Delivering quality in basic education remains a challenge for Peru. Innova Schools is tackling this through a fast growing programme that will, by 2020, cater for up to 70,000 students. This requires innovative approaches to building and equipping schools, training teachers and delivering game-changing education together with tight management to ensure a standard educational offer and economies of scale – essential to keeping fees affordable for middle-income families.
Although Peru is overcoming issues of access to education – elementary now has 94% national coverage and secondary 77% – problems with quality continue. In the Evaluación Censal de Estudiantes 2013, a nationwide assessment of second grade students, just 33% reached the expected level in reading comprehension and only 17% in mathematics. Furthermore, Peru’s results in SERCE¹ 2006 and PISA² 2009 evaluations are well below average; the PISA 2012 assessment placed Peru last amongst 65 participating countries. Economic growth in Peru has enabled families to choose private rather than public schools in an attempt to provide a better education for their children. In Lima, for example, 43% of schools are currently private ones (Figure 1). Many low-cost private schools, however, struggle to achieve quality educational levels.
It is against this background that Innova Schools (IS) was established as a fully-fledged commercial company in 2010 with plans to build a nationwide network of 70 schools that will serve more than 70,000 students by 2020. Currently, 23 schools are operational, 18 in the peripheral areas of Lima and 4 in the provinces, with 13,200 students and 7,250 teachers. IS takes pupils from pre-school age – 3 years old – through to the end of the secondary cycle – 11th grade, when the students are around 17. Students typically come from families whose income is somewhere around USD 900 per month. IS’s vision is to offer quality education at a reasonable cost and improve the quality education available in Peru. The organization’s three-fold challenge is to maintain and improve its educational standards, scale up its affordable-schools approach, while providing its stakeholders with acceptable returns on their investment.
Innova Schools’ educational innovation
IS is moving the focus from teacher-centered education to student-centered learning. This means focusing on the needs, abilities and interests of the students and placing the teachers as facilitators of learning. Based on principles of social constructivism, this approach makes students active participants in their own education. Methods include engaging students in inquiry, tasks that promote cognitive activity or problems-solving activities that promote debate and collaboration between peers. Approximately, 70% of students’ time involves group learning in which they work with each other, often in small groups, led by a teacher, to discover new concepts and develop high-order understanding through projects and exercises. While group learning is key to helping students develop academic skills, it also supports the development of collaboration, teamwork and leadership. Solo learning, which makes up around 30% of students’ time, involves independent, self-paced, student-led learning, often enabled by technology. Students construct their own goals, paths and work flows, with teachers providing targeted support as needed. Solo learning, a major differentiator for IS, encourages students to develop autonomy, focus and responsibility for their own learning.
This blend of direct hands-on experience in the classroom with digital learning in which students use computer-based tools to discover and work through core academic concepts is expensive and requires special teaching talent – both barriers to scale. Teachers need to have deep subject knowledge, good communication skills and confidence to build on the questions and discussions that take place in the classroom and allow students come up with their own, often different, ways of reasoning. This demands effective teacher training, a strong mentoring system through which teachers train other teachers, fewer students per class and significant investment in technology – which plays a key role in IS’s methodology. Additionally, as part of their curriculum, all students engage in a two-week interdisciplinary ‘innovation programme’ aimed at developing creativity, autonomy, team work and citizenship. In these, students try to solve societal issues – in such areas as health, environment and relevant to their reality– though a progressive process of exploration, design, experimentation, and sharing ideas. In 2013, primary pupils were asked ‘how might we help students have healthier diets’, while secondary-aged students tackled ‘how might we reduce traffic in our communities’. This activity aims to encourage students to become leaders with values, and connect what they learn in the classroom to the real world.
Ensuring quality through standard-based operation
To ensure that teachers, principals and other main actors share the same ethos, curriculum, and work towards common goals and standards, IS has developed a standard model with efficient monitoring and communication systems. First, a highly selective admission process is used to hire teachers with high potential. They are selected through a battery of standard assessments that measure their intelligence quotient (IQ), social and teaching skills, and subject knowledge. The assessments are rigourous; out of 10 applicants who pass an initial screening and move on to the full assessment process, just two are hired.
To ensure that all teachers are well equipped to tackle the rigourous and unique curriculum, system-wide in-service training programmes for teachers, principals and academic coordinators are essential, particularly as the majority of IS’s teachers are new to the profession – IS has found that novice teachers are more open and predisposed to its innovative methods. Each member of staff receives an initial 120 hours learning programme, followed by continuing in-service training. To further support its teachers, IS provides an online toolkit to help them build and plan their classes on a day-to-day basis. It contains a comprehensive set of quality lessons plans – authored and specific to IS – for each subject across every grade. The lesson plans, and their aggregation in one central resource, the Teacher Resource Center (TRC), allows IS to distribute quality teaching resources to every teacher, simplifying the process of creating common standards across its network.
A system for monitoring teacher performance has also been established. Mentors, who are highly experienced teachers from within and beyond IS, observe classes and provide precise feedback to teachers about their performance. They also collect and register teachers’ performance data, which allows the mentors to focus on low-performing teachers. This system is essential to assure permanent and significant improvement in teacher performance.
General oversight is carried out by regional directors, each of whom looks over 7–8 schools and works closely with school principals and their staff to assure and improve school functioning and management, as well as solving any problems that arise. Regional directors also play a role in identifying innovative practices and spreading them across the wider school network.
To complete this scheme, IS has established a department responsible for monitoring quality across its network. This department is in charge of the internal school accreditation process as well as the network accreditation itself – making sure that IS is meeting national and international standards of quality education. It implements regular self-assessment and external assessment as well as twice-yearly standardized tests, to measure student achievement and verify that all are meeting IS learning standards. Assessments also evaluate such skills as leadership, team collaboration and creativity that are at the core of IS’s methodology. Additionally, the department evaluates innovations across the network to ensure that they are having positive impact on student learning and achievement.
A solid business model
IS’s model requires significant investment in technology and connectivity. Each school has 27 classrooms, two media laboratories, a science laboratory and needs, on average, 100 computers, 20 multimedia projectors and a good internet connection. In 2013, the average school set-up
cost has been USD 4 million. Income comes from schools fees – an average of USD 110 per month – as well as entrance fees, enrolment fees and fees for afterschool activities. To be sustainable, while keeping fees at affordable levels to reach the targeted middle-income households, IS needs to maintain a low-cost model. That is achieved through operating efficiencies and economies of scale. With 23 schools operating at the end of 2014, and a target of 38 schools by 2016, economies of scale are achieved at a variety of levels. For example, the network’s size allows IS to obtain up to 40% discount when purchasing goods and services, including land, construction and furniture costs, compared to its smaller, single-school competitors. Schools become profitable from the third year, allowing new start-up losses to be covered by mature projects. Because of its teacher-development systems, IS is also able to recruit teachers at reasonable rates, ranging from USD 500–670 a month, slightly above equivalent pay in the public sector. This is supplemented by performance bonuses of up to one month’s salary and, as required by Peruvian law, two additional month’s salary. Teachers also benefit from an appealing compensation package.
IS’s business plan calls for total investment of USD 300 million. Construction and expansion up to 70 schools by 2020 will be based on equity contributions for the start-up period – up to 2013 – and, from 2014, on long-term multilateral financing together with cash flows generated by mature projects. It is not easy to access long-term finance, largely because commercial banks neither consider education a potentially profitable business nor recognize the assets it can offer as a guarantee. Thus, IS mostly seeks long-term financial resources from such multilateral banks as the Inter- American Development Bank (IDB), the International Finance Corporation (IFC) or the Corporación Andina de Fomento (CAF), and local or bilateral development finance institutions. IDB has recently granted Colegios Peruanos Sociedad Anónima (CPSA), IS’s business entity, a loan of USD 15 million to finance the expansion of the school network. Although IS‘s current development phase requires significant capital and operating investment, CPSA expects to move into operating profit in 2016 by when 38 schools will be open.
IS’s model is based on providing an affordable but excellent education, and scaling up its activities across Peru. This is challenging in a country where the average gross domestic product (GDP) per person is just USD 10,240 a year and middle-class household incomes are limited. Therefore, IS needs to stay focused when implementing innovation, controls its costs and meets its targets.
The rising cost of land is a serious issue, and a constraint, given the company’s plans to open 48 more schools in just seven years. While it might be possible to develop an asset-light model, purchasing land and building 70 schools by 2020 are non-negotiable goals. As a result, IS is exploring several avenues including the public sector providing land and/or financing the construction of schools.
Recruiting staff, teachers, principals and academic coordinators of the required quality is also an issue. Peru has few educational professionals, and, in general, education is not seen as an attractive career by young people. In order to overcome these recruitment problems, IS has started to develop some strategic agreements with schools of education in Peru. This, however, is a long-term solution and the good outcomes will not be seen for the five years it takes these colleges to train teachers.
Expensive and low level of internet broadband penetration in Peru – around 4% versus an average of 47% for Latin America and 52% worldwide – is another constraint. All IS’s platforms are web-based – to enable students to use them at home – and the low bandwidth, especially in the provinces, is affecting the proper implementation of IS’s education model. Another challenge of having such an extended network is the distance between each school and the time it takes to travel from one to another. It limits and shapes the way IS organizes meetings, trains teachers and handles monitoring and other logistical systems.
Finally, IS has to work to overcome parental beliefs such as the more homework students have, the smarter they become, or that books filled with exercises are the best evidence of educational quality. To overcome these misconceptions IS is making strenuous efforts to communicate better and more frequently, demonstrating what quality education looks like. Results are key, and the national assessments of mathematics and reading comprehension are providing proof of IS’s quality. Progress is encouraging. Parents’ general satisfaction collected through survey data in 2012 was 72%, this number increased in the 2013 to 80%; students’ satisfaction is 71%, and teachers’ general satisfaction is around 80%.
The developing success of IS approach is reflected not just by parents’, students’ and teachers’ satisfaction; improving, externally validated academic achievement is vital, too. In the Evaluación Censal de Estudiantes 2013, 33% of second grade students reached a satisfactory level in reading comprehension is , 47% in all private schools, but in excess of 80% in IS schools (Figure 2). Corresponding results for mathematics were a national mean of 17%, 20% for private schools, but more than 61% in IS participating schools.
¹ In late 2002, member countries of UNESCO’s Latin American Laboratory for Assessment of the Quality of Education (LLECE) launched the Second Regional Comparative and Explanatory Study (SERCE) which, drawing on the experience in a first such study (PERCE, 1998), expanded the analysis to include a higher number of countries, grades and areas in its evaluations.
² The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) is a triennial international survey which aims to evaluate education systems worldwide by testing the skills and knowledge of 15-year-old students. To date, students representing more than 70 economies have participated in the assessment.
References / Ministry of Education (Peru), 2013. Census-based student assessment 2013. Available online: http://umc.minedu.gob.pe/?p=1766 // Ministry of Education (Peru), 2013. Education school census 2013. Statistics. Available online: http://escale.minedu.gob.pe/inicio