COCO’s Schools for Life programme in a global context

A brief blog on my Masters dissertation – Jess Hamer

I finished my Masters in International Politics (Globalisation, Poverty and Development) in August, and was lucky enough to write my final dissertation on COCO’s Schools for Life programme.  I went to Ruvuma, Tanzania where Oswin, Elisha and Max from Hoja Project kindly helped me undertake research into the community schools COCO works with in the region. You can read my full dissertation online here, but I thought I’d write a blog so anyone interested can read about my findings without having to wade through academic jargon and 12,000 words of information!

Hoja Secondary School

My research looked into the effectiveness of community schools as a means of improving quality of education across the globe, particularly in countries in the Global South, like Tanzania, where quality is severely lacking.  COCO’s Schools for Life are community schools, meaning that they are established, owned and run by the remote communities in which they are based. COCO, and in the case of Southern Tanzania, Hoja Project, support the schools by improving the facilities, improving the teaching quality, and helping them become self-sustainable so that they aren’t reliant on external support to cover their costs.  Hoja Secondary School, the inspiration behind the programme, has now achieved the highest results in the region for five consecutive years, and is fully operationally self-sustainable. As they educate children from poor backgrounds, this is very impressive, as these children are outperforming those attending nearby expensive, elite private schools.

At least 60% of the places are reserved for children from poor income backgrounds, who are charged reduced fees, depending on their ability to pay.  Some parents contribute food instead of cash, which helps to feed the children.  The remaining places are for families able to pay the full amount, which helps to subsidise the poor children.  My desire to research the model came from my own beliefs that the state is best placed to provide equitable access to education, and that education should be free.  I was worried about the impact that having to pay fees could be having on these parents; the impact that these schools might be having on the education system as a whole; and on those children left behind in government schools.  This is the critical angle I set out to look into!

Read more in the full dissertation

First, I did a review of all the existing literature on education in general, and on the two political theories that I used to frame the research – which I won’t go into in detail here!  One was a theory supportive of international development interventions (neoliberal institutionalism, for anyone interested!) and one critical of Western intervention in the Global South (postcolonialism).  There was VERY little research into community schools at all, so instead I looked into other private providers and the arguments for and against those – which fit neatly with my two theories.

The other private providers were all ran by or supported by international organisations, but all ran for profit. Supporters of these schools said that they are more effective at reaching the poor, are affordable to the poor, are better than government at providing education, and that market forces and competition helped to improve quality of education.  Opponents completely disagreed, arguing that charging poor parents for education was immoral, and either resulted in them being unable to pay for other important things such as healthcare or food, meant only some children could be sent (which often meant the boys and not the girls), and that the poorest could in fact not afford fees at all.  They also point out that lack of demand in rural areas means that there is no competition, so these areas lose out.  They maintain that the government is the best placed to provide education, and that the existence of private providers means that quality in the government sector declines, widening inequalities.  I set out to test whether these things were true for Schools for Life.

You will be pleased to know, that my research found that Schools for Life pretty much across the board avoid these criticisms, or likely do if I didn’t find enough evidence.  I spoke to 15 parents with children government schools, Schools for Life, and an alternative private school.  All of the parents, of children in all schools, were welcoming of external support from COCO, and asked that COCO do more.  All parents care immensely about their children’s education, and want their children to receive the best possible education so that they can be successful in life and break out of poverty.   Schools for Life are both affordable and reachable by the poorest in the communities in which they work. 

Food donations from parents outside Kindimba Secondary before the start of term.

Only one parent mentioned difficulty paying for school fees. This mother was a widow with a health condition meaning that she is unable to work.  However, thanks to reduced school fees in Schools for Life, her children are accessing good quality education.  Although secondary education is “free” in Tanzania, several parents mentioned that there are many hidden fees, including having to buy expensive school uniforms or make extra contributions to purchase materials, making Schools for Life a cheaper option for poor families.  For those parents whose children are in government schools, almost all stated that they would prefer to send their children to private school, but that the cost is a barrier.  They do not know about Schools for Life and the fact that they cater for poor families.  Furthermore, as they operate not-for-profit, they avoid all criticisms of allowing market forces to deliver essential services.

I found that Schools for Life offer better quality education for two main reasons.  The first, and most important reason is the way that teachers, students, and staff are valued highly by one-another, by Hoja Project, and by their head teachers.  Teachers I spoke to felt well supported and that their work was valued.  They felt they had the support to be able to improve and progress, and were paid fairly – although they are paid less than their government counterparts.  Secondly, improved facilities including a science lab and IT facilities are seen to help improve quality.

Finally, although my research was limited to a small area, none of the parents showed any resentment either to the private system as a whole or to COCO’s intervention.  All of the parents thought that the existence of better quality schools in their communities helps to improve the government schools, giving them an example to work towards and some healthy competition.  Nobody thought that the Schools for Life were having a negative effect.  Although my research cannot prove that this is true, I think that the fact that they are welcomed by the community is enough, who else’s opinions matter other than the people whose lives will actually be effected!

Children playing at Litisha nursery, one of COCO's partner Schools for Life, which I also visited while in Tanzania.

There are plenty more things that I found out which I could mention, but I don’t want this to get too long so I’ll stop here.  The most important conclusion is that Schools for Life are providing good quality education to children who would otherwise be stuck in a failing government system, or unable to access education at all where government schools are oversubscribed.  They are not an alternative to government schools, as they take time, money and effort to set up and may not be appropriate in all communities – however, they are providing an excellent supplement to the system, which is cheaper and better quality than the government system.  Government schools could learn many things from Schools for Life to help improve the quality of education for more children, and with increased support, the Schools for Life model could change the lives of thousands more children in remote communities in East Africa.

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