Providing learning Opportunities for All by Koïchiro Matsuura

Providing learning Opportunities for All by Koïchiro Matsuura

In his Editorial following EFA Week UNESCO Director-General Koichiro Matsuura supports all forms of non-formal approaches to providing learning opportunities for out-of-school children, particularly those that involve the community. “Governments, international organizations, donors and non-governmental organizations should consider this,” he says, “all options for learning are apt provided the quality of education is not compromised, and unorthodox approaches are worthy of dignity and recognition.”

Over 700,000 children in more than 100 countries lobbied their parliaments last April to make greater efforts to provide basic education for more than 100 million children left out of school. Participating in the Education for All Big Lobby, thousands of children – from Chile to Bangladesh, from Denmark to Mali – called on their legislators to do more to give all children a chance to go to school.

This event comes exactly four years since the international community undertook to guarantee education for all (EFA) by 2015.

Since then a great deal of progress has been made, if unevenly — 670 million children are receiving the first-level schooling they need to continue their education, or find a job.

But more needs to be done for the estimated 104 million left by the wayside, blighting prospects for themselves and for the societies in which they live.

The out-of-school children are strongly concentrated in Sub-Saharan Africa and South and West Asia, according to the latest Education for All Monitoring Report, published by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

Many of the excluded children — about 60 percent of whom are girls — are among the rural poor. Others include street children, AIDS orphans, children at work, members of minorities, children with disabilities and those caught up in conflicts. Young people beyond elementary school age who have missed out on an education also need help in order to enable them to catch up.

Experience shows that removing school fees can cause a dramatic leap in enrolment. So can providing incentives to needy parents, as Brazil does by paying a monthly stipend to 10 million poor families. Countries like Niger, Guinea-Bissau and Bangladesh have markedly improved enrolment by the simple expedient of offering school meals.

Such measures on their own are not enough, however, and it is necessary to rethink the concept of schooling in some circumstances. Children cannot get an education where there are not enough teachers, either because it is too expensive to train or pay them or because, as in some parts of Africa, so many of them are dying of AIDS. Trained teachers are often unwilling to work in rural areas, and the formal school system often excludes large groups of children, such as those who work or who do not speak the official language.

Several countries have experimented with ways out of this dilemma, and invariably the solution lies in involving the community.

The Indian state of Rajasthan provides an example of innovative and flexible thinking. With the help of the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency, regional and national authorities have established an extensive project of barefoot teachers known as Shiksha Karmi, or educational worker.

The project, launched in 1987, faced initial hostility – particularly from regular teachers, who could not see how it could provide a quality education — but has since proved so successful that many parents prefer the community-based schools.

The Shiksha Karmi teachers, all of whom are recruited young and many of whom are women, come from the community and are therefore well-placed to know which children are left out of school. They undergo 37 days of intensive training before facing their first class and receive frequent top-up courses that make them the equal of professional teachers within eight years.

To ensure high academic standards, each group of about 15 Shiksha Karmi teachers is supported by three professional teachers. The schools are tailored to the needs of the children. To give an example, they offer classes at night for children who work during the day, and the textbooks are printed in large type so that they can be read under feeble lighting, while women from the community provide escorts for girls and help in the schoolrooms.

Governments, international organizations, donors and non-governmental organizations should consider this: all options for learning are apt provided the quality of education is not compromised, and unorthodox approaches are worthy of dignity and recognition.

Educating the young – ALL the young — today will ensure social and economic development tomorrow by reducing illiteracy affecting an estimated 860 million adults. Educating girls, in particular, will have a measurable effect on health and demography.

Koïchiro Matsuura

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