Frequently Asked Questions
- Universal Learning Solutions is a Community Interest Company (CIC), what does this mean?
A CIC is effectively a “not-for-profit” organisation which has primarily social aims and undertakes activities that are ‘for the benefit of the community’. This means it exists to benefit the wider community rather than for individual private gain or to promote the interests of a small group of people. The assets and profits must be permanently retained within the CIC and used solely for the benefit of its social aims or transferred to another organisation which itself has an asset lock, such as a charity, or another CIC.
In practice, this means that any surplus made through our work is either put back into improving our current projects, building the capacity of the organisation, or donated to charitable causes. For example, within a six month period Universal Learning Solutions donated £3,000 to charitable causes in Nigeria and Nepal, including funding of scholarships and donations to the Nepal earthquake appeal. Being set-up as a CiC rather than a registered charity allows the organisation to remain flexible and adapt quickly to needs of the government and the challenging contexts in which we work as well as being able to take greater risks than a charity would.
- Your organisation seems to have achieved a lot in a very short time. You are a young company, how have you achieved this?
The work of Universal Learning Solutions follows on from ten years of school and literacy projects in Nigeria, carried out by an organisation called Stepping Stones Nigeria (now known as Safe Child Africa (http://www.safechildafrica.org/). This organisation was founded by Gary and Naomi Foxcroft (Directors of Universal Learning Solutions) in 2006, after they had established a charity school in the Niger Delta region of Nigeria. Naomi, a teacher who had taught with Jolly Phonics for many years, approached the educational publisher Jolly Learning Ltd asking for materials for the school. The publisher donated Jolly Phonics materials, and the use of these materials alongside training for the teachers led to outstanding results at the charity school.
Following this success, Naomi and Gary worked with a Nigerian university, the University of Uyo, to pilot Jolly Phonics in six government schools. The positive results led to the Akwa Ibom State government electing to use Jolly Phonics in more than 1,000 primary schools, which was supported by donations from Safe Child Africa, Isle of Man Overseas Aid Committee, The Equitable Charitable Trust and The Waterloo Foundation among others. Safe Child Africa worked for four years in Akwa Ibom State and also rolled out Jolly Phonics in all primary schools in adjoining Cross River State. The success of these projects and sustained federal level advocacy led to more than 10 Nigerian states demanding Jolly Phonics in their schools. This demand was more than Safe Child Africa could address, with its primary focus on child rights. So with consent from the trustees, its founders chose to create a new organisation, Universal Learning Solutions, to effectively meet this demand.
This organisation was set-up with the objective of enabling as many children as possible to read and write and therefore enjoy their right to learn. Safe Child Africa then handed over all major literacy operations to Universal Learning Solutions. This huge jump in capacity would not have been possible without advice from Universal Learning Solutions’ expert advisers and consultants, close collaboration with state universities, and the enhanced philanthropic offer from Jolly Learning Ltd. This philanthropic offer provides donations of free Jolly Phonics materials for every government school Primary 1 teacher and pupil in all states for a one year period, free training for primary 1 teachers and head teachers, and free copyright permission for states to print their own materials after using up the initial donation of materials.
- The majority of your work appears to be using Jolly Phonics. Does this mean that you are the same as Jolly Learning, the publisher of Jolly Phonics?
No. As explained above, Universal Learning Solutions stemmed from charitable activities aimed at providing a better education for children in Nigeria and other African countries. Jolly Phonics was identified as a method that was proven to work and that is extremely popular with Nigerian teachers. It is also very simple to train with Jolly Phonics due to the easy, repetitive nature of the training and easy to use materials. Our staff continually advise Jolly Learning on necessary changes and additions to their materials to make them more applicable for the African context. In addition to this, we have created supplementary materials to make learning easy such as training videos, reading books, schemes of work, and advice sheets that are solely the property of Universal Learning Solutions.
Universal Learning Solutions also understands the need to integrate other elements into their programmes to ensure the holistic improvement in literacy levels we aim to achieve. For example, in Nigeria we are carrying out a pilot project with the University of Calabar to research the impact of oral storytelling using ‘Storyshapes’ on children’s vocabulary acquisition as well as increasing opportunities for speaking and listening. We are also developing a training component to support foundational literacy skills for children in the early years’ classroom, and have been meeting with linguists on the need for phonics in the Hausa language. Additionally we are working with a team of leading authors and illustrators to create our own range of decodable stories for very early readers, and we are seeking to collaborate with other publishers who have managed to achieve this at a low cost.
Universal Learning Solutions is not the charitable arm of Jolly Learning, and is instead a partner that is enabling Jolly Learning’s strong desire to see their programme lead to increased literacy levels across low income countries. To date Jolly Learning have donated £900,000 in materials and training and Universal Learning Solutions are maximising the sustainable impact of these donations through implementing projects in partnership with governments. It is obvious that a donation from a publisher will never lead to increased literacy levels without a strong and effective implementation – this is where ULS comes in.
- What is unique about your model?
We believe that our model of working is unique and provides an effective alternative to the charity/donor-led model of provision of overseas aid. In effect, our work harnesses the core strengths of four distinct sectors in order to deliver wide-scale literacy interventions. Government (Federal and State), private (Jolly Learning Ltd), not-for-profit (Universal Learning Solutions) and academia (various Universities and Colleges of Education) work together throughout all stages of project design and implementation. Our approach, based on harnessing and developing key personal and professional relationships, is very flexible, and results driven.
To complement the private philanthropic offer from Jolly Learning, Nigerian Federal and State Government provides the funding to properly implement the project and embed the Jolly Phonics methodology in the education system. To date, over 95% of Universal Learning Solutions’ income has come from Government contracts in Nigeria. This is something that we are very proud of and we believe the use of such funds highlights the high levels of “buy-in” that are provided by Nigerian Government departments, most especially the Universal Basic Education Commission (UBEC).
Through enabling governments to use their funds effectively to deliver measurable improvements in literacy levels in government schools, we believe our work contributes to building the system of good governance in the countries in which we operate. Universal Learning Solutions believes that this model is more effective than the provision of aid and we believe that this will help contribute to long-term sustainable growth and development in the countries in which we operate.
- What is the motivation of Jolly Learning in donating so many free materials to schools around the world?
The CEO and Founder of Jolly Learning, Chris Jolly, lived for a number of years in Ibadan, Nigeria, where his father worked as a paediatric doctor. During this time, Chris developed an affinity with Nigeria as well as a desire to help those who were not as educated as him. Years later, when Jolly Phonics was identified as being a highly successful tool for increasing literacy in the UK, Chris wondered how this method might help children in developing countries. It was at this moment that the founders of ULS approached Chris Jolly, having never met him before, to request his support at their charity school in Nigeria (see point 2 above).
Now that Jolly Learning has been commercially very successful around the world, both in private and public schools, Chris Jolly wishes to use the last few years of his publishing career to enable as many children as possible across the developing world to also benefit from the success of the Jolly Phonics programme. It is acknowledged that the adoption of Jolly Phonics by states may lead to increased sales in private schools, however Jolly Learning was already used by private schools around the globe for many years before ULS started its work. Those who have known and worked with Chris for a number of years truly value his philanthropic initiative and in 2013 The University of Uyo awarded him with an honorary doctorate for his contribution to raising literacy levels in Akwa Ibom State. ULS does not benefit commercially from any of the work that it carries out.
- You seem to only focus on phonics in English, but many of the children that you reach do not have English as their mother tongue. Are you doing anything to address the need for phonics in the language of the immediate environment?
In all of the countries in-which we operate children are required to learn English to varying degrees. In a country like Nigeria, children are to learn the curriculum in their home language for the first three years of primary schooling, with English being taught as a separate subject. However, in the fourth year, all learning must then take place in English. With this in mind, ULS recommends that Jolly Phonics (as well as additional English language teaching) should be used for the English component of the curriculum for the early grades. This has the objective of helping children to be able to “read to learn” in English by the time they reach the fourth year of schooling. Studies have shown that, for native English speakers, it takes an average of 2 ½ years for children to be able to read fluently in English.[i]
In Nigeria, for a variety of reasons, this time-span will be significantly more and, therefore, ULS chooses to start introducing reading in English from Primary 1 (and even earlier if possible), to enable the children to achieve reading fluency by the time they are in the fourth year of schooling. We believe that, for countries like Nigeria, our efforts to improve English literacy levels are extremely important as, without English literacy, pupils will not be able to access the rest of the curriculum from Primary 4 and so are much more likely to fail and/or drop out of school. However, ULS is also aware of, and supports, all the research that shows that children find it easier to read when they learn in their home-language and that children are more likely to do well in a second language where they have first language literacy skills to build upon. ULS currently does not work in the area of mother-tongue literacy but we are very interested in partnering with organisations and academic institutions that are working on this. We would be interested in piloting the sequencing of mother tongue literacy programmes followed by Jolly Phonics as a final preparation for ‘reading to learn’ in English in the latter years of schooling.
- Is it just phonics instruction that you focus on or do you train teachers to teach other skills such as fluency and comprehension?
Jolly Phonics focuses on developing decoding skills in order to improve pupils’ word recognition ability. Jolly Phonics also contains lots of vocabulary development and reading practice that helps to improve fluency. However, at the moment, our programme does not have a great deal of focus on comprehension and broader English language development. This is because the main capacity gap that we observed was in the teachers’ ability to teach decoding skills. Despite this, our research has shown that pupils taught with Jolly Phonics have better comprehension skills than those taught with conventional methods. Moreover, in partnership with Jolly Learning, we are now working on developing an English as a Second Language (ESL) scheme to go alongside Jolly Phonics in order to provide a more holistic package.
- Are you just a training provider?
Universal Learning Solutions always seeks to ensure that the use of Jolly Phonics, and indeed other methods that we may train teachers in, is implemented in an effective and sustainable way. We do this by implementing a range of other activities in addition to the provision of training and materials. These activities include follow-up monitoring and mentoring for teachers, refresher training, the awarding of prizes for teachers and other initiatives aimed at motivating teachers, the establishment of “Teacher Networks” within which good performing teachers help to mentor other teachers in local clusters, training and the provision of resources for the state and local government officials that are responsible for monitoring and mentoring teachers and the building of in-state expertise and Jolly Phonics trainers, amongst other things. Moreover, we are also partnering with various federal level agencies in order to ensure that synthetic phonics is integrated into national policy, the national curriculum, pre-service training for teachers and to ensure that it is approved within all relevant funding streams.
- You are a small organisation, where does your expertise come from?
The Directors of Universal Learning Solutions have many years of experience working on educational and child’s rights issues in Nigeria as well as having a thorough background in early grade reading. Naomi Foxcroft and Louise Gittins both have extensive experience of teaching literacy themselves as well as training others, managing literacy projects and presenting at conferences on phonics and early grade literacy. Gary Foxcroft is an award winning social entrepreneur who has over 10 years’ experience of setting-up and managing organisations and advocating for change within the child rights and education sectors.
The Directors are supported by a highly motivated and committed team who bring a wide range of skills and experience from the teaching, development and academic sectors. The majority of staff have spent a considerable amount of time living and working in developing countries providing them with direct experience of the context and challenges of the countries ULS operates in and strong empathy with those whom we work with on-the-ground.
ULS also works with its team of advisors and consultants which provide ongoing valuable expertise and advice to ensure we are continually improving our work. We also seek to partner with organisations who wish to collaborate on sharing of expertise.
- What is Jolly Futures?
Following the success of the Jolly Phonics project in Nigeria, the work has now expanded to a number of other low-income countries across Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. To date Jolly Futures is working in 23 other countries. In order to reflect the increased scope of the work and the joint collaboration between Jolly Learning and Universal Learning Solutions, we felt that it was appropriate to develop a new name for our project and believe that Jolly Futures perfectly encapsulates what we are trying to achieve with our work. For more information visit Jolly Futures
[i] Seymour, Philip HK, Mikko Aro, and Jane M. Erskine. “Foundation literacy acquisition in European orthographies.” British Journal of psychology 94.2 (2003): 143-174.