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EFA partners give their views > Victor Ordonez
 Maris O. Rourke
 Angela W. Little
 Judith L. Evans
 Denise Lievesley
 Victor Ordonez
 Clinton Robinson
 O. J. Sikes


Educating Asia
By Victor Ordonez
(Director, UNESCO Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific)

  The emergence of Asia, or more accurately, its re-emergence after centuries, back on the center stage of world affairs has been much heralded. And if education has correctly been identified as the necessary pre-cursor and pre-condition of all development, then no undertaking can be more important than a scrutiny of the education efforts in this dynamic region.

  Over the past two years, in collaboration with various United Nations agencies 44 countries from the Asian and Pacific region have worked to put together comprehensive national assessment reports on the progress and state of education in the region. And the results emerging from the EFA 2000 Assessment, as it is called, are mixed, showing both positive and negative trends on the region's education front.
  Ever since the historic World Conference on Education for All at Jomtien, Thailand in March, 1990 basic education has been back on the priority lists of governments and in the minds of the general public. And that advocacy has led to a proliferation of legislation, programmes and projects, and in the early nineties even an increase in the levels of resource allocation.
 But all the awareness and good will, and all the projects and resources and activities that followed it, were not fully rewarded with the hoped for results. The literacy rates in some countries of the region remain among the highest in the world. But universal primary education continues to remain elusive even in countries with high participation rates. The gap between girls' and boys' education, between male and female literacy remains a huge problem; unlocking additional resources to cope with the inevitable increase in demand remains a challenge.
  Data from the Asian countries in the first half of the decade showed almost exclusive focus on the formal primary system. But in the last five years, the expanded vision of Education for All propagated by Jomtien Conference, is finally taking hold.
  In almost all countries, even where access remains a serious problem, there is a major shift in focus from schooling to learning. There is a growing realisation that enrolment for all is not the same as Education for All. This means two things. First, it means that mainstream education cannot hope to address all learning needs and must be accompanied by alternative, tailor-made, non-formal learning methods.
  As a result of this understanding nations like Indonesia, Philippines and India are experimenting with systems in which participants of non-formal programmes are allowed to cross laterally into the formal system. And as the non-formal sector becomes more formalised, as it were, conversely the formal sector is becoming more informal or less rigid, adopting mother tongues in the first few years or incorporating an eight week pre-school package at the start of the primary cycle, as in the Philippines.
  Second, it means that inscribing children in a formal system does not guarantee that their learning needs will be met. Recent achievement test results show an alarming percentage of pupils who have been in the school system three years or more who still have not mastered the basic skills of reading and writing.
  Policy makers are also slowly getting over -- the sometimes false -- dichotomy of quantity versus quality. Under this dichotomy, when budgets are limited, one must often choose between more textbooks and facilities for those already in school (quality), or additional buildings and teachers for those not yet in the system (quantity). The drive towards universal primary education in Asia has tended to favor quantity or expanded access. But several countries in South Asia, for example, have reported that more schools do not necessarily translate into more educated students.
  This is because there is low participation and attendance when the school is perceived to be of little relevance or quality. Paradoxically, paying attention to quality enhances quantity; providing trained and motivated teachers, adequate learning materials, and most of all curricular content that meets the needs and aspirations of the local communities is the best way to guarantee expanded and sustained school attendance.
  When listing impediments to progress, almost every country mentions financial resource constraints. Yet there is a change of focus here not evident a decade ago. Whereas the emphasis used to be the clamour for more money to do basically more of the same, now the emphasis seems to have shifted to how to make better use of the money already available.
  Some of the factors impelling or impeding progress towards the goal of education for also have socio-cultural roots. On the negative side, misguided or unenlightened interpretations of one or other aspect of a specific sub-culture sometimes hampers the push for girls' education and the efforts to provide education to ethnic and religious minorities.
  On the positive side, the fundamental value given to education, to respect for elders, sages and teachers, the central role of the family, and the implicit faith in the importance of educating the next generation are common across the great cultures of Asia and the Pacific. This accounts for the continuing high levels of participation in East Asia in spite of the economic crisis, and in Central Asia in spite of the government setbacks in the course of its transformation to a market economy. Plotting a strategy of action for the next ten years must take into account these socio-cultural factors.
  The data emerging from the assessment of education in Asia and the Pacific shows that if the goal of universal primary education is to be met: (a) national budgets must introduce dramatic quantum leaps in allocation to primary education, doubling or even tripling this allocation over a few years, (b) the responsibility for financing primary education must shift, with all its pitfalls, to communities, the private sector, religious groups, NGOs, or parents, (c) non-formal education programmes will have to be designed to assume a greater and more integral role in the public education system, (d) a breakthrough in the design of a primary school delivery system must take place that effectively brings the cost per student down to a fraction of its current cost.
  Ten years ago, Jomtien Conference declared to the world that Education for All is necessary -- as a fundamental human right, as an essential building block to development and peace. The past decade has proven to the world, through the glimpses of success in different countries, that Education for All is indeed possible. The exciting decade ahead, with all its complexities, makes Education for All more important than ever, and because of this it is time to tell the world that it is not only necessary and possible, it is also urgent.
Victor Ordonez is director of the UNESCO Principal Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific (PROAP), based in Bangkok, Thailand. He wrote this commentary for the Asia-Pacific Conference on Education for All (EFA) Assessment, to be held in Bankgok 17-20 January 2000, where 44 nations from the region will meet to take take stock of what has been to fulfill the political commitment they made a decade ago to achieve the goal of Education for All.
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