Every day’s a school day
Hindsight can be such a wonderful teacher. When an epidemic of Ebola prevented Paul Skidmore from opening his first Rising Academies school, his team bravely stepped up while others stepped back. He talks to us about the many lessons he’s learned while building a social enterprise that is creating a brighter future for children in West Africa.
Poised to open his first Rising Academies school in Sierra Leone in September 2014, Paul Skidmore learned that all schools in the region were to remain shut after the summer holidays because of an Ebola epidemic that was ravaging the region.
“We had a grade’s-worth of children who were ready to go and if we did nothing then they were going to have no education for as long as the epidemic lasted”, Paul recalls. “Nobody had any idea how long it would last and so we said to parents, ‘would you be open to hosting small groups of children in your homes?’
“We sent a teacher along for a couple of hours of lessons each day, combining Ebola prevention work and literacy and numeracy classes. Initially, about 20-30 kids signed up for that and over time that grew to 150.”
These challenging beginnings shaped the organisation and form a key piece of advice Paul now gives to aspiring social entrepreneurs.
He explains: “It was never part of the plan that we should be testing out our model in really small groups sat around someone's front room, but in a weird way that was actually a very helpful learning process. It allowed us to figure out some of the aspects of the teaching and learning side of what we were going to do. I would encourage anybody to test things out on a smaller scale. It doesn't have to cost very much money."
Rising Academies now runs 10 of its own schools in Sierra Leone with 3,500 pupils and manages a further 29 public schools with 6,500 pupils in a partnership with the Liberian government.
“What's really interesting about the Liberian work is that because we are working with government teachers in government schools it shows that it is possible for real progress to be made in the public system,” Paul says.
He continues: “I think it's very easy to take a gloomy picture about the public system and the ways in which it is failing, but there are real strengths; they just have to be drawn out in the right way and with the right kind of partnerships.”
Paul speaks proudly about Mary, one of Rising Academies’ first students in Sierra Leone and just one example of the positive impact the team has had.
“She was about 12 when she came to us and her literacy and numeracy skills were about the level of a seven-year-old", Paul recalls. “Mary's experience at primary school was that if she didn't understand something and put her hand up to ask a question her teachers would shout at her and call her stupid. Like a lot of children in Sierra Leone, school just wasn't a place where she felt safe to learn and it wasn't physically because of corporal punishment.
"Seeing what's happened to her core skills, how much her maths improved, but also her self-confidence; how bold she is speaking in public and standing up in front of her school and class. As a result, her ambitions have been raised and now she's talking about university and a career in law. That is immensely fulfilling and the only sad thing about scaling the model in the way that we have is that I don't have that same connection anymore with the 10,000 kids that I did at the start.”
Rising Academies has partnered with Oxford University to conduct an independent evaluation of the progress of its students like Mary. The final report is expected in the coming months, but Paul says the most recent results show that Rising Academies’ students are making about twice as much progress in literacy and numeracy as comparison students in alternative nearby schools.
It’s a similar picture for the schools in Liberia, where the 29 that Rising Academies manage were randomly assigned, allowing them to be compared to control schools.
“The most recent results from late 2017 show that students in our schools make between one-and-a-half to two years’ extra progress in literacy and numeracy – so about two to three times as much progress than the kids in the control schools”, Paul says.
Paul admits that the social enterprise model isn’t easy but explains that the for-profit and for-purpose elements of the business can be very supportive of each other. “People can be a bit too glib; if it was as easy as people make out then everybody would be doing it, but I also don't think it's true that it's impossible. I think a lot of it comes down to having a really strong culture and set of values about what you stand for”, he says.
Getting the model right at the start is important, Paul learned. “You've got to really understand the core economics of how your idea is going to work”, he says. “You don't need to have everything figured out, but in our case I think we were too slow to think about what the assumptions were, what's the model that we're building and how do I know that it's definitely going to be something that makes the sums add up?”
The for-purpose element has helped Paul to attract a team that he is really proud of. Having paying customers, he says, gives them a sharpness of focus that he feels they wouldn’t get from being a charity.
He explains: “I think we are much better at what we do in terms of delivering education because we get that direct customer feedback, rather than the challenge that you can have as a charity where you have a set of users or beneficiaries, but you also have a set of funders that you're trying to appeal to and I think sometimes those aren’t aligned.”
Rising Academies use the Net Promoter Score (NPS) to measure how they are meeting their customers’ expectations. Acumen Fund conducted a survey of parents to understand whether they would recommend the schools to others. With an NPS of 81, Rising Academies compared very well to the average score of around 40 for more than 100 other social enterprises that Acumen Fund had previously looked at.
Paul has learned the value of customer feedback from the very beginning of his company. “We definitely found that lots of the initial thoughts that we had about how we would approach things and what was going to be a model just didn't survive first contact with reality”, he laughs.
“Talking to the people that might be your customers is just so interesting”, he continues. “We talked to tons of schools, did focus groups with people who might be our future candidates and teacher candidates. We did a big nationwide survey with parents and that sort of data is so interesting to then change your ideas about what the thing is that you're trying to solve.”
He advises future social entrepreneurs to listen very hard to what potential customers are telling them. “I think there’s a real temptation to fall in love with your idea, when as Ann Mei Chang says actually what you should do is fall in love with the problem that you're interested in solving”, he says.
Paul acknowledges the financial challenges that social entrepreneurs face in starting up. He put cash in at the beginning, didn’t take a salary for a long time and was fortunate to have his wife’s support, but recognises this opportunity isn’t always available.
“Everybody's personal circumstances are different, and people need to put food on the table”, he says. “But I think you need to be prepared to jump out of the plane without a parachute and recognise that if it doesn't work then it doesn't work, and you need to go back and do whatever you were doing before. It can be really hard to do these sorts of things just on the side because they are so all-consuming.
“It's really tough but you have to do as little as possible to keep the lights on because otherwise you'll never get going.”
This is why Paul advocates trying to learn as much as you can through small tests, whilst spending as little as you can.
This approach helps to strengthen funding chances, he explains: “I think a lot of people's first instinct is ‘I need to go and raise money so that I can do this’, but the reality is that unless you're incredibly lucky it has to be the other way round. You have to go and do this so that you can raise money because if you've got the idea and the beginning of a track record – like an existing proposition, customers and some data – your chance of raising money is so much higher than if all you’ve got is an idea on paper."
Even though Paul’s learned a lot and there are strong signs of the team’s success, he says a few times that they are still figuring things out.
“We still feel like there's a lot that we need to keep learning and improving about our core model and while it feels like there's the kernel of something powerful there, there's a lot that we can improve.
“We’re interested, for example, in how we make our teacher coaching more effective by using simple technologies like video to show what good looks like and to provide a more engaging way for our staff to think about the practices that they're trying to emulate. So we’re planning to invest in the model, making it better and then growing our work both in our existing countries and further afield.”