The link between poverty and poor educational attainment is a strong one. In 'developed' nations, it has become a truism that students from deprived inner-city areas are, on average, likely to achieve lower grades than those from the affluent suburbs. For decades, the causes have been identified, debated and tackled. Educational policies designed to tackle the problem have been developed, altered, dropped and replaced. But the problem remains. It's a big, complicated issue and no-one seems to have the answer.
Meanwhile, poverty also has a major impact on education in developing nations, particularly in regions where access to a regular energy supply is irregular or non-existent. The most obvious issue is a lack of school places, with students often having to walk many miles to attend. One solution is radio schools, which can not only broadcast lessons to those who are unable to reach a traditional school, but can also supplement the curriculum in those that do exist. The increasing uptake of solar-powered radios, such as those produced by Freeplay Energy, is proving invaluable in making radio schools a success.
A less obvious issue is access to adequate lighting. In tropical and equatorial regions, dusk falls early and quickly. So homework often vies with other household and community chores for completion before nightfall, and for many students, the alternative is to work to the light of a candle or kerosene lamp. Anyone who has tried to read by candlelight knows how difficult it can be, and how much strain it puts on the eyes, so this is a far from perfect solution.
Again, however, solar technology is providing a solution (and here we should declare an interest: Freeplay Energy's Energy Hub and Energy Centre lighting products are in increasingly widespread use across off-grid regions). The advent of affordable and efficient solar panels, energy storage technology and LED light bulbs has been followed by a growing uptake of lighting systems which have the potential to transform the lives of families and their wider communities.
One village in rural Kenya offers a good example. The village of Neema Nguuni, also known as the Three Hills, is benefitting from the work of a small UK-based charity, the Three Hills Action Trust. The Trust has supplied a number of Energy Hub lighting systems for the local school and these, combined with solar powered radios, have helped to significantly raise educational achievement levels. The access to vital information offered by the radios, together with the bright, reliable light provided by the Energy Centres, has enabled pupils to achieve excellent grades and move on to take the top 15 places in the local state primary school.
Meanwhile, over in the Taita region on the coast of Kenya, the NGO Health Education Africa Resource Team (HEART) has launched the Solar Lamp project. This aims to both promote education and reduce the risks associated with using kerosene lamps. Lighting Africa reports that during the launch a solar lamp was held high so the audience could see it. They were asked what they thought it was, and one bright student shouted out "It's my education!"
So, whilst raising educational achievement by tackling the causes of poverty remains a major issue, small-scale steps which give students the means to raise their own attainment are proving invaluable. Solar energy really is lighting the way.