been highly critical of the program, voiced its support for the ministry’s restructuring efforts at a relaunch event.

George Cowell heads up Rising Academies Liberia, a for-profit school chain and one of the operators that manages 29 LEAP schools. He said new leaders at the Ministry of Education were initially “skeptical” about the program but now appear committed after visiting schools, talking to stakeholders, and starting the reform process.

Cowell added that the mood had also shifted among operators, who are now working more collaboratively on projects and holding regular meetings. For example, Rising is sharing its curriculum with another operator, More Than Me, and carrying out joint trainings with its school performance managers, he said.  

“There’s a pretty monumental shift in how operators are working with each other, the whole mood of the program has changed drastically,” Cowell said.

Alain Guy Tanefo, CEO of Omega Schools, which runs 17 schools under the program, agreed. “Everybody involved … is working together … talking to each other … At end of the day, what matters is the impact on students and communities,” he said, adding that this, alongside a government education summit in May, had helped “move away from some of the controversy.”

Mulago’s Starr said the education ministry had done “a very good job of understanding and dealing with a lot of the opposition to PSL.”

“The intention was to leave this tiresome notion of controversy behind … [The] rebranding is a natural outgrowth of that and a great opportunity to hit the reset button,” he added.

Funding concerns

Short-term and long-term funding remains a major question, however. A failure of philanthropic donors to commit could leave operators without a major chunk of their operating budget. Tanefo confirmed that Omega had not been paid the final instalments for year two and was unsure whether funding for year three had been secured.

“Existing funders got a little concerned because they didn’t see an immediate buy-in from the new authorities and didn’t know the future plans,” Tanefo said.

Starr, from previous funder Mulago, said “we are all edging towards an agreement … but it’s a Catch 22 situation. We need some real demonstrated interest by big aid to give confidence to the philanthropic funders and the government that ... scale will be powered by results-oriented money.”

Starr is convinced that the new-look LEAP offers an “extraordinary package” to big donors, especially now the government appears to have overcome the opposition from teachers’ unions, which may have put funders off in the past.

“Philanthropy has already paid for everything, even the RCT, and we get to hand it over to a results-oriented big investor with a bow on it,” Starr said. With philanthropists having taken the risk, “if the results are good but that can’t trigger the big aid funding then the system is broken.”

Asked what happens if donors don’t step up, Starr said: “At some point for a funder like us it’s going to come down to are we going to jump or not, and we’ll face that when it comes.”

Tanefo said that, without philanthropic funds, Omega will keep operating its schools but will have to scale back costs.

“We will find other ways of maintaining our support to the people of Liberia in ways that are more manageable, [such as] doing more remotely and less on the ground,” he said.

Ultimately, Tanefo said, Omega never intended to run the schools long-term, but other operators may be hoping to stay permanently.

“Our plan was always to see the government taking ownership at the end of the day ... We don’t believe this can be run indefinitely by operators …. [and] the funders and philanthropists will not be there forever,” he said.

When asked how Rising would respond if donor money did not materialize, Cowell said: “We will cross that bridge if we come to it. Right now we are 100 percent focused on doing the job we've been asked to do.”

Devex reached out to donors and the program’s fund manager, Social Finance, for clarity on the funding situation and was told the details were still being finalized.

Phyllis Costanza, head of UBS Optimus Foundation, said, "we have been very supportive of this initiative to date and we are just working on our commitment for year 3. We are also really pleased to see the new administration is embracing this initiative.”

Social Finance said that while it could not comment on ongoing discussions with current and potential donors, they were “pleased by the level of support from international funders.”

A spokesperson for the Ministry of Education said international donors were “enthusiastic” about the program but that funding discussions were ongoing.

About the author

  • Sophie Edwards

    Sophie Edwards is a Reporter for Devex based in London covering global development news including global education, water and sanitation, innovative financing, the environment along with other topics. She has previously worked for NGOs, the World Bank and spent a number of years as a journalist for a regional newspaper in the U.K. She has an MA from the Institute of Development Studies and a BA from Cambridge University.