Escuela Nueva: An innovation within formal education (Colombia)

Rosa María Torres

This article was published by IBE-UNESCO Prospects (second issue of 1993). I wrote it while working as a Senior Education Adviser at UNICEF Headquarters in New York, and following a study visit (1991) to the Escuela Nueva (EN) Program with an official delegation from the Ecuadorian government. The article looks at the evolution of EN from its creation in 1975 to the early 1990s, period in which it expanded in Colombia, became a national policy for the rural areas, and a regular program within Colombia's Ministry of Education. We also discuss topics related to the survival, scaling up and replicability of the innovation.
In 1987, the Escuela Nueva Foundation was created by the team that developed EN in the 1970s, in order to help strengthen the program, diversify and adapt it to urban areas (Escuela Activa Urbana), and promote its expansion to other countries. The EN model has been experimented in 16 countries. Over the years, it has received numerous international awards, including a WISE Award in 2009 and the 2013 WISE Prize for Education given to Vicky Colbert, co-creator of the EN model together with Prof. Oscar Mogollón.


Colombia's Escuela Nueva (EN) 'New School' Program has become an international reference. UNESCO, the World Bank and UNICEF have lent their support to the program and promoted it. UNESCO described it as "an experience of unquestionable international value." The World Bank recommends disseminating its lessons among education planners and policy-makers. Study missions visit Colombia to find out more about it. Several countries are interested in replicating it.

What makes EN so special? 1) the fact that it is an innovation within the formal school system; 2) the long time over which it has evolved; 3) the system approach adopted; 4) the focus on the curriculum and pedagogy; and 5) its results.

We examine here these five points and conclude with some considerations about the program's survival and potential for replicability in other contexts.


It is common to associate educational innovation with NGOs, grassroot organizations, out-of-school or non-formal education. Many people think Escuela Nueva is a NGO program, like other primary or basic education programs highlighted by international organizations (such as BRAC's non-formal primary schools in Bangladesh). However, perhaps EN's greatest merit is that it is a transformative innovation within the formal, public, mainstream education system. Colombia's EN shows that systemic innovation is possible within government structures.  


"Pilot projects" have lost credibility. Many pilot projects remain local experiments. At the same time, we also see massive-scale programs rushing without going through a gradual process. Escuela Nueva has grown from a micro experiment to a national education policy.

UNESCO's Unitary School model (1960s)

EN emerged from the Unitary School model promoted by UNESCO in 1961 at a Ministers of Education meeting held in Geneva and adopted in several "developing countries". The Unitary School was characterized by:

a) presence of one teacher in the school,
b) automatic promotion,
c) active learning, enabling children to learn at their own pace,
d) instructional cards ("fichas") for the teacher to work with various groups at the same time,
e) provision of a complete primary education cycle, and
f) application in disperse areas, with low population density.

In Colombia, the first Unitary School was set up at the Instituto Superior de Educación Rural (ISER) in Pamplona, department of Santander, under UNESCO Project 1 for Primary Education. The teacher in charge of that school was Oscar Mogollón, a public school teacher who would later become Escuela Nueva's National Coordinator at the Ministry of Education (See Note below)
- By the mid-1960s, the small unitary school had multiplied into 150 schools. 
- In 1967, the government adopted the Unitary School methodology for all single-teacher (multigrade) schools in the country. A Manual was published and Departments of Education started to train rural teachers in this methodology.
- In 1975, the Escuela Nueva Program was created on the basis of the Unitary School model and experience.
Oscar Mogollón, together with Vicky Colbert and Beryl Levinger, from the US Agency for International Development (USAID), worked on the EN model.
Between 1975 and 1978, with USAID support, EN was implemented in 500 schools in three departments. Later, with the support of the InterAmerican Development Bank (IDB),
private Colombian organizations such as the Coffee Growers Association, and FES (Foundation for Higher Education), the program expanded to 3,000 schools. 
- Between 1982 and 1986 EN expanded to the Pacific Coast. Learning Guides were adapted for this region, with UNICEF technical and financial co-operation.

- In 1985, the Colombian Government adopted EN as a strategy to achieve universal rural primary education. By then, there were 8,000 EN schools in the country.
- In the late 1970s and early 1980s the government negotiated a loan with the World Bank in order to expand and improve basic education in rural areas. In 1987, a second loan assisted the Universalization Plan. The EN program received educational materials, teacher training, sanitary installations, furniture and school improvements (Ministry of Education-UNICEF, 1990). Investments were expanded until the mid 1990s.
- Since 1987 there was a rapid expansion. The program reached 17,984 schools by 1989.
- In 1990 EN received the Simón Bolívar national award. Internationally, it was chosen by the World Bank as one of the three most important basic education models for rural areas.

- In 1991, 20,000 of the 27,000 rural schools were involved in the program, with an estimated coverage of one million children. 

Escuela Nueva is not a methodology. It is an integrated system that combines four components: (a) curriculum, (b) training, (c) administration, and (d) community. None of these components stands on its own. Their interrelationship is what makes the model both coherent and feasible.

(a) The curriculum
Emphasis is placed on the curriculum. Key features include: active learning, learning materials known as "Learning Guides", Study Corners, School Library, School Government, and Flexible Promotion.

The EN Program was devised for rural areas, primary education (five years in Colombia), and multigrade teaching (one or two teachers in charge of all grades). Children study in small groups using Learning Guides, supplied by the State free of charge. The Guides are organized by subjects (mathematics, natural science, social studies, and language) and by grade (from second to fifth grade; there are no guides for the first grade). They are designed for self-instruction, with graded activities and detailed instructions, so that students can work to a large extent on their own, helping one another. This saves teachers' time, reduces their burden, lessens the need for highly qualified teaching staff, and enables students to progress at their own pace. Teachers are trained to adapt the Guides to the specific characteristics of the children and the local environment -- although they seldom do it.

The Study Corners are arranged by field of study and comprise objects collected or made by the children or provided by the parents and the community.

Each school has a small Library: the idea is to encourage reading among children, teachers, families and the community. The school libraries have a stock of about 70 books, including reference books by subject, reference works (encyclopedias, dictionaries, atlases), literature, and materials on community-related topics.

The School Government is a student council responsible for organizing children's school activities. Its purpose is to involve children in school management, initiate them in civic and democratic behavior, and foster attitudes of cooperation and solidarity. The School Government comprises a President, Vice-President, Secretary, Committee Leaders and Assistants for each grade, is elected by the students following democratic procedures, and is renewed periodically to enable all children to gain leadership experience.

Assessment and grade promotion differ substantially from the conventional school system. Its main role is making teachers and students aware of areas needing reinforcement. There is Flexible (not automatic) Promotion. Each child moves on to the next grade when he/she achieves the educational objectives set. This can take more (or less) time than a regular academic year. Any children temporarily absent from school can resume their studies without having to drop out.

The learning environment expands beyond the classroom. EN schools have a vegetable patch and a garden; sports grounds and community facilities form part of the wider school environment. Inside the school, there is space for the study corners, library, kitchen, dining-room and washroom facilities. Teachers often have living facilities for them and their families on the school premises. The natural environment is the main object of study and provides most of the resources for teaching and learning.

(b) Teacher training
EN teachers have a role of facilitators - guiding, directing and evaluating learning - and of  community leaders and organizers. These roles imply major attitudinal changes. Therefore, attitude changes - pedagogical and social - are given emphasis in teacher training.

Initial training (for new teachers) includes three sequential workshops - 
initiation, methodology and organization - each of one week's duration, and use of the library. After the first and second workshops, there is a six-month and a three-month interval, respectively, so that teachers put in practice what they learned. Attending the first workshop is a requisite for including the school in the EN program and for teachers to start working with it. The idea is to reproduce in teacher training the methods and real-life situations that the teachers will encounter in their classrooms and in their relations with the students.

In-service training takes place through so-called Rural Micro-Centers, where teachers can exchange, update and upgrade their knowledge and experience on an ongoing basis. They operate with groups of 10 to 15 teachers from neighboring areas.

(c) The administrative component
This is the one that has received least attention. It is a crucial and complex area, involving political and institutional factors that go beyond administrative issues. Administration "has more to do with giving direction than with controlling" (Ministry of Education-UNICEF, 1990), which means that administrative officials, too, must familiarize themselves with the program's objectives and components, and especially with its pedagogical aspects.

EN is a decentralized program. A coordinator and a small team (ten persons in 1991, most of them involved with EN in leadership positions since its inception) are responsible for co-ordinating and designing policies and strategies, and evaluating implementation. At the departmental level, the structure comprises a representative committee, a coordinator and a team of multiplier agents. From 1987 onwards - when the Plan for the Universalization of Rural Primary Education was launched and the EN expansion process began - several changes were introduced in the administrative structure with emphasis on decentralization. Two new structures were created: a universalization committee at national and departmental levels, and educational units (Ministry of Education-UNICEF, 1990).

(d) The school-community relationship
The EN school is expected to operate as an information center and a focal point for community integration. The school-community relationship is one of mutual benefit, with parents and the community joining in school activities, and the school promoting activities to foster local development and improve the quality of life of the population.

In order to facilitate teachers' understanding of the community and the local conditions, EN uses various tools: the Family Record (information about the agricultural activities of the area and its seasons), the Neighborhood Map and the District Monograph. Students, parents and the community participate in their elaboration.

EN tries various ways of involving parents in their children's activities and stimulating children's interest in learning more about their parents and their lives. The library, the school premises and cultural and recreational activities are open to the community. Achievement Days - days when academic results are announced and the school government reports on its activities - are opportunities for sharing school and community activities.

Demonstration Schools, organized in each department where the program operates, are schools in which the four components can be "seen" operating in exemplary conditions. Visiting a Demonstration School is a key strategy for teacher motivation and training.


Educational innovations often give prominence to organizational aspects and neglect the pedagogical ones. Many innovative experiences are recognized as such for the changes they introduce in management, planning and evaluation, infrastructure, and/or curriculum content. Teaching and learning relationships, approaches and methodologies, the corner-stone of educational change, are often overlooked. The central role of pedagogy and of pedagogical change is one of EN's most remarkable features.

EN combines features of progressive educational theory. The program is based on the philosophy of the Unitary School (derived from the Active School): multigrade teaching, individualized instruction, active learning, educational materials that enable the teacher to work with several groups at once, and automatic promotion.

EN's methodology includes learning by doing, linking theory and practice, individual and group work, study and play, guidance and self-instruction. Children learn to think for themselves, to analyze, investigate and apply what they have learned. Active learning principles are also applied to teachers in their own training and in their daily work in schools. The conventional duties of the teacher-instructor are shared the learning guides (contents and methods), the library (an additional reference source), the study corners (observation and experiment areas), the group of students (who work together and help each another) and the school government (where children learn democratic values and procedures).

Teacher training emphasizes teaching and the capacity to innovate. The micro-centers promote team work, experience sharing and critical analysis of teachers' practice.

EN's slogan "More and better primary education for rural children in rural areas", describes this attempt to reconcile quantity and quality. It is not just a matter of providing children in rural areas with access to education: they deserve and need good education. Departing from conventional teaching practice -- top-down, authoritarian, rote and passive learning -- is a crucial element in EN's development and achievements.


Comprehensive evaluations of the EN program have been conducted so far by Psacharopoulos et al. (1992), and Rojas and Castillo (1988). Both utilize data collected in 1987 in 11 Colombian departments. 

Psacharopoulos found that EN students achieve higher scores than their counterparts in conventional rural schools (except in fifth grade Mathematics) as well as improved self-esteem, creativity and civic behavior -- co-operation, responsibility and solidarity. EN has increased community participation in school-related activities and has reduced drop-out rate among children completing fifth grade (however, not third grade). Rojas and Castillo found that EN has had a significant impact on adult education, agricultural extension, athletic competitions, health campaigns, and community celebrations.

EN has changed the face of rural education in Colombia. It is proving that it is possible  to design an educational model tailored to the rural context, that includes both quality and efficiency. EN is showing that some of the traditional disadvantages of rural areas can be turned into advantages - ample space, linkages with nature, natural resources, contact with the community, central role played by the school and the teacher in community life, etc.


As with other acclaimed innovative experiences, there is a tendency to deny or minimize problems and limitations. However, we know there are always discrepancies between the ideal, desired model and its implementation.

A study trip (1991) to see EN operating in the field allowed me first-hand contact with the many EN strengths and also with some of its weaknesses (Torres, 1991). So far I have referred to the former; I shall now refer to the latter.

There is room for improvement in all the components and elements described. In fact, the EN coordinating team is not satisfied with any of them. The Guides require thorough revision (three revisions have been carried out to date), especially in Mathematics and Language. Many contents and activities need to be better adjusted to the circumstances and needs of a rural child. Not many teachers are using the adaptation mechanism built into the Guides. There are limitations in the instructional design, too formal and inflexible for the requirements of do-it-yourself learning materials such as these.

There are shortcomings in teacher training -- coverage and quality. The rural micro-center strategy is not yet fully understood or established in all areas. School governments are not always set up or, where they are, not always as planned. A controlling or paternalistic approach by teachers and adherence to form and ritual may defeat the objective of the school government. The school-community relationship depends to a great extent on the teachers' initiative; their characteristics, training and personal motivation determine the quality of that relationship, which often replicates conventional school patterns.

The teaching of reading and writing - basic skills and the factor which largely determines children's academic future - is still one of EN's main shortcomings. As indicated, there are no Guides for first grade, leaving teachers free to choose the literacy methods and techniques they deem most appropriate. This is an open invitation to the conventional teaching approaches and outdated methods that prevail in literacy education. One of the major challenges facing EN is coming up with new ideas in this area, drawing on the important knowledge and experience gained in the region and internationally.

The teacher-student relationship proposed by EN has yet to be fully owned and applied. While some teachers are moving towards a new teaching role, others continue to apply conventional teaching approaches. Translating EN principles and strategies into practice implies a long and complex process.

EN demands two main roles from teachers: a teaching role and a community role. It is not easy to strike a balance between the two. Demonstration Schools seem to be placing more emphasis on the community relationship than on teaching. 

There is a conflictual institutional issue. Although EN is a government program framed within the Ministry of Education, the relationship is difficult and never fully clarified. From open boycott to passive resistance, EN has often had to swim against the tide or operate on the fringes of the system, looking for the support of international organizations and private Colombian organizations. Its precarious situation within the government structure weakens the program's capacity to consolidate and expand.

A long evolutionary process such as the one EN has witnessed can lead to development and progress, but also to stagnation. Efforts are necessary to rejuvenate it continually. The aging of Escuela Nueva is a recurrent concern among those involved in the program. 

Expansion has brought both an aggravation of old problems and a series of new ones. As stated (Ministry of Education-UNICEF, 1990), the "cost of going for scale" has included "inevitable sacrifices in terms of effectiveness and efficiency" and has resulted in "a reduction in the number of days spent on training workshops or, in some places, a failure to provide the study guides in time for the training sessions. One consequence of these problems is, of course, a weakening of experiential learning in teachers' training, added to teacher apathy and criticism of the program." The new administrative structure that has emerged as a result of the program's expansion has led to conflict with the technical teams, not always consulted, and has caused a sharp rise in the number of administrative officials with training demands that the program has been unable to meet.

Another factor is the proliferation of "demonstration schools" during the expansion phase. Although such schools are considered to be a key strategy to maintain quality, their introduction on a massive scale may have the opposite effect.


The combination of innovation and replicability is highly valued, especially by international organizations. Innovative experiences are expected not only to expand, but also to adapt to other contexts.
In fact, many would like to find a magic one-size-fits-all formula for primary education in rural areas in "developing countries". A few comments on EN in this regard.

In the first place, the specific nature of EN as it has developed in Colombia must be born in mind. It is a formal, public, rural, multigrade, primary education program. These characteristics must not be overlooked when considering possible adaptations or variants. Nor must it be forgotten that EN is a system organized around four components (curriculum, training, administration, and community), not an assortment of isolated elements.

There are a number of factors of Colombia's EN Program that are unique and not readily available or easily replicable in other contexts. 

"Rural school"  "Rural schools" are very different in different places. Colombian "rural schools" are generally well endowed with infrastructure and equipment (government loans with the World Bank in the late 1970s and in the 1980s improved the physical infrastructure of rural schools in the country). Many EN schools have housing facilities for the teachers and their families. Many have a kitchen, a dining-room, washrooms, running water, electricity, television. This is not the reality of rural schools in many Latin American countries and in most "developing countries". 

Languages  Colombia is a rather homogenous country in linguistic terms. The EN program has a tremendous advantage in dealing with one language: Spanish. In the majority of Latin American countries and throughout the world, multilingualism is the norm. Introducing the EN model in bilingual or multilingual contexts means venturing into entirely new territory.

Teachers' educational background  According to the World Bank study (Psacharopoulos, 1992), most EN teachers have secondary or higher education. Also, compared with other rural schools in Colombia, EN has more teachers living on the school premises. Both factors - teachers' level of education and teachers living in the school - have a positive impact on students (a university education was associated with better cognitive outcomes; teachers residing in the school was associated with better scores in creativity and civic behavior).

A long process  EN has made a long and distinctive process. "In Escuela Nueva, the necessary technical conditions have been met, since the program has been designed and put to the test over a period of 15 years. Furthermore, the present government has fulfilled the necessary political conditions. In addition, adequate financial conditions have been assured through the allocation of government funds, a loan from the World Bank and the cooperation of UNICEF, which has lent its support to maintain the quality of the program as it expands" (Ministry of Education-UNICEF, 1990). How many countries and governments can offer such a combination of technical, political and financial circumstances?

Technical capacities  Let us mention only one crucial component of EN: the Learning Guides. As acknowledged by the World Bank, elaborating good textbooks needs highly specialized technical competence that is not easy to find: "Translating curriculum specifications into good textbooks requires considerable expertise. Textbooks must have the appropriate content and reading level; be consistent in approach, method and exposition; be properly sequenced; motivate the students; and finally, be readily taught by less qualified teachers, yet allow good teachers to expand upon them. Throughout the world, few individuals possess the expertise required for writing good textbooks" (Lockheed and Verspoor, 1991). How many programs can avail themselves of such human and technical expertise?

Financing  In addition to government funds channeled through the Ministry of Education, EN has been receiving regular financial support from various international agencies - USAID, IDB, UNICEF, the World Bank - and from private organizations. The estimated cost of EN is between 5% and 10% higher than that of conventional schools (Schiefelbein, 1991), while teacher training costs at least three times higher (Psacharopoulos, 1992). Can similar financial support be expected in other countries? Can EN itself expect sustained support to enable it to continue to expand while improving its quality?

Survival  In a world where policies and programs are easily discontinued by government changes or international decisions, EN stands out as an exceptional innovative experience. How has EN been able to survive the political and administrative instability characteristic of Latin America and of Colombia specifically? Someone has attributed EN's success to "a mixture of advertisement, strategic support, academic standing of the developers, and simple luck" (Schiefelbein, 1991). The "luck" factor no doubt covers a wide range of unpredictable, inexplicable and non-reproducible factors.

Leadership  Studies show that one of the characteristics of successful programs and effective schools is the role played by specific individuals with drive, vision, leadership, charisma, and perseverance. This is true in the case of EN. The original team remained relatively stable. Individuals in key positions have had a decisive impact on the program's development, locally and nationally. "Even though Escuela Nueva has been institutionalized in the whole country, the support it receives in some provinces largely depends on the personal preferences of local administrators" (Psacharopoulos, 1992, p. 19).

Ten years elapsed between EN's official establishment as a program in 1975 and its adoption as a national education policy in 1985. The process has followed three stages (Ministry of Education-UNICEF, 1990): (a) learning to be effective (1975-1978), (b) learning to be efficient (1979-1986), and (c) learning to expand (since 1987). Even with the time, resources and planning that went into the program's development, everything indicates that EN was not equipped to cope with its rapid expansion, at least not without jeopardizing its quality. If this happens with a resourceful program such as EN, what can be expected of programs that are required to expand and even achieve universal implementation without having gone through the stages and met the requirements essential to their very survival? Pressure from governments and international organizations to reach big numbers, show results and become successful models in record times does not help real, transformative, sustainable innovation in the educational field.

There is a great deal that Colombia and other countries can learn from EN. There is also a great deal that can be done to consolidate and improve the program, while protecting it from the hazards of fashion and the risks of domestic shifts.

Radical changes required in education today takes second place when concerns continue to focus on access rather than on effective learning. Universalizing access to education without universalizing quality education, is delivering more of the same that produces non-learning, frustration, drop-out, repetition, and wastage of resources.

Transforming formal education is a major challenge. Schools must become less formal and more flexible, relevant, useful, creative, enjoyable, responsive to students' and teachers' needs, respectful of diversity, open to participation by parents and the community and accountable to society. EN is showing a way to do it in Colombia. It is important to know the program better and learn from its many lessons.


[1] In 1992, professor Oscar Mogollón joined the Academy for Educational Development (AED) - a US-based non-profit -  to work on the design and implementation of the Active School approach in Guatemala, Nicaragua, Peru and Equatorial Guinea. He passed away in 2010. See: Oscar Mogollón and Marina Solano de Mogollón, Active Schools: Our Convictions for Improving the Quality of Education, AED, 2011.


COLBERT, Vicky and Jairo Arboleda, "Universalization of Primary Education in Colombia: The New School Programme", UNESCO-UNICEF-WFP Co-operative Programme, Paris, July 1990. 

COLOMBIA Ministry of Education-UNICEF, El Programa de Escuela Nueva. Más y mejor educación primaria para los niños de las zonas rurales, Bogotá, 1990.

LOCKHEED, M. and VERSPOOR, A., Improving Primary Education in Developing Countries, Oxford University Press, a World Bank publication, Washington, 1991.

PSACHAROPOULOS, George, ROJAS, Carlos, and VELEZ, Eduardo, "Achievement Evaluation of Colombia's Escuela Nueva", in Working Papers, World Bank, Washington, D.C., April 1992.

SCHIEFELBEIN, Ernesto, In search of the school of the XXI century: is the Colombian Escuela the right pathfinder?, UNESCO-UNICEF, Santiago, 1991.

TORRES, Rosa María, Escuela Nueva: Una innovación desde el Estado, Fronesis, Colección Educación Nº 2, Quito, 1991.

Related texts in this blog 
» Rosa María Torres and Manzoor Ahmed, Reaching the Unreached: Non-formal approaches and Universal Primary Education
» Rosa María Torres, Transforming formal education from a Lifelong Learning perspective
» Rosa María Torres, On Innovation and Change in Education
» Rosa María Torres, "Antes, aquí era Escuela Vieja"


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