Whenever we visit a potential partner school, we begin our conversation with the headteacher by explaining what EPAfrica does, how our application process works, and what we look for in a potential partner school. “We are looking for three things,” I always explain. “We are looking for a school where our investments will have impact; a school where our investments will be sustainable; and a school where our Project Workers will have a good experience.”
The third criterion isn’t too difficult to judge – is the school accessible from the main town, are the teachers friendly, is there somewhere safe for them to live, and so on. The first two criteria are rather harder to quantify. There are a few obvious factors which are crucial to sustainability – stable enrolment and low staff turnover in particular. But the most important element here is an engaged, committed school management, and it can be difficult to get a feel for this in the space of a few hours.
Impact is even more nebulous. Need is an obvious place to start – is the school in need of assistance, and, crucially, are we capable of addressing its particular needs? A school which primarily needs new buildings might not be the best fit for us; a school which needs science equipment and computers might be more suitable. Need doesn’t have to be financial – if the library needs reorganising, or if the school needs a guidance and counselling programme, then those are also needs that we can address.
But there isn’t necessarily a straightforward correlation between need and potential impact, even if intuitively it seems like that should be the case. Imagine that there are two schools. School A has no textbooks; School B has some textbooks, but not enough for all of its students, and they aren’t generally used in lessons. Buying a small number of textbooks for School A might not make a difference if there still aren’t enough textbooks for the students, and if the new books just sit unused in the school library. But buying the same number of textbooks for School B could ensure that there is a textbook for every student; students can now use them in lessons or take them home for private study. The impact is far greater than in School A.
It’s possible for a school to be too needy – as in the case of School A, a school’s needs may be too great for Project Workers to address with their limited funds. In fact, counter-intuitively, struggling schools are generally bad candidates for investment. Enrolment is the interesting figure here, and I saw schools this summer where enrolment was falling at a shocking rate, generally due to competition from new schools in the area. It might be tempting to invest in these failing schools, to try and turn them around. But EPAfrica’s aim is to improve the quality of education, not to improve the quality of every school we find. If students are moving to new schools because those schools are providing them with better education, then as far as we’re concerned that’s a good thing.
Inevitably, assessing potential partner schools is a highly subjective process. On a couple of occasions I’ve found myself in heated arguments with my fellow coordinators over whether we should recommend a school for investment. But getting to have these debates and make these decisions is undoubtedly one of the most interesting things about being on the summer team.