From the outset, the overarching aim of our project was to have confident girls excelling in school. We wanted to keep girls in school, combatting drop out and changing lives. This required two types of resources. Those which could be quantified: the financing of interventions and staff salaries, for example. And those which are less easy to quantify: the input of community and religious leaders, and volunteers.
The girls we were aiming to support were dealing with many challenges. Some of which were anticipated, such as family breakdowns and high chore burdens. But these girls were also living under the shadow of security risks, political unrest, school closures and the impact of climate change – all leading to experiences of hopelessness and alienation. These changing social realities and economic problems presented some of the biggest challenges for the project in terms of reducing drop out.
Before COVID-19, life skills training emerged as a particularly successful element of the programme. We could see the girls’ confidence and self-esteem grow as their communication and negotiation skills were developed. They became vibrant through this process. School bursaries for high school girls helped them to stay in school longer. The bursary amounts were often small but very meaningful. Parents whose children were engaged in the scheme were more engaged and supportive of the girls’ continued education. It helped to decrease drop out.
During COVID-19, some other interventions emerged as being particularly valuable – for both girls and their teachers. Our project provided information materials and hygiene kits to help keep girls safe and supported while schools were closed. We also worked with the schools to ensure worksheets and handouts were distributed to keep girls learning. These were both remarkably successful in addressing both education and health needs. Not only that, they helped to give connectivity and hope to the girls, their parents and communities – particularly those in rural and remote communities. It also helped to build the emotional wellbeing of the girls. The setting and marking of papers engaged teachers in meaningful activities that kept them connected to their students.
In terms of what we have learned, I believe it is important to understand that girls’ education should come with a strong, sustainable livelihood component. We should ensure that there is room for adaptive management, based on data collected from listening to girls and their families, continually and periodically. As an example, a small-scale agricultural investment to a girl’s family can help to continually fund the girls’ education. It needs creativity but it is important.
The partnership between our project and the Fund Manager in delivering the programme has been beneficial for individuals and both organisations. We have been able to learn from one another, providing new insights, experiences and perspectives. On a personal level, I have learned from other technical experts on systems including monitoring and evaluation.
Partnership with our delivery partners and local and international staff has also been vital in providing technical and moral support. Never has this been more important than during the pandemic. We were forced to be more creative and supportive of each other. The need for remote modalities has been beneficial in some ways, forcing us to be innovative and improve our ways of working.
Working as part of a large and demanding programme has required us to meet new standards and develop new systems and capacity. This has been challenging but valuable. It will make us better prepared for other projects and donors.
The disadvantage of working within a big programme can be the time it takes to adapt and make significant but sometimes urgent changes, such as budget re-profiling. The second phase of the GEC programme definitely saw an improvement in this flexibility. The review processes were helpful and it would be good to strengthen these further. In particular we were able to make plans to respond to the unique challenges presented by COVID-19. The Fund Manager demonstrated a lot of empathy with implementing partners. It is the staff on the ground who truly understand the nature of the challenges being faced.
If I could offer advice to other implementers? Projects need to go beyond what we simply understand as education in the classroom. Livelihood interventions are crucial, as is community and family engagement. It is also important to develop the social and emotional education of the girls and really understand their circumstances. In this regard, I am proud of the way that we have boosted girls’ self-esteem and given them durable and transferable skills, helping them to navigate their own futures.
Our engagement with stakeholders is also gratifying. Teachers have been generally supportive, positive and open minded. Ministry officials have been appreciative of the project work and have been continually engaged, both in planning and evaluation. Every quarter they go to the field and feedback is provided in both directions. We worked closely with the grassroots government structure the Community Care and Support Coalition and key opinion leaders in the community. We delivered a number of capacity development trainings such as those dealing with safeguarding of children and psycho-social support (during COVID -19).
Overall, I am pleased that this is a project ‘well concluded’. The end is as important as the beginning – and I am proud to have been involved from the beginning to the end. In terms of the project’s legacy, the most important thing we did was make girls’ education an ‘agenda’ with both girls and their communities. The girls who have been involved in the Girls’ Clubs are now growing up and they will take their education and experiences with them wherever they go.
In more practical terms, safeguarding systems and reporting mechanisms that have been put in place are now well-embedded within schools and communities. The teacher development model which is workable, developmental and not punitive has gained traction. Teachers are supporting each other and the mentoring and coaching approach has removed any previous lack of trust between teachers and supervisors.
For me personally, the involvement in the project has made me realise that I care a great deal about the emotional wellbeing of the girls as well as their educational needs. Cognitive development is one thing, but you also need to truly engage with the girls and provide moral as well as educational support.
On a final note, and in light of the lessons learned during COVID-19 I think it is important to acknowledge how and where we can invest our resources to make the most difference. The restrictions of the pandemic have shown us what we can do without costly and potentially dangerous trips, allowing us to find a more appropriate balance of providing funding at the local level. Funders and practitioners must maintain a strong moral and ethical stance in what we do and ensure resources are directed where they are needed most.
Further resources from the Excelling Against the Odds project:
Final reflections: Achievements and lessons learned by the Excelling Against the Odds project
Short film: The Excelling Against the Odds project video
Practice and impact brief: Communities of practice and school leadership
Practice and impact brief: Girl-led community dialogue
Practice and impact brief: Teachers' development of worksheets
External evaluation: Endline report