‘Nowadays it is important for the future of the nation.” Not my words but those of another John, a 16 year old PEAS school student, when asked about the importance of secondary education for girls. I couldn’t agree with him more.

Time stands still for a girl when she finishes primary school. Imagine you’re at the starting line of a 100m race: your lane is clear and you can see space ahead of you to run into. Then, one by one, hurdles drop before you that will slow, or even halt, your progress. And, you’ve probably guessed it; the boy who’s in the lane next to you doesn’t have half the hurdles in his lane. The sad thing of course, is that getting to the finishing line is critical to the rest of your life and whilst many girls valiantly run at those hurdles, very few navigate them all.

A few years ago PEAS took on a challenge: the Girls’ Education Challenge (GEC). Realising that far fewer girls than boys enrol in secondary school, stay in school and leave school with good results, we embarked on a project with the Department for International Development (DfID) to knock those barriers down.

We spent a bit of time assessing all the barriers facing girls in communities around our schools and set about finding options we felt would fix each problem. This takes a bit of time; not all fixes are in our control. For example, financial pressures facing families sometimes mean children need to work to put food on the table. But we felt many of the problems were surmountable and designed a programme to support girls each step of the way.

The first stage looks at enrolment. Too many girls are walking out of the primary school gates, never to set foot inside a school again. Education ends too soon and the resulting health, wealth and well-being implications impact not only the individual but the nation as a whole.

Next on the agenda is attendance. Quite simply, the less time spent in class the lesslearning occurs. If we’re to really impact girls’ education this strand also needs tackling. As does retention; year-on-year drop-out rates are extremely high, across Sub-Saharan Africa. Completing all four years of school leads to our final measure: results. And we’re not simply talking about achieving the top grades; we know that isn’t feasible for every student. What is achievable, however, is learning progress. Measuring how far a student has come from the time they entered secondary school to when they leave. This ‘value add’ measure compares students not on their final grades alone but, more importantly, where they started.

The measures introduced are extensive and this week we’ve released how this project is doing at the half-way point. Some of the more impactful measures turned out to be material improvements to school facilities to make them safer, more comfortable learning environments for girls, gender sensitive teacher training and accountability measures to create a more supportive learning environment for girls.

In just two academic years, girls attending PEAS schools improved exam results from 4% behind the national average to 6% ahead of the average. Our GEC supported schools are in the top 10% in Uganda on the value add measure.

As a result, more girls wanted to start secondary school and female enrolment was up by a staggering 56%. Attendance was also significantly improved; along with the introduction of re-usable sanitary kits, which have proven to reduce absenteeism, girls told us their school felt a safer and more enjoyable environment in which to learn.

These are the top lines but we have learned so much over the last few years, lessons that we will implement across our whole school network. In prioritising girls, the GEC project has allowed us to focus on a marginalised group within a marginalised group. I say that because all PEAS students in rural Uganda and Zambia are marginalised but the hurdles facing our girls sit on top of the barrier of poverty that the majority of our students face.

I feel confident that girls attending PEAS schools will build on these successes throughout their lives. Part of our GEC project has been to broaden their horizons so they see this potential ahead of them. Progress at the half-way stage is already showing how much these targeted measures are capable of achieving. With the next year all mapped out, we’re looking forward to seeing what the overall impact will be.