By Nathan Martin – COVID-19 may have closed the world’s classrooms, but educators continue to find ways to teach and to support their local communities. In Pakistan, a women-staffed non-profit school provider is leading the way on both, leveraging its vast network of schools to ensure learning continues and that essential aid reaches those who, in a country where 25% of the population live under the poverty line, need it the most.

The Citizens Foundation (TCF) has worked closely to support the roll-out of educational programming on state television, Teleschool, now airing daily, but it has also used every bit of data, alumni, faculty, and staff to get cash transfers, food supplies and support to vulnerable members of its communities. The lockdown closed motorways and highways, leaving many vulnerable to starvation. 

TCF is embedded deep in the culture and needs of local Pakistani communities. For the last 25 years, it has been working to provide high-quality learning to underserved learners. Today, TCF operates 1,652 schools in 700 hard-to-reach communities, educating 266,000 students. All faculty members are women. 

When I first heard of the school, I was struck not only by the rigorous and robust focus on curriculum and education, a structure that sees play and socio-emotional learning as critical as the “academic” approach, but also the focus of TCF of supporting learners through their journey, particularly girls who might be vulnerable to economic or cultural pressures. 

There was an image of a young woman playing cricket at TCF that stuck with me.

It was a mental bookmark of the transformative work underway; girls given the chance to thrive in a male-dominated sport (and society). The stories of the 40,000 TCF alumni are inspiring. Child brides who were given the right to learn and now serve as teachers. Young women becoming the first female police officers in their village.  The sons of daily wage laborers able to pursue academics and Olympic dreams. The school chain is a lighthouse, working to ensure that all students, particularly girls, have the chance to flourish.

“The TCF Board met on the Saturday after the shutdown to understand how their school system could use what it knew to alleviate the situation,” said Nadia Naviwala, Senior Advisor to TCF on Global Partnerships, “We partnered with the largest telecom in Pakistan, JazzCash, on digital cash transfers. People can spend the cash with their local fruit and vegetable vendors. Where cash transfers aren’t possible, perhaps because of lack of connectivity, we deliver food, prioritising daily-wage earners, including in ‘no go’ [insecure] and very remote areas. We are aiming to help 200-600 families within each community, 100,000 total.”

TCF is coordinating a school-wide response, a relief effort only possible due to the efforts of individual teachers, students and alumni. Each person doing their part. Former TCF students turned teachers like Zeenat mobilising their former classmates to sign-up over 600 families in two villages of Bhai Peru so they could receive aid and live on more than day-old bread and water. In Gambat, a village cut off when the motorways shut, 4,942 families are now able to light their stoves. 

And for some alumni, like Asia Ashfaq, doing their part means risking their own lives on the frontline of the fight against COVID-19.

“It is a difficult time for all of us,” said Asia, a graduate of the TCF School in Minhala, working as a technologist at Tehsil Head Quarter Hospital in Kamoki, Punjab. “But we should not lose hope and do what is necessary; that includes practising social distancing and staying home for the safety of our loved ones.”

Outside of the cash transfers, TCF has been working to find new ways to deliver instruction, currently via Teleschool and television, which provides coverage to 90 percent of Pakistan. 

As Nadia wrote in a USIP blog, “Sixty-three percent of Pakistani households have televisions. By contrast, only 36 percent have mobile internet, but even fewer would know how to navigate it given language and literacy barriers. Phones also tend to be owned by men.”

TCF is one partner creating content for Teleschool. Their approach is multigrade with a focus on play, exercise, and engagement. 

“TCF has built episodes around themes, leading kids in exercise and then inviting celebrities to read the storybooks,” said Nadia. “This may sound normal for the West, but it is different in Pakistan. Much of the Teleschool is still trying to fit teachers and the classroom onto a TV. We wanted to create something that kids of different ages can watch at once, allowing all Pakistani children to fill gaps in their literacy and numeracy.”

That thoughtfulness and attention to equity, cultural relevance and development of the whole child extends to the type of content created by the TCF team.

“The team wrote over 150 storybooks in Urdu,” said Nadia. “This is not something that is normal. You don’t get picture books made in the local language in this way. We don’t want to tell the kids what to think, we want to engage with them… And we challenge stereotypes in these storybooks. You’ll see a boy crying, a woman who travels around the world on a carpet, and a girl who is a scientist.” 

Going forward, the team is planning for all circumstances and, like Streetlight, wrestling with that question of engagement when digital access is not a given. 

“We are piloting delivering learning via a magazine,” said Nadia. “It promotes self-study through stories and activity-based learning through DIY activities. But we also want to create engagement between students and their teachers who live in the same community, in a safe way. We’re currently thinking about using grocery stores as drop-off points for exercises in the magazine.”

The next few months are critical for TCF, as they bridge economic and learning shortfalls for their communities, but also raise the necessary funding to continue to sustain the organisation–60% of that support which normally comes over the next few months.

“Our number one priority is to sustain our faculty, all of whom are women,” said Nadia. “We have 12,000 faculty members, making us the largest private provider of women in the country. We have to support them and make sure that schools are ready when students can go back.”

Formal education delivers more than instruction, it helps knit society together. TCF and the women who drive their work are proof of that.

About The Contributor

Nathan Martin is a storyteller and strategist advising start-ups, C-level executives and government ministers on education, culture, workforce development and our changing relationship with technology. Nathan is the founder of the first social intelligence platform for education development, Matterfund, supporting education leaders in the use of data-driven platforms to drive smarter edtech decision-making. Follow Nathan on Twitter @nathanmart.