Street Child is one of the world’s fastest-growing international children’s charities. Established in 2008, Street Child works to ensure children are safe, in school, and learning especially in low resource environments and emergencies. The charity operates in over 20 countries across South Asia, sub-Saharan Africa, and Europe, from Bangladesh to Ukraine. Their mission is to ensure that by 2024 one million more children in low resource contexts are attending school and learning in safe educational environments.
As an education programme advisor for Street Child in Afghanistan, Commonwealth Alumnus Vijay Siddharth Pillai (Sid) is responsible for overseeing the charity’s education portfolio.
Sid’s role involves managing the day-to-day delivery of education and emergency projects in 15 northern and southern provinces of Afghanistan. This includes setting up classes in hard-to-reach areas where there are no public schools, delivering teacher training and recruitment, and developing appropriate teaching and learning materials to support quality education in classrooms.
The education crisis
Over the past 25 years, Afghanistan has witnessed continued conflict and significant social upheaval following the deposing of the Taliban. In August 2021, the Taliban regained control of the country and since then the education crisis in Afghanistan has become critical. UNESCO estimates that 1.1 million girls and young women have no access to formal education and 2.5 million school-aged Afghan girls and young women are out of school. Meanwhile according to Street Child around 8 million children and adolescents are out of school, signalling a wide-spread education crisis among the younger population.
Under the Taliban, girls can no longer access education above grade 6 (secondary school). However, education at lower grades is permitted and is not age restricted, meaning that is it open to adolescent girls. Sid’s work requires him to navigate these restrictions to girls’ education and engage with the Taliban authorities to deliver education programmes.
Working with local communities and Taliban authorities, Sid supported the establishment of Accelerated Learning Classes, which enable adolescent girls to complete two grades per year and reach grade 6 within three years.
For Sid, this is a positive opportunity for young girls to build essential life and work skills.
“[Street Child] has a strong belief that it is more important right now, especially in the crisis affected countries, to ensure that foundation skills are provided… these are the gateway skills for any kind of further learning to happen.”
Prior to his work at Street Child, Sid worked in low intensity conflict situations operating within the development sector in India. This experience inspired him to explore opportunities to work in fragile contexts and focusing on education in the emergencies space. It also led to him undertake an MPhil in Education, Globalisation and International Development at the University of Cambridge as a Commonwealth Scholar.
Initially, Sid was unsure that academic study would provide the practical skills needed to deliver interventions in fragile contexts. However, his Master’s thesis introduced him to the concept of structured pedagogy, which became critical to his work in Afghanistan.
A structured pedagogy programme seeks to ensure children gain foundational (literacy and numeracy) and transferable (social and emotional) skills through integrating components that improve pedagogical outcomes, such as teacher professional development, teaching and learning materials, and formative assessment.
Structured pedagogy programmes have been found to be effective in delivering early grade reading interventions in low and middle income countries, and supporting new teachers to gain professional competencies. On taking up his role at Street Child, Sid discovered that resources to implement a structured pedagogy programme had been developed by USAID, but had not been utilised owing to the practical challenges of delivering education in Afghanistan.
Building on his thesis work, Sid seized the opportunity to use these structured pedagogy resources, developing learning and teaching materials for students and teachers, and establishing a monitoring and evaluation framework to track the programme’s success.
“[Through] my MPhil I understood the value of a structured pedagogy programme and its impact on different countries… it gave me an opportunity to learn something which was highly operationalisable and not something at an abstract level. And I was also fortunate to move into a country after Cambridge where there was already an enabling environment to plan that intervention and take it forward.”
The programme has been rolled out to approximately 1,600 classes across Afghanistan and reaches an estimated 60,000 students.
To ensure the delivery of quality education to students, Sid enriched the programme by introducing teacher coaches in Education in Emergency Programs. The coaches are responsible for observing teachers, reporting on their competency, and providing real-time coaching where necessary. They are equipped with tablet devices to log their observations and house a repository of learning materials to support coaches and teachers alike. The tablet devices have been programmed to pinpoint relevant advice and resources for teachers based on the observations entered by the coach. This includes videos demonstrating how to deliver certain lessons and content.
“[O]ur teacher coaches are not subject experts. Because we are planning these projects in hard-to-reach areas, it is very difficult to find subject experts. [T]he tablet devices support coaches to provide more expert feedback to the teacher as to how he or she is performing when the classes are happening.”
Coaches are also required to complete a reading assessment of two randomly selected children in each class. The children are asked to read a passage of text while the tablet programme captures their fluency (number of words read per minute) to determine an overall class reading proficiency percentage.
Sid worked closely with Street Child’s Monitoring and Evaluation Team and other implementing partners to establish processes to log the information captured by coaches. This data was used to measure learner safety, attendance, and proficiency level, as well as teaching practices. The data is published in Safe, In School and Learning (SSL) Reports which enables project teams to set professional development goals for each teacher while also providing a system-wide overview teachers and schools in Afghanistan. This helps the project team provide focused assistance to weaker teachers or schools that need to be supported immediately.
As a result of these actions, in one of the provinces where the programme was introduced, 75% of children have a reading fluency which is average or above average according to nationally set benchmarks.
“On a month-to-month basis, my personal contribution is that Street Child knows out of the 1,600 classes, these are the classes which are doing good, these are the classes which are average, and these are the classes which are not doing well and need more support.”
Challenges on the ground
Operating in Afghanistan comes with many challenges and Sid’s team experiences regular pushback by Taliban authorities over the delivery of educational programmes in the country. Over time, new restrictions have also been introduced, including that only local non-governmental organisations (NGOs) can directly implement projects in provinces of Afghanistan, which has made Sid’s work with Street Child increasingly difficult.
By working closely with local organisations in the education and child protection space, Street Child has been able to form robust local partnerships that ensures Street Child continues its work while maintaining its operational independence and the safety of its staff in Afghanistan.
“Often you will see one provincial authority pulling in one direction, the Central Ministry pulling in another direction. So that’s something which we take care on a day-to-day basis, taking the help of the education cluster or taking the help of people whom we know are quite influential.”
Despite these operational setbacks, work is ongoing to increase access to girls’ education. Sid is currently negotiating plans for a home-based learning trial for girls above grade 7, having secured permission to pilot a similar intervention for boys, and remains hopeful about that this might set a precedent for further educational opportunities for girls.
“If this works out, then it would be a new kind of model of education in Afghanistan. Not the best way to providing education, but a kind of a safety net for boys and girls who have dropped out or pushed out of schools in Afghanistan.”
Contributing to global discussions on education
As a result of Sid’s work in Afghanistan, he is also contributing to global efforts to improve foundational literacy through the USAID’s Global Reading Network Steering Group. As one of nine members of the steering group, he has a unique opportunity to influence development in this space and support future generations.
“[T]he Steering Committee provides me a vantage point to understand how things are progressing in the foundational reading space across the world, and how the Global Reading Network can push forward in answering some of the learning questions which USAID has on foundational reading.”
Reflecting on his current position and the impact of his work, Sid is proud to say that his Master’s in Cambridge enabled him to achieve the career goals he set over 5 years ago.
“I still tell this to many people, but my position at Street Child was my first dream role I have been aspiring for.”
Vijay Siddharth Pillai is a 2018 Commonwealth Shared Scholar from India. He completed an MPhil Education, Globalisation and International Development at the University of Cambridge.