“Education is the kindling of a flame, not the filling of a vessel.” – Socrates
Most people intuitively know the transformational power of a good education on the lives of individuals and their families. There is now also a host of evidence that shows that improving the quality of education also yields hugely valuable “spillover” benefits for economic growth, communities, and societies. The problem is that raising the quality of education is hard work, and it can take decades to see improvements in student outcomes.
A lot of money and effort has gone into education systems around the world. And while progress has been made, much remains to be done. The quality of education remains too low in too many places. The UN estimates that 250 million children globally cannot read, write, or count well, and one-out-of-five young people have never completed primary school and lack the skills for work. Sadly, the children who would benefit the most from better-quality education—those coming from disadvantaged families—are usually the ones who are least likely to receive it. Unchecked, this can lead to vicious circles of intergenerational poverty and lack of opportunity.
This is why today we are announcing our investment in SPARK Schools, a leading provider of high-quality affordable education in South Africa. SPARK Schools aims to go beyond delivering a marginally better education. The team’s vision is to drive internationally comparable quality of education for the children of families of all incomes, by both growing its own network of schools and also sharing the efficacy and cost-effectiveness of its approaches for the benefit of the larger system.
SPARK Schools is one of the first primary school networks in Africa to use blended learning, an academic instruction approach that combines teacher-led instruction with computer-based adaptive education technology. The combination translates into an individualized experience for each student, tailored to his or her unique learning needs. Additionally, SPARK Schools acknowledges that, at its heart, learning is a human process that involves nurturing both a child’s ability and how they engage with their peers and society. Therefore, SPARK Schools emphasizes these non-cognitive aspects through daily motivational assemblies, sports, and family engagement.
The SPARK Schools team also recognizes the crucial role of teachers. While data-led approaches and personalized learning technologies do play a powerful role, children are not merely vessels that need filling. They are unique flames that need kindling. And teachers are key to this. SPARK Schools invests heavily in their teachers’ ongoing professional development. If you talk to a SPARK Schools teacher, you will probably find yourself talking to someone who is tired at the end of each day but remains excited and enthusiastic. This steadfast dedication is a result of their students—children who are learning and thriving, who are inquisitive and caring, and who serve as the rocket fuel that powers them to be highly effective teachers.
What also differentiates SPARK Schools is its inclusiveness, as they are helping to shatter the long-held perception that quality private school is for only the wealthiest or highest-performing students. School models that are not affordable for poorer families or for the system as a whole, or which work by screening or selecting students on ability, widen the achievement gap. To overcome this, SPARK Schools has built a model that delivers elite-level quality education at a cost-per-learner that comes in at, or below, the benchmarks set by government. So, not only can poorer families afford SPARK Schools, but governments can as well, whether as customers themselves, or by replicating such pedagogic models within their own existing systems.
While SPARK Schools’ model does have the potential to reshape education opportunities throughout South Africa and beyond, the school network knows that it will not—and cannot—do this alone. Transforming an education system with deep challenges and inequities will require support from the wider education sector, society, and the government. But what SPARK Schools can do as one player in this larger movement is to show what is possible—to prove that a self-sustaining business can deliver elite-quality education to the children of home-helpers, receptionists, and traditional professionals. And that is precisely why we invested in SPARK Schools, for they are showing the world that by imaginatively leveraging the power of technology and the power of human beings, it is possible to give more people access to life-changing opportunities that can help them reach their full potential.
SPARK Schools will use its Series B funding of US$9 million/121 million South African Rand to open additional schools in South Africa. The company aims to grow its network from a current eight schools to 20 by 2019, extending its reach to 20,000 students. As impact investors, we look forward to the valuable insights that SPARK Schools’ expansion will yield, helping guide our future investments in effective and equitable education solutions.
To learn more about our firm’s education investments, read Omidyar Network partner and global education lead Amy Klement’s recent piece on Medium.