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Changing lives with secondary education in rural Africa

A decade after joining PEAS as a startup, Laura Brown is now CEO and responsible for a staff of over 800 that educates 16,000 children each year in 32 secondary schools. Following on from her entry as one of our UK Social Entrepreneur Index ‘Ten of the Best’, Ashleigh Smith caught up with Laura to find out more about her journey.

Please can you tell us a bit about your journey and what led you to become involved in PEAS?

“I've always been really passionate about education and its power to transform lives. After university, I qualified as a secondary school teacher in the UK, working in a city school that was involved with a partner school in Rwanda.

“At the time, the Millennium Development Goal for education had focused the global community around expanding by 100% the enrolments at primary school level.

“In Rwanda and in East Africa more kids were finishing primary school, but with nowhere to go on to secondary school. It meant that for the poorest children and children in the most underserved and typically rural areas, that was the end of their education journey. There was the dual challenge of access and the quality of the education itself. I became really interested in that challenge and possible solutions.

“That's when I came across PEAS, which at the time was a small startup organisation founded by John Rendel. It had a really interesting model, which was establishing secondary schools in a not-for-profit but financially sustainable way. This meant that the expansion of education was not dependent on traditional aid and entrenching a dependency culture.

“So I joined a very small PEAS team and spent a huge amount of time working the education team in Uganda. But because it was such a tiny organisation and all hands on deck, I was also involved in a lot of project management around launches of different schools and community engagement.

“Having spent time in PEAS in Uganda, it was my job to replicate the PEAS model in Zambia. I was drawing on what we knew from Uganda that was relevant to Zambia, and also ensuring that the financial model and the economics would work in a totally different kind of labour market and policy environment too.

“I hired the first Zambian team out there and then came back to the UK in a programmes role. One of the principles of PEAS is that, in Uganda and Zambia, things are led and run by Ugandan and Zambian teams. It’s as important to us as financial sustainability. It's about HR sustainability and leadership sustainability as well. I then took over as the CEO of PEAS in 2018.”

PEAS adopted a mixture of the public and private partnership model. Was that what you decided on from the early days or something that you learned over time?

“Definitely the second. I've been at PEAS for nearly 10 years now and at the beginning, we didn't have the resource to do the thinking or the designing for scale. So we were very much testing and learning as we went along.

“We started out in a purely private model where students would pay very low fees, which would cover the operating costs of schools. We designed the school model to be that the fee level would be affordable to children in the most disadvantaged communities. But really for PEAS, we believe that any type of school fee excludes somebody.

“The government schools are not free; they also charge a fee. PEAS fees are lower than any other school fees. We're constantly striving to get that towards zero, but in a sustainable way. We could take handouts and aid from the UK and give scholarships, but we don't see that as a locally-led financially sustainable model.

“So that's why we started looking at public-private partnership models. But also we were opportunistic. The Ugandan government set up a national programme whereby, if you are a private school in a location where there was no government school, and you could show that you were providing access to education to kids who otherwise wouldn't be able to go to secondary school, you would be eligible for a government per-pupil grant.

“With that, we were able to lower school fees for our students or use that funding to invest in quality interventions at the school levels.

“That's the model that we had in mind when we went to Zambia and have been working over the years to iterate and tweak that with the Zambian government. And actually one of our key achievements in the last couple of years is that we've set up a partnership with the Zambian government where they provide the schools with enough funding for them to be completely free for the students. Those PEAS schools in Zambia are the only totally free secondary schools that are also financially sustainable.”

Besides having this partnership with the Zambian government, what have been your other highlights and biggest achievements of your time with PEAS?

“The fact that we've got 16,000 kids in our schools and a network of 32 schools. Every time a new school launches or we expand a school considerably, that's the thing that for me is really motivating.

“You know, another achievement is the way that we have built our organisation. PEAS Uganda and PEAS Zambia are totally locally-led, which is awesome. We’ve been able to show that we can do this in more than one geographical location. The model is transferable and being able to prove that is something that's really important because it means that other people could use and replicate the model too.

“It's not PEAS' intention to build and run all of the schools. It's that all children get access to education and we want to be a systems player.

“We had a three-year external evaluation, which ended last year. It found that PEAS’ students are poorer than students in other types of secondary schools, that they're making faster learning progress and that we’re more cost-efficient. That is really important because we want to say to the government, ‘look at all of these great practices that have been born from the PEAS schools. If you wanted to, you could adopt some of these practices because we're not achieving these great results by just pumping in a load of extra funding. We're doing it at a very affordable price point that can be replicated by others’."

As you've been with PEAS for almost a decade, you'll have seen students go from primary to graduate and secondary; that must be rewarding to see?

“Oh my gosh, it is, yeah. One of my favourite PEAS gems from back in the day was a young guy called John Mary. I met his family. His Mum was a widow and I was really inspired by the amazing income generation activities that everyone in the family was involved in to help them pay their own school fees.

“John Mary did really well at school and then we were able to help him by linking him up with a bursary to go to teacher training college. Then he came back to be a teacher where he had attended himself. He wouldn't have been able to go to secondary school without the PEAS school. And what was really nice is that he had younger siblings who, because of the affordability of the school, were also able to go to that school. So he is teaching some of his younger brothers and sisters.”

What have been some of the challenges that you have faced personally as a social entrepreneur and as part of the PEAS organisation?

“From an organisation perspective, we didn't necessarily design for scale in the early days. We didn't know that we're going to have 32 schools and they were all going to be in really remote locations. We didn't have the systems and infrastructure upfront to do the most efficient management.

“As an example, the majority of our schools are in areas where there's no electricity and we need to get data from the schools in order to support them effectively. So, in the early days, the school leaders would fill in paper-based surveys and put them on a bus that would travel 12 hours.

“Now we've got a cloud-based school information management system, but putting that in place across 32 remote locations with staff who haven't necessarily used computers before is a challenge.

“I think that relates to another challenge of becoming a mature middle-sized organisation. Getting the right policies and procedures in place that are appropriate for your stage, whilst retaining that nimbleness and flexibility and that startup passion and fire. So that's something we're grappling with at the moment.”

It's about 800 people that you have working for PEAS now, is that right? Do you have frequent contact with the different schools?

“Yes, there are over 800 people now, including school cooks and teachers, with about 10 of us in the UK.

“The Ugandan and Zambian country directors sit on the senior leadership team and I'm in weekly conversations with them and their senior management teams.

“I try to get to the schools on a quarterly basis and spend a decent amount of time in school, from 6am until it's going dark. Because then you get a sense of what's happening in that community, not necessarily just by visiting lessons.”

How did you feel about being included in the social entrepreneurship index?

“It's definitely really inspiring and motivating. When I look at the cohort of entrepreneurs who have been recognised – being part of a community within that – I'm sure there's lots to learn when we start to network together.

“And you know, I lead an organisation that I'm really proud of and that I believe in. So recognition for me is recognition for the organisation and that's important to me.

“Another thing that's really nice is that looking across the group of entrepreneurs in the index, there's a lot of female representation, which I was really pleased to see. It's important to encourage young women entrepreneurs and to encourage more investment in the enterprises run by women.”

You've had a huge amount of growth since you started with PEAS, but how do you see the future of this in five to 10 years’ time?

“I really hope that the PEAS network of schools will continue to grow. We've got 32 schools today and we have an aspiration to have more and to grow the existing schools bigger because there are millions of kids out of school, so it feels imperative that we do that work.

“As I said, we'd like to establish schools in countries outside of Uganda and Zambia as well, to show that the PEAS model can work over multiple locations.

“The thing that's really exciting at the moment is that we don't want to build and run all of the schools, but now we've got over 10 years’ know-how and expertise in how to run secondary schools. So how can we use that to help others and have a positive impact in the systems where we work?

“We have a great school model which we know is replicable and the current question we have is, ‘how can we create a model around using those schools to have a wider impact for children who are outside of the PEAS network of schools?’ So that's where we're going over the next period.”

Do you have any advice you'd give to anybody considering becoming a social entrepreneur or in really early stages?

“Pick the purpose that you love. Because it’s hard and you have to work really hard, you're not going to be able to stick at it unless you truly believe in the opportunity, the purpose and also the model.

“I would say be really clear about your own values and principles, but be flexible about other things including the model and things that don't stick rigidly to the model. Be prepared to be flexible within a clear set of values and principles. And then I guess if you're a social entrepreneur, there's more that you don't know than you do know, particularly for young social entrepreneurs. So just try and speak less and listen more.”

Laura’s personal experience, business growth and drive to move forward saw her recognised as one of the 2019 UK Social Entrepreneur Index’s ‘Ten of the Best’. To find out more about the Index and see the others recognised, head over to the website.

The UK Social Entrepreneur Index is a celebration of entrepreneurs running businesses with social purposes. Out of the 29 entrepreneurs who made it into the Index in 2019, we’ve highlighted our ‘Ten of the Best’ and are bringing you a more in-depth look at some of their business journeys and lives as social entrepreneurs. Nominations are now open!


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