Sheeba and her friends arrive at the National Museum in Karachi the day after her birthday, to see some exhibits they didn’t have time to see the day before. To their surprise, there is a big commotion at the museum. Inside they learn that an alarm has been activated, and the police are trying to work out what has happened. Will Sheeba and her friends be able to help the police to solve the mystery using their science skills?

Don’t worry, Sheeba isn’t a real detective and nobody has stolen anything from the National Museum in Karachi. This is the beginning of a “Sheeba the Detective” story published by AZCorp and funded by UK aid through the Ilm Ideas II programme. The Sheeba series of comic books has been created as a form of ‘edutainment’, both to motivate students to use maths and science skills to solve real world problems, but also to encourage positive gender roles. The UK government through its Department for International Development (DFID) set up Ilm ideas II to work mostly with the private sector to develop new initiatives to tackle the education problems that Pakistan faces.

Another 9 year old girl– let’s call her Nadia – lives in an isolated village in District Swabi in Khyber Pakhtunkhawa. She is studying in grade 4 in a small single teacher school. Children of all ages and other grades also attend this school. Despite her best efforts, Nadia’s teacher Shamaila struggles to teach what Nadia needs to learn because she has had limited training and she teaches children from all grades on her own. While appointing extra, skilled teachers to the school would solve many of the challenges, it is hard to find people in remote areas with the right knowledge and skills to teach. Teachers from other parts of the country are reluctant to move to remote areas like this.

Using technology, one innovation funded by Ilm Ideas II called TeleTaleem connects children and their school teachers in remote areas to a trained specialist teacher in Islamabad. In this case, the specialist teaches English, mathematics and science to children in grades 4 and 5. This allows Shamaila to focus on teaching the lower primary grades. The same technology is used to provide regular training and support to Shamaila at the school and those teaching nearby.

Ilm Ideas II is supporting hundreds of thousands of children across Pakistan. Maryam Nisa opened her first early childhood education centre for 29 children on the outskirts of Islamabad. She is just one of the 750 entrepreneurs trained by the Parwaan programme, another UK funded Ilm Ideas II innovation. It is providing much needed early childhood education services in Punjab, ICT, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan and Maryam now earns a good monthly income.

These are just some of the innovations Ilm Idea II supports. Alongside DFID’s other education programmes that work with provincial governments on a large scale, this programme aims to help the poorest and most marginalised children in Pakistan: children like Nadia. The programme has three strands.

It helps new start-ups who want to improve quality or access to education to develop their ideas into a successful business. The programme does this by working with business incubators in Pakistan who find and support education start-ups through the early stages of developing their ideas. Many of these start-ups are developing exciting and potentially transformative ideas including mobile teaching units for hard-to-reach communities, and augmented reality games to help improve cognitive and motor skills of children with disabilities.

Secondly, the programme provides funding and advice to organisations or businesses that are already working on education challenges to scale up to reach more children and improve the educational outcomes of their interventions. We are supporting some really promising initiatives which include tablet-based teaching systems for informal schooling in communities without access to formal education, and a franchise model to give educated women the skills to teach grades 1 and 2 from their homes to small groups of out of school children.

We also have an eye on the future, beyond UK support. That’s why we’re helping the Pakistani organisations we’re working with to structure themselves in such a way to mobilise interest from potential investors in the private and public sector, to make sure that education innovations continue to thrive beyond the lifetime of this programme. This is a real challenge, because the poorer and more marginalised consumers that our programme has been targeting don’t always offer the short-term prospect of large profit margins that traditional investors require. Some of the ideas we have supported are already on their way to finding sustainable models, and we hope that local business and government support can help to bring these ideas to scale to help address the shortfall in educational needs.

The programme is now in its fourth year and will conclude by early 2019. The businesses it supports are projected to reach hundreds of thousands of children – and many more in the future. The challenge now is to find ways to sustain the flow of innovative education projects in Pakistan beyond the lifetime of the programme and build on the interest, creativity and entrepreneurship that exists here. Ilm Ideas II is looking to business and investors and government in Pakistan for their ideas, expertise and support to make this happen. Could this be you?

 

The writer is the head of Department for International Development (DFID) in Pakistan.