Key Approaches to Scaling Community Schools

Content Manager • 9 September 2019

      During the 1990s, as Zambia transitioned away from a socialist economy, citizens were increasingly concerned about the large numbers of uneducated young people, so communities began to create their own schools. Over time, these local initiatives grew into a national movement. Today, community schools are an integral part of Zambia’s education system, but it took several stages of partial recognition and 15 years of government collaboration for these schools to be fully recognized in 2011.

      In Zambia, the following approaches helped to create, adapt, and sustainably scale community schools:

  • Align with government plans and priorities. The essential starting point for government engagement is scaling an innovation that addresses a high priority government issue. In Zambia, it was clear that community schools addressed a deeply rooted problem: providing affordable access to education for children in the most marginalized communities of Zambia. A key step came when community schools were included in a 1996 MOE policy document legitimizing their role. Following this, a secretariat was established in 1997 to serve as a unified voice for the loose coalition of community members, civil society organizations, and churches that had initiated the movement: the Zambia Community Schools Secretariat (ZCSS).

  • Draw on existing structures and include diverse perspectives. ZCSS became the official vehicle to coordinate ideas with government, advocate about the urgent need for community schools, access government funding and other technical support, and present evidence of community schools’ effectiveness to my government counterparts and me. 

  • Be flexible with implementation approach. One of the reasons community schools have effectively scaled was ZCSS’ willingness to adapt certain aspects of an older model during implementation to gain government support. Specifically, ZCSS had created a “Skills, Participation, Access to Relevant Knowledge” (SPARK) curriculum that compressed the seven-year government primary school curriculum into four years. To improve teaching, learning, and management standards, we often placed government teachers in community schools and arranged peer support opportunities between government and community school teachers. 

  • Embrace a mindset of experimentation and learning. Learning while scaling, and feeding these insights back into the scaling process, was a key part of the success of the community school movement. Over time, we observed that more resources do not necessarily translate into better results. Community schools had a flexible enrollment structure, and effective parental and community engagement. Community schools were also allowed to conduct national exams on their own premises, rather than requiring students to travel to government schools. 

      Over time, ZCSS has disappeared since community schools have grown into a national movement and become fully integrated into the national education system. It is no longer a standalone program but simply “the way things are” in the education sector in Zambia. Today, there are more than 3000 community schools in the country.

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Photo credit: David Thorp


The views expressed in the blog and the report attached are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of the SDG Philanthropy Platform. The SDG Philanthropy Platform is a global initiative that connects philanthropy with knowledge and networks that can deepen collaboration, leverage resources and sustain impact, driving SDG delivery within national development planning. It is led by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors (RPA), and supported by the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, Ford Foundation, Oak Foundation, Brach Family Charitable Foundation, and many others.