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  The state of education in Europe and North America: ambitious, difficult and sometimes disturbing…
  Five major highlights:
  the lucky ones and the others…
School drop-outs:
  falling between the cracks
In search of quality
Eastern Europe:
  the fallout of the economic crisis
Functional illiteracy:
  the invisible problem
A Tatar School in Crimea
  Enthusiasm knows no boundaries
A School in Rural Poland
  decentraliZation hits Kruszow
The woman who coulnd't read
  The conference key words
  Informational graphics (.pdf)
Adolescents on the sidelines (16-19 years)
Functional illiteracy (16-65 years)
Ten years of basic education
  Photos (comming soon)
A conference update each day on the web
The state of education in Europe and North America:
ambitious, difficult and sometimes disturbing
  Over 300 participants from all over Europe and North America will converge in Warsaw, Poland from 6 to 8 February. They will be there to examine the state of education in the forty or so countries they represent. At the conference, ministers and other education specialists will take part in the assessment recommended by the World Conference on Education for All (EFA) in Jomtien, Thailand, exactly ten years ago. In Jomtien, in 1990, 155 countries, supported by some 150 international organizations committed themselves to provide their citizens with universal primary education and to massively reduce illiteracy by the end of the decade. The time has now come to review the findings. An exhaustive assessment, will be presented at six regional conferences, including Warsaw, as preliminaries to the World Education Forum to be held in Dakar, Senegal, next April.
  In the rich countries, the public might assume that education for all is a well-established reality. This is not the case. Developing countries do not have a monopoly on exclusion from education. Europe and North America also have teachers who have not been paid for three years, refugee children attending school under the most precarious conditions, rural schools lacking even the most rudimentary equipment, inadequately trained teachers, immigrant children badly integrated into the school system. The failings of basic education are legion even in rich countries. We know, for instance, that some 25 per cent of the adult population in this part of the world have difficulties with reading and writing.
  The Warsaw assessment is therefore ambitious, complex and sometimes disturbing. So many socio-political and technological upheavals have marked the decade. Promises remain unfulfilled. However, this record of success and failure is in itself illuminating, just as the quality or the mediocrity of statistics can be instructive. But the most important contributions at the Warsaw Conference will be the reports which situate findings in a regional perspective and identify trends and innovations upon which the school of tomorrow can be built. Accordingly, the assessment and round-tables will be followed by the adoption of a regional Framework for Action.
  The organizer of the Conference and the assessment, the International Consultative Forum on Education for All, is co-sponsored by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) and the World Bank, along with a number of bilateral aid agencies. Directed by Svein Osttveit, it is based at UNESCO's Paris Headquarters.
Pre-school: the lucky ones and the others…
  Early childhood education varies in many countries from top-quality to poor provision. The best scenario is when its importance for the child's future is reflected in the funding it receives. The worst is when an economic crisis relegates it to the back burner of the education system. Between the two extremes, there are wide variations and great differences in quality, notably between schools in cities and those in rural areas.
  The consequences of the economic crisis on early childhood education in Central and Eastern Europe have been particularly severe. Under communism, preschools were generally operated by the factories or businesses where the parents worked, and many of these have disappeared.
  In Russia, 27,600 nursery schools closed their doors between 1990 and 1999. In January 1998, only 53.8 per cent of Russian children between the ages of 3 and 5 were enrolled. Whether pre-schools are public (in most cases) or private, access to them today is a real problem. Living standards have declined, but the cost of education has risen. The combination of high prices and mediocre quality mean parents keep their children at home.
  In general, early childhood education is progressing. In the United Kingdom, the percentage of 3-year-olds enrolled at pre-school level went from 40 per cent in 1989 to 50 per cent in 1997-98. In Portugal, the rate of pre-school attendance increased more than 14 per cent between 1989-90 and 1996-97. However, one in two young children are still at home. Italy, where 95 per cent of children were in nursery schools in 1998, is aiming at 100 per cent attendance this year, a percentage which the 100-year-old école maternelle system in France attained many years ago.
  Programmes have been developed to improve quality and facilitate access to early childhood education. In Portugal, a special programme aims at progressively integrating 90 per cent of 5-year-olds, 75 per cent of 4-year-olds and 60 per cent of 3-year-olds. In some countries, at least one year of nursery school is required for entry into primary level.
  Preschool establishments have more than a child-minding role. Far from being a place for harried parents to 'park' their children, they buzz with the stimulation of educational activities.
  Pre-primary education is an essential investment, because of its proven long-term effects on future schooling and its social role in reducing the risks of failure, drop-out and marginalization. After all, a tree grows better when it has good roots.
School drop-outs: Falling between the cracks
  They have neither a diploma nor a profession, because they left school too early. For thousands of school drop-outs and the education systems they have left, this means failure. Yet no country has ever really resolved the drop-out issue. Each year, too many adolescents fail to finish their basic education. The causes sometimes differ, but the consequences are inevitably the same. When a young man or women lacks education and qualification, sooner or later, unemployment looms.
  Several countries in Central and Eastern Europe emphasize the extent of the drop-out problem, notably among 13 to 15-year-olds. Although it is difficult to put figures on it, this growing trend is closely linked with the economic crisis. Children from poor families in rural areas sometimes participate in farm work instead of going to school.
  In the United States, 5 per cent of students leave school at secondary level or do not finish their basic education. Their socio-economic background is a major factor, as proportionally more African-Americans and Hispanics - who must also contend with a language barrier - drop out of school. These teenagers have longer periods of unemployment, lower salaries, and are more likely than others to run into a multitude of social problems.
  In Western Europe, where the dilemma also exists, specialists consider the education system to be more at fault than the student. Education in a number of countries is out of phase with socio-economic developments. Technical and vocational education often comes under attack. Perceived as degrading by young people and their families, and inappropriate by employers, its objectives, methods and fields of action need to be overhauled. Curricula should also aim to balance general and professional instruction.
  In short the entire relationship between the school and the workplace must be reviewed and revised.
In search of quality
  In most of Europe and North America, access to basic education has generally been achieved. But its quality has declined everywhere under the impact of two distinct factors - economic crisis in the East and a general trend towards the curtailment of the state in the West. Because they are slow to adapt, education systems have not responded to these developments. Teacher training and the publication of new textbooks, for example, lag too far behind expectations and needs.
  Rural areas are at a disadvantage, notably in Central and Eastern Europe, mostly because regional decentralization rarely comes with an adequate budget. Some village schools have reached crisis point. In rural Romania, for example, the situation of post-primary education is critical. Of the total number of pupils enrolled in secondary school, at the beginning of the 1996/97 school year, only 6.4 percent were located in rural areas.
  Although socio-economic background and parents' educational level play a role, good results everywhere depend on the quality of instruction. In Great Britain a qualitative analysis reveals that 3 per cent of schools cannot provide an acceptable level of education. Another 10 per cent have serious deficiencies.
  In many Western European countries, young people are increasingly disenchanted with schooling. The British government stated in 1997 that absenteeism and the expulsion of students had become a serious issue: each year, at least one million children regularly miss classes, 100,000 are expelled temporarily and 13,000 permanently excluded from school.
  Can an education be said to be of quality when it no longer guarantees meaningful employment, even in rich countries? "You study, you make sacrifices, and in the end, what do you have? Nothing," says Rachida Bensmilli, 22, a business student in Paris, France. "Sometimes I just think that it's not worth it. Employment perspectives are so bleak."
  How to adapt to new conditions while improving quality? This is the new challenge to education in the region. It demands addressing the whole system from pre-school up. It implies improving teacher training, teaching and learning materials, learning achievement and drop-out, and the vast disparities between privileged urban and neglected rural schools.
  Nor will these reforms come free. The falling birth rates in Europe are lessening the demographic pressure on education budgets, thus freeing up extra resources that can be channelled to deal with the real challenges of basic education. In some regions, the number of 3 to 6-year-olds has gone down by 10 per cent to 45 per cent. This is good news for education ministers who can now concentrate on quality.
Eastern Europe: the fallout of the economic crisis
  The whole education system of Eastern and Central Europe has been brutally shaken by the economic crisis gripping the region. Basic education remains more or less accessible to all, but its quality and functioning have been critically affected. Under communism, quality free education was a major success throughout the region. This is why its decline is all the more difficult to accept today.
  For families, the change is radical. Many live in precarious conditions: since 1990 the number of jobs lost can be counted in the millions. In Russia alone, the number of unemployed increased from 2 to 8 million between 1994 and 1997. Almost everywhere, purchasing power has dropped drastically. In several countries, teachers are left unpaid for months at a time. In Bulgaria, Lithuania and Moldova, salaries in general have fallen to one-third of the 1990 level. And the cost of education, even when comparatively low, is higher than most poor families can afford.
  To continue teaching often resembles heroism. In Russia, it takes from between three to ten months to get paid. Because their salaries are among the lowest of any professional category, most teachers are obliged to find a second job to have a decent income. Consequently, they no longer have enough time to guarantee quality education. Understandably, teaching no longer attracts competent, motivated professionals. Many teachers are leaving the profession. The recruitment of future teachers may soon be limited to men or women who are only motivated by retirement and social benefits.
  For the want of a maintenance budget, schools are often dilapidated. Educational materials are extremely limited. New, good-quality textbooks have inadequate print runs. In Russia, one book is sometimes shared by four pupils.
  Only the children of well-to-do parents now benefit from advantages which were previously free and available to all. Work in small groups, private lessons, extra-curricular activities like sport or theatre must now be paid for and often at exorbitant prices. Worse still, there is now a charge for school meals. This means that poor children, already deprived of well-balanced meals at home, find themselves excluded from the school cafeteria. Many countries have begun to remedy the problem but for a great number of schools, especially in rural areas, nothing can be done.
  The consequences of the crisis go even farther. With the proliferation of private schools, a two-tiered system is taking root, reinforcing inequalities which are already too widespread.
Functional illiteracy: The invisible problem
  Today in the world's developed countries, some men and women lead daily lives resembling an obstacle course because they have either lost or never acquired the reading and writing skills that formed part of their basic education.
  Nearly a quarter of the population of these countries is incapable of understanding and using the information contained in brochures, information bulletins, train schedules, road maps and simple instuctions for household appliances or pharmaceuticals. This major handicap bears the technical name: functional illiteracy. No country is immune.
  The assessment confirms the findings of an international survey on the reading and writing capacities of adults (1994-95) in twelve OECD countries (1) which revealed that part of the adult population had reading problems. In Europe and the United States there are adults incapable of making out a cheque or verifying a bill, reading a story to a child... or writing a love letter, and who are petrified by the prospect of future change such as the arrival of the Euro or new technologies.
  Those most affected by functional illiteracy are ethnic minorities, marginalized groups and also women - in certain provinces of southern Europe nearly a quarter of women are illiterate. A number of countries have carried out research into the problem, but the statistical data necessary for full comprehension is still insufficient.
  One of the priorities of Education for All is to eliminate functional illiteracy. But we must first of all determine why the school has failed in its mission with regard to some students. One of the ambiguities of compulsory education in the West, is that it sometimes appears to lead nowhere. And, as far as technical and vocational training are concerned, they have so far failed to convince either young people or employers. Tackling this mismatch promises to be a major task in the coming years.
(1) International Adult Literacy Survey, OECD
A Tatar School in Crimea
  "It's always the same nightmare," says Aishe Tchabanova, Principal of School No. 2 in Staryj Krym, Crimea. "First an explosion... and then the school goes up in smoke. Our heating system is rickety and antiquated and frequent power cuts make it dangerous to use." Aishe Tchabanova has a strong personality and a loud voice, but they don't hide the fact that she is very worried. She runs a Tatar school with 540 pupils and 36 teachers in a small village in the Autonomous Republic of Crimea, in the Ukraine where the population is predominantly Russian-speaking. Her daily life is a mixture of trouble-shooting and keeping everyone motivated. Aishe Tchabanova's school has a particularly heavy burden to bear. Like all schools in the Ukraine, it is facing the consequences of poverty and the general disintegration of the old school system. But that's not all: As a school designated for children of an ethnic minority - the Tatars - it is among the poorest of the poor, along with all the other minority schools.
On an empty stomach
  The temperature in the school building never rises above 12o C. Classes begin at 7.30 a.m. and finish early. "We work while it's still daylight," says Tchabanova. This is partly because of the constant power cuts. There's no question of asking the parents to help. "Most of them can't even give 50 kopecks (30 centimes) for their children's lunch," sighs Vice-Principal Levaje Abibulajeva. "So many pupils work on an empty stomach now. Under the Soviets the most underprivileged were served hot meals at no cost. Today, we don't have the means to offer free food." Those who can afford to eat at school in a cafeteria without tables or chairs. A few benches are reserved for nursery school children, and one corner has become a dispensary for the school doctor.
  Teachers work out of "pure enthusiasm," said Levaje Abibulajeva, proudly. Their salaries are never higher than $20 ...when they are actually paid. Before presidential elections last fall, they all received several months of back salaries. Since then, nothing, "not even for Christmas," she said, admitting, "there are times when it's really difficult to motivate them ".
Hunting for desks
  Created in 1996, the school took over its present location in 1998, after Tatar families pitched in and carried out most of the installation themselves. At the inauguration, the municipal council contributed $5, just about enough to pay for brooms. Some 500 children tried to enroll - "Parents no longer wanted a Russian-language school for their children" - but only 275 were accepted. At the beginning, only four classrooms out of 25 were equipped, which meant that pupils were forced to stand up during their lessons. The State Committee responsible for Nationalities gave 50 desks and the school recuperated others from different parts of Crimea: "It was a real desk hunt, " smiles Levaje Abibulajeva, "They are all different styles. We could open a museum".
  Two donations were especially appreciated: the Ukraine Soros Foundation made it possible to equip chemistry and physics classrooms, and Polish colleagues in the Education for Democracy Foundation set up a computer room. The students started publishing a school newspaper in Tatar. "We shouldn't be thinking of financial and material problems only," says Aishe Tchabanova firmly. "Our major concern should be the quality of teachers and the evalution of acquired knowledge". Levaje Abibulajeva agrees, adding that she does not see much improvement in the financial situation. But she obviously prefers to relate how the teachers have introduced innovative teaching methods. School no2 of Staryj Krym may be cash-poor, but it's rich in enthusiasm and, especially, courage.
A School in Rural Poland Decentralization hits Kruszow
  Last year, seventy schools were closed and 400 may well suffer the same fate this year in the Lodz district in Poland. This is just one result of the decentralization of the education system which is taking place in most countries in Eastern Europe. Under communism, both the money and the decisions came from Ministries of Education. In recent years, however, while financing - often reduced - continues to come from the central authorities, school management has become local. Responsibility has been transferred to the regions, sometimes even to individual schools, with numerous consequences and mixed reactions.
  The parents of pupils in the village of Kruszow, 25 km from Lodz, are ready to fight to keep their school, built in 1937, to which they are sentimentally attached. But the number of children has dropped year after year, from 100 when it opened, down to 48 today, and the decline is expected to continue. In a decentralized education system, a region simply cannot afford to finance all of the establishments under its jurisdiction.
Here, we live like a family
  The region receives a fixed allocation per pupil, on average 2000 zlotys, and it must pay whatever complement is necessary. But when the difference amounts to 3000 zlotys, you can hardly call it a complement. Starting in January 2000, all building expenses are now added to local budgets, so it is not surprising that less costly solutions are being sought. The inhabitants of Kruszow have been invited to send their children to the neighbouring city of Tuszyn, which already has five primary schools (with some 1200 pupils) including one which is brand new. The children from Kruszow would take a bus in the morning and in the afternoon after school. The village is, however, opposed to the scheme. "Here, we live like a family," said Bozena Zaduminska, the school principal. "At School, parents and children work together." Janina Stawinska, a former principal and teacher, agrees. "There are many reasons for keeping the school," she says. "It houses all sorts of extracurricular activities, such as theatre and sport. This school is at the heart of community life."
  We know exactly what we need and which decisions to make, remarks a member of the Lodz municipal council, "much better than someone who works in some ministry miles away." Dorota Szafran, a regional school administrator, considers that "teaching conditions are far better in bigger schools and it is unacceptable, in the year 2000, to oblige children to share classes with pupils of different levels, as is the case in rural schools".
  The children themselves don't want to leave their school on the edge of the forest with all its rustic charm. And they are quick to tell anyone who'll listen that last year's schoolmates, are now among the star pupils in Tuszyn secondary school. It's so unique and effective to be able to work with each student, says Marzena Sobkiewicz, a teacher of Polish. "Unfortunately, this kind of school is no longer profitable." Unfortunate every way. When the school closes, eight of its ten teachers will be out of a job.
The woman who couldn't read… became a playwright
  "I was brilliant at games at school, but when it came to reading a book or writing things down, I just didn't bother," explains Sue Torr. "I didn't want to bother the teacher. I left at the age of 15, unable to read and write." Embarrassed, Sue kept her illiteracy a secret, even from her husband, a sailor, all through their 16-year marriage. "At first, he used to write me letters. When he was on leave, he'd ask, 'Why don't you ever write to me?' I'd give him some excuse. I didn't want him to think I was a dunce," she recalls.
  "One night my mother-in-law said, 'Sue, what's on TV tonight? Could you just have a look in the newspaper?' I picked it up and pretended to look. 'There's nothing much on,' I said. 'What's on the second channel?' she persisted. 'Just a load of rubbish,' I said. In the end, I left the room and ran upstairs."
  According to a 1996 study by the UK-based Basic Skills Agency, 19 per cent of 37-year-olds have low or very low literacy and 23 percent have low numeracy. Sue sums up the feeling: "You live in fear. You've got a twinge in your stomach every time reading is mentioned." Finally, Sue admitted her secret. "I was with a bunch of children. They were going through a book and knew all the words. One child asked me to help her and I sat there struggling with it. This little girl said, 'You can't read that word, can you Miss?' I said, 'No, I can't.' She said, 'But you're old. Why can't you read?' I felt terrible."
  Sue signed up for adult literacy classes and attended them for the next three years. Then came the turning point. One day, her teacher asked her to write down a list of what you could and couldn't do if you were illiterate. "I just kept writing and writing," remembers Sue. "My teacher understood my writing and took it home to type it out." She then took the typed manuscript to a local writers' group. With their help, it became her first play. Shout It Out was performed at the Theatre Royal in Plymouth, and on local radio. It won a Sony Radio Award. She then raised $35,000 to produce a video version of Shout It Out. That won a Royal Television Society Award in 1997.
  Now aged 44, Sue has left her former job serving school lunches. She has her own office from which she runs the Shout It Out learning project. She tours schools and colleges with a one-woman-show about adult literacy, visits writers' clubs and runs a scheme to encourage children to read. She has collected numerous prizes for her work and was recently made Member of the British Empire. "I've given talks on adult literacy in universities, to students and lecturers," she remarks. "I had a letter from Reader's Digest asking me to go up to London to give a talk. So I did. They wanted to know what it was like learning to read at a late age."
Adapted from an article by Martin Whittaker in the Times Educational Supplement.
The organizer of the Warsaw Conference, the International Consultative Forum on Education for All (EFA Forum for short) monitors progress and promotes action in favour of basic education. Created ten years ago in the wake of the Jomtien Conference (see below), it is co-sponsored by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) and the World Bank, along with a number of bilateral aid agencies. Directed by Svein Osttveit, it is based at UNESCO's Paris Headquarters.
In 1990, the seaside town of Jomtien, Thailand, hosted the first World Conference on Education for All. At the Conference, the 155 participating countries and 150 organizations committed themselves to the goal of universal primary education and the massive reduction of illiteracy by the end of the decade. That same Conference decided that in the year 2000 a general assessment should be carried out.
The six objectives of Education for All are:
Expansion of early childhood care and development activities.
Achievement of universal primary education
Improvement in learning achievement
Reduction of adult illiteracy
5Expansion of training in essential skills
Increased acquisition of the knowledge required for a better quality of life.
"Everyone has the right to education", states Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted in 1948. Nonetheless, today nearly one billion adults are still unable to read or write and 84 million school-age children have no access to education. Giving them this right is today a major challenge.
The Warsaw review concerns all of Europe and North America. It is based on national assessments carried out in the various countries. To date, over thirty countries have presented reports.
This will be discussed and elaborated at the Warsaw Conference during plenary sessions and round-tables. Based on the findings of national reports, its aim is to set new goals which are realistic, concrete and for which there are adequate means.
The World Education Forum will be held in Dakar, Senegal from 26 to 28 April 2000. Drawing on the conclusions of the six regional conferences, including Warsaw, it will elaborate a Global Framework for Action - a veritable blueprint for basic education in the 21st century. Some 900 people will participate in the Conference: heads of state, ministers, representatives of non-governmental organizations, education specialists and other experts from over 180 countries.
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