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Strategy sessions I.4 >Primary Education
 
World Education Forum
Dakar, Senegal 26-28 April 2000
 
Making primary education universal and free
Issues Paper
 
Strategy Session I.4
 
Original : English
 
Introduction
 
  Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights proclaims: "Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Elementary education shall be compulsory." More than 50 years later, primary education for all is far from being a reality in many countries. Admittedly, since the World Conference on Education for All (Jomtien, 1990), progress has been made in various regions of the world, but the achievement remains modest. Can we accept that, today, 125 million children, two-thirds of them girls, are still deprived of schooling? Or that among those who do have access to schooling, 150 million drop out before they have achieved the most basic level of learning attainment - the ability to read and write?
 
   The situation continues to be a cause for concern, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, the only world region where the number of children not attending school is continuing to increase rather than decrease, and in southern Asia. It is an absolutely intolerable situation in this twenty-first century, in which knowledge, which has become the most powerful factor in human development, will more than ever determine the fates of individuals and of communities, leading to the marginalization of those who are deprived of it. This indicates how urgent it is that the international community consider education for all in all parts of the world as a categorical imperative if we are to guarantee the right to human dignity of every child, girl or boy, to fight effectively against poverty, and to provide the basis for balanced development throughout the world.
 

1. Speed up progress towards uninterrupted schooling for all children

 
In most countries, legislation exists to make schooling compulsory. Such legislation ought to be generalized as a solemn affirmation of the responsibility incumbent on all States to guarantee primary education for all children, girls and boys, living within their borders. It would follow that an evaluation would be required of any obstacles to the application of such legislation in each country, in order to direct research efforts to finding specific solutions capable of surmounting those obstacles in the shortest possible time. The constraints may vary from one country to another: scarcity of resources, excessive debt, very rapid population growth, population dispersal over wide areas, the AIDS/HIV pandemic, civil war, inappropriate educational models, etc. In general terms, two types of constraint are encountered, and relate to supply and demand.
 
1.1 Removing constraints related to supply
 

The recruitment and training of teachers, the building and fitting out of classrooms, the provision of textbooks and other teaching materials, etc., so as to be in a position to cater for all children, girls and boys, in the school system - all these tasks require a sufficient share of national resources to be allocated to primary education. This presupposes that when State budgets are allocated to different sectors, priority is to be accorded to education, and, within the overall educational budget, top priority to primary education. To supplement the efforts of the State and to increase the capacity of educational supply, extrabudgetary resources may be mobilized by inviting different sectors of society, including international aid agencies, to participate. In any case, an acceleration strategy requires a substantial increase in resources allocated to education in general (to 6% of GNP, according to several international demands) and to primary education in particular. The shortfall is still considerable, as shown by the percentage of GNP earmarked for education: 3.8% in Africa, 2.7% in Asia and 2.8% in Latin-America. However, with the political will of the international community these gaps could be filled rapidly: 4 days' worth of worldwide military expenditure, or 7 days' worth of revenue from financial speculation on the international markets would cover the annual costs of universal schooling.

 
But it is also observable that, even with an equivalent level of resources, and taking everything in proportion, different school systems exhibit widely different performance levels in terms of access and retention. It has even been suggested that, in most developing countries, the solution to the problem of primary education for all lies not so much in increasing funding as in making better use of existing resources. In other words, what makes the difference is the efficient use of resources. An analysis of the experience of several countries shows how models for the recruitment, remuneration, management and deployment of teachers in the cost-benefit decisions that have to be taken in various areas have a major impact on the acceleration in enrolment ratios. And here, the increasingly high mortality rate due to AIDS/HIV among teachers is a major challenge faced by many countries.
 

Making more efficient use of available resources to extend supply presupposes in-depth sectoral analyses in order to enable substantial policy reforms to be put in place, on the basis of a better understanding of the fundamental facts, statistics, of school mapping, etc. This translates into more effective planning and more efficient management of resources, according to the distribution of the target population and the search for the best cost-benefit profiles. This is one of the priorities to which the international community should pay closer attention when providing assistance.
 
1.2 Removing constraints related to demand
 
1.2.1 Improving the quality of education The supply of primary education does not always correspond to the requirements of different communities. Mediocre teaching quality and/or weak educational attainment can lead parents to doubt the usefulness of schooling. As a result, they may refuse to enrol their children, or even withdraw them from school, girls especially. Besides the need for a sufficient number of teachers, who provide the richness of the learning environment, this problem concerns teachers' qualifications, their motivation, the effectiveness of teaching/learning methods, the quality of curricula and how schools are organized to carry out their educational mission, how performance targets are fixed in the main subjects, how pupils' results are monitored and evaluated, and how much time is devoted to teaching. Here, too, the impact of AIDS/HIV on the quality of education is felt in certain countries in terms of absenteeism, and of the loss of greater numbers of qualified teachers than it is possible to train. The possibilities opened up by the use of new information and communications technologies, inter alia to make knowledge accessible to a wider audience, to strengthen the teaching-learning process (including self-teaching), and to provide in-service training for working teachers, constitute an important issue but also represent a great challenge to which more attention ought to be paid and to which more sustained efforts should be devoted, with a view to integrating them into national policies.
 
1.2.2 Emphasizing the relevance of education Beyond the question of quality as discussed above, a problem can arise as to the relevance of the education on offer in relation to what communities believe their basic educational needs to be. Here, thanks to a redefinition of the aims of primary education, the requirement is to link schooling, learning and educational content more closely with the values, needs and realities of the local context: cultural identity, poverty alleviation, specific development potential, etc. Decentralized provision, management and monitoring of educational services, the use of local languages in teaching and curricular flexibility are all ways in which school and the community can be brought closer together and the community allowed to share in the debate on how education should be designed and implemented. What is at stake is not simply whether or not parents accept schooling, but how basic communities can identify with primary education. This will certainly lead to positive results in terms of attendance and the quality and relevance of classroom learning as it relates to solving practical social problems. Hence a strengthening of the educational dimension of teaching, the general awareness of schooling and the motivation of its principal actors.
 
1.2.3 Making primary education free of charge The direct and indirect costs to parents of schooling strongly influence demand, and the estimates of value-for-money that parents make can dissuade them from enrolling their children at primary schools, especially in rural areas and especially where girls are concerned. One lesson that has been learned from the analysis of successful policy-making, in Uganda and Malawi for example, is that making education free of charge dramatically accelerates progress towards primary education for all. How free-of-charge provision is implemented varies from country to country, the key element being to make quite sure that no pupil, girl or boy, is ever excluded from school for financial reasons. Either the costs charged to parents must be affordable, or parents must be eligible financial assistance to help them cover those costs. Recourse by States to private education, including community schools, is not in conflict with the free-of-charge principle as long as a distinction is drawn between the provider of finance (the State) and the provider of education (the private sector, NGOs or the community). This option may in some contexts be cost-benefit decision, and moreover may prove a source of enrichment for education through the involvement of various participants in civil society.
 
All in all, the responses provided to these questions determine the impetus to be given to the social demand for education, and also to the efficiency of the school system through educational and structural reforms leading, inter alia, to the reduction or removal of resistance to schooling, of repeating years and of dropping out. This shows the benefits to faster-growth enrolment strategies of a judicious combination of supply and demand policies, widening of access, and improvements in quality and relevance. Should not the assistance of the international community lay greater stress on demand policies and on this link?
 
2. Emphasizing schooling for the most disadvantaged and vulnerable children, both girls and boys
 
Should not more attention be paid to children in difficulties, who are often excluded from the education system - those from country areas, girls, working children, disabled children, those orphaned as a result of AIDS/HIV, those living in war-torn territories, street children, nomadic children? In most cases, these children represent the bulk of the last quarter of the eligible population which education-for-all programmes have the most difficulty in reaching. For the traditional model of a unique form of primary education for all which we are attempting to generalize is seldom appropriate to their particular situation and constraints. What is required is an approach to school mapping that is more demand-oriented than supply-oriented, so as to take account of the geographical distribution of remote and/or isolated communities. Schools need to be as close to these children as possible, which in most cases means setting up small school units with mixed ability classes so that the complete cycle of primary education can be provided under one roof.
 
Considered in its entirety, the issue raises questions related to the design, financing and development of models of primary education which make it possible to cater appropriately in schools for these groups of children, girls as well as boys, by responding satisfactorily to their needs and their rights, especially their rights to health, nutrition, protection and safety. This approach is essential to equitable policies, whose success will be a strong factor in driving forward acceleration strategies for education for all.
 
These strategies must have a certain built-in flexibility in the organization of time and spaces for learning, so that proper account is taken of the particular constraints weighing on these children, both girls and boys. Informal and/or specialized forms of basic education can make these approaches even more flexible and relevant. But it will then become necessary at the same time to ensure equality of access to quality educational services, full recognition of basic educational attainment, judged to be the equivalent of that provided by formal primary schooling, and, more generally, satisfaction of these children's need, for both girls and boys, to be integrated in the official education system and in society. In this respect, early childhood development programmes (education, health and nutrition) should be geared primarily to these children, to give them a chance of overcoming the handicaps with which they start life, and to enjoy the same chances of success in education as other children.
 
3. Priorities, measures, mechanisms and instruments to be put in place by the international community to help countries to achieve this objective by 2015
It is mainly within the countries concerned that the dynamics of taking up the challenge of free primary education for all will be played out. The commitment of national leaders at the highest levels, the mobilization of different sectors of society and the development of national capabilities, both institutional and technical, are usually considered to be decisive factors for success. However, the role of the international community is by no means negligible, given the influence it exerts on the definition of priorities through political dialogue and the selection of emergent topics, given the financial assistance it provides and given the know-how it has accumulated and propagates in its role as a catalyst of innovation and the transfer of best practice.
 
Proceeding from this twofold consideration, it will be useful for the round-table discussions to address themselves to proposals for priorities, measures, mechanisms and instruments to promote a strategy of assistance by the international community, that will be effective in helping the countries concerned to achieve the objective of free education for all by the year 2015. The main issue to be addressed is what the international community can and should be doing more of, or doing better, compared with what it has done since Jomtien, beginning with the following questions, among others:
 
What specific actions can the international community develop to ensure that top priority is given in the agendas of governments and agencies to the urgent need to resolve the desperate plight of those children, girls and boys alike, who have no school to go to, by granting to sub-Saharan Africa and southern Asia all the attention they deserve, especially the 16 countries on which UNSIA is concentrating its efforts and the 40 Heavily Indebted Poor Countries ?
 
Which priorities and measures should the international community promote to increase the mobilization of resources and the effectiveness of their use for the benefit of these children, especially in the most disadvantaged and vulnerable groups of society, both in the countries themselves and at the level of agencies for bilateral and multilateral cooperation?
 
Which mechanisms and instruments can the international community put in place to move more resolutely towards better coordination of aid, and hence greater effectiveness?
 
How can new partnerships be made operational in order to accelerate primary school enrolment in terms of reinforcing nations' capacities to design and successfully implement, through global and sectoral approaches, education for all programmes at different levels: countries (States? Society in general?), ministries of education? Local communities? Schools?
 
Session participants are invited to focus their contributions on the concrete responses to be made to these questions, so that at the end of the debates some three or four main proposals will emerge, which can usefully be incorporated in the framework for action to be adopted by the Forum.
 
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