Ramping up private sector engagement in secondary education - insights from the Marmalade Festival 2024

Clarity of vision, consensus on purpose, and a base of evidence are three crucial factors that can lay the groundwork for mobilising private sector interest and funding for better outcomes in secondary education and adolescent empowerment.  

To discuss the critical need of investing in the 13-18 age group, our CEO, Richard Hawkes, joined a panel of education practitioners, researchers, and funders at a session on the ‘Power of investing in the last five years of young people at school’ at the Marmalade Festival  on 11 April, 2024.  

Hosted by Transform Schools, People for Action, the panel comprised of  

  • Richard Hawkes, CEO, British Asian Trust 
  • Laura Brown, CEO, Promoting Equality in African Schools 
  • Urvashi Wattal, Associate Director of the Policy Team at J-Pal South Asia 
  • Libby Burkeman, Head of Grants at Kusuma Trust, UK 
  • Neetu Sahu, Director of Quality Assurance and Impact at Transform Schools, and  
  • Ian McBride, Head of Digital Impact and Sustainability, India, at British Telecom.  

It was moderated by Pankaj Vinayak Sharma, Co-founder and CEO, Transform Schools.   


Three key insights from the panel discussion 

Young adults– particularly women - in South Asia face several challenges around accessibility of education and related services, affordability, quality and social norms, which limit their ability to achieve their potential. There is a body of evidence to suggest that discontinuity at secondary education has far reaching consequences for higher education, female labour force participation (FLFP), and child marriage. There is an urgent need to catalyse more public and private sector funding and engagement for secondary education and adolescent empowerment.  

Based on our discussions, we have distilled three key insights into the groundwork needed for greater private sector participation and funding for this sector. 

1. Articulate the value proposition of investing in secondary education and adolescent empowerment 

A host of outcomes matter all at once for wellbeing of adolescents – being in school, good grades, clarity on aspirations and career choices, continuum from school to work, and strong life skills. Due to these complexities, consensus around the ‘north star’ or what success looks like is very difficult to build and therefore the value proposition of investing in these areas remains unclear to donors.  

Interventions such as skilling have evident returns in the form of jobs, but the return on investment (ROI) for secondary education is not clearly understood. We must build understanding of what a common goal could be, the outcomes to be achieved, and how donors may contribute to these outcomes meaningfully. Agenda setting discussions and collaborations are necessary to establish a clear vision for interventions and overcome reticence to investing in this sector and age group. 

2. Strategically align with private sector funder’s competencies and expertise to deepen engagement  

Changemakers and social organisations can leverage and receive a lot more value from the private sector than just funds if they identify and engage donors who have a strategic interest in the cause.  

For instance, our partnership with BT Group has enabled us to deliver a range of interventions to empower adolescent girls in India, by equipping them with digital literacy and skills, access to digital tools and readiness for STEM careers.  

BT Group’s core expertise in digital excellence have helped our local partners innovate and improve digital delivery of programmes. Their women leaders have inspired hundreds of adolescent girls to pursue their careers and challenge gender norms. Thus, the BT Group has leveraged their wealth of their knowledge, expertise and skilled employee base to deepen the outcomes on ground. 

3. Advance and disseminate evidence and effective practices  

The evidence on interventions that work when it comes to addressing various barriers in secondary education and adolescent empowerment is slowly but surely growing.  Data and evidence are vital when investing in adolescents to foster trust among communities and drive attention among key experts and stakeholders of the education and development sectors. 

It is crucial that the existing evidence base be made available to funders in a user-friendly way to clarify the link between inputs and programme outcomes, demonstrate ways of measuring success and share achievements and failures. Existing donors who already have interventions and programmes need to ensure that they are contributing to the data and knowledge base by embedding evidence and learning agendas into their work. 

Ian McBride of BT Group stated, “We've undertaken an independent review of our adolescent empowerment programmes in India, to understand how we can deepen our impact. However, we also recognise the need to generate data and evidence for further investment in such a critical area. Early findings are promising, and we're looking forward to sharing our learnings with other funders and partners to promote cross learning and empower many more adolescents in India and across the world.” 

To conclude, the panel discussion highlighted how interventions in secondary education and adolescent empowerment were under resourced, with the British Asian Trust shedding more light on how to effectively involve the private sector over the coming years. Collaboration between various stakeholders, adopting a data and evidence-backed approach, facilitating dialogue with private sector are all vital to ensure that adolescents can thrive.