In 2014 I began working on a solution to the problem of educational delivery in rural communities. After many years of working in community development all over the world, the key elements I sought to combine were:
– An education that was contextually specific to rural life
– Sustainability; both financially and ecologically
– Providing opportunity for people to help themselves
– A project should be managed and run entirely by local people and partners.
The idea was to show that, despite many great achievements and good intentions, the traditional model of aid delivery in rural communities is outdated. To demonstrate an overhaul is needed to provide education to the hundreds of millions of children world-wide who need it.
Now, in 2016, that dream has become a reality. As we stand, having just welcomed our second year students into our pilot school in Ghana, we are quickly proving the validity of the model. It has not been easy, perfect, or without challenges, but it is working.
By the end of 2017 we hope to have demonstrated that a school with 400 students, half of whom are on full scholarships, in a rural community can be fully self-sufficient. At this point, we intend to expand, building more schools in Ghana and beyond. James Riggs, CEO (November 2016) The first two years of a revolutionary new approach to the delivery of Secondary Education in Ghana
Problem: Huge strides have been made globally in attainment levels of basic education. However, junior is where 'free schooling' usually ends. Ghana is similar to many developing countries, and beyond junior level, education is expensive, and out of the financial reach of many families. As a result, almost sixty percent of children will not gain any secondary level qualifications, with drastic effects on earning potential, aspirations, health and even life expectancy.
Provision and Economic self-sufficiency: Typically there have been two approaches to providing large scale formal education – free schools paid for by donations, or private schools paid for by school fees. The problem with the former is that they are financially vulnerable, and dependent on continued donor support. Whilst the latter does little to ensure that those who cannot afford an education, and whom also most need it, will attend school.
Our approach is very simple – it combines both these approaches. Half of our students pay a moderate school fee of roughly £60 a term, which covers that cost of being able to offer full scholarships to the other half, from the most impoverished rural communities. Crucially, all of our staff are from the local area.
Solution; context of rural life: Further, educational projects and educational attainment often pays very little attention to the realities of rural life. In these farming communities, education and agriculture should go hand in hand. However they seldom do. Our pilot project combines a formal secondary school with a 25 acre Organic farm. Not only does the farm provide an excellent source of nutritious food for the students, but also acts as a centre to run training programs in sustainable, organic farming and entrepreneurship – hugely relevant skills in the community.
Progress so far: We wouldn't ever pretend that everything runs like clockwork. However, despite set backs (all of which we learn from) we are still on course to be 100% self-sufficient by next year, proving the validity and scalability of our model.
Year one: In September 2015, we recruited our first 120 students. Overall we were able to raise roughly half of our total running costs – a great achievement in just our first year. Alongside this, we opened the first five acres of the Organic Farm, planting basic crops and rearing chickens, to provide maize, vegetables and eggs for the school feeding program. By the end of the first academic year, the farm provided almost 40% of the food eaten at the school.
Year Two: Unseasonable weather, as well Farm Manager, Joyce AME Finance Manager & Director as a huge fall in the value of sterling against the Ghana Cedi after Brexit had large impacts on the start of our second academic year in September 2016. The upshot is that we are essentially two months behind schedule. Unfortunately the time taken to finish our second building block, as well as the delay to installing a solar micro-grid have hampered our second year student recruitment. Despite that, we are making up for lost time, and aim to have a further 120 new students in attendance by January 2017 and each day we continue to increase our student numbers.
The move towards financial self-sufficiency: The success of our model, and in proving its scalability, lies chiefly in it being able to pay for itself. As mentioned above, with 120 students in year 1, we were able to generate approximately 50% of our required running costs. Below is a very rough estimate of our expected costs vs income over this year, and next, outlining how we intend to develop towards being 100% financially self sufficient.
Of course there is still an incredible amount of work to do in order to reach this point, and there will be many more hurdles to overcome. Chief amongst them is our need to bring in the necessary funding to help us reach the point of self-sufficiency. We are extremely fortunate to have a number of wonderful partners, all of whom share our vision of an alternative, more efficient, way to manage a project such as this. All of them are committed to the idea that development work really can fund itself. Many of these partners, we know, will be with us for the long-term and will grow with us. However, we still need to develop long term partnerships with like minded people and organisations.
School-to-school partnerships: One of the key areas we are looking to develop is interschool partnerships. It is a core believe of Alma Mater Education that schools closer to home can truly benefit from partnering with our school in Ghana. From our experience, students here are greatly interested and invested in young people of their own age, when given the opportunity and if the information is framed correctly.
We are developing partnerships with schools in London at the moment, and one of the key provisions we aim to make is to regularly attend these schools, to keep the student and staff updated on our work. We are extremely fortunate therefore to have the successful young Hollywood actor, Will Poulter, as our first Patron. Will has starred in films such as the Chronicles of Narnia, Maze Runner and The Revenant. He is also very happy to attend our partner schools and deliver our message to young people, amongst whom he is very well known.
In the future we hope to be able to offer exchange trips to West Africa, with students staying on site, at specially built eco-lodges within the farm.
Contact Alma Mater Education: If you would like to get involved with us, or for more information about Alma Mater Education, we would be delighted to hear from you.
James Riggs (CEO of Alma Mater Education)
3 Lanfrey Place, London W14 9PY
(+44) 7766 733008