There are few people who are able to recognise the potential of a single drop in the ocean but those who do will find that every drop counts. This was the founding philosophy behind the Research Education Advocacy and Development (READ) Foundation.

READ was set up by five friends who found themselves caught up in a conversation about the dismal state of the country. But instead of just talking, they decided to act. Pooling together 25,000 rupees, they rented a building, bought furniture, hired and trained a teacher, and found 25 children to attend the school. Today READ foundation has 340 schools across the country and has seen 100,000 students graduate since 1994.

“The philosophy behind READ is to help those who do not have access to education,” says Afzaal Ahmed, READ Head of Outreach and Donor Relations. “One group that has been marginalised is orphaned children.” One year into their operations, they noticed that many children enrolled in their school did not return. “We realised it was the hidden cost of education, things like books, bags, transport, that was driving them away, so we decided we needed to subsidise these costs.”

The Foundation’s Orphan Sponsorship programme now provides support for 8,000 children, including orphans and children from families where there is no breadwinner. These children make up about 12 per cent of READ’s total enrolment. As many as 20 per cent of students benefit from concessions or subsidised education, while the remainder pay a fee of 400-500 rupees.

READ has six key objectives: quality education for all, low cost or free education, environment friendly education facilities, holistic learning, community involvement, and volunteerism. It takes pride in its purpose-built campuses and state-of-the-art facilities. Already 150 of their schools have science laboratories and more than 50 have computer labs, and there are plans to introduce similar facilities in all their campuses.

“Our schools should be self-sustaining and that is the goal,” says Ahmed, explaining that the fees collected are used primarily to pay operational and running costs. “The schools should be able to sustain their own costs and still be able to cater to the neediest.”

From a modest start in rented premises with a small group of students, today READ has 80,000 children in their schools, the majority of which are in Azad Jammu and Kashmir region, with some schools in Gilgit-Baltistan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and northern Punjab as well. Over the years, the network has grown to become one of the largest education systems in the not-for-profit sector and the largest education provider in Azad Jammu and Kashmir.

Currently 55 per cent of their teachers are women and 43 per cent of the students are girls. The Foundation runs 3 boarding schools for underprivileged girls, and their schools produce 500 ‘youth leaders’ each year.

“All our teachers are from the local community,” Ahmed explains. “In fact I visited a school recently and out of the 10 teachers there, seven were graduates of a READ school.” He adds that many students have gone on to become teachers, doctors or engineers.

Ali Adnan, from Bandala, Azad Jammu and Kashmir, started at a READ school in after his father died in 1998. “I joined the school with my older brother,” he recalls. “I didn’t have to pay tuition fees and they gave me everything—books, bag, uniform, notebooks and stationary.” Adnan is currently settled in Mirpur where he works as a mechanical engineer in a hydropower company. He completed his schooling and secured a scholarship to study engineering at the University of Science and Technology, Mirpur. “Everything I am today, whatever I am, it is because of READ,” says Adnan. “I owe them a lot. The best thing is that they take care of orphans, and this work is invaluable.”

Education is the Constitutional right of every Pakistani child and yet 25 million children in this country are not in school. But solutions to the country’s education crisis are within our grasp. READ Foundation is a glowing example of what can be achieved if people stop talking and start doing.