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Girls' education: Lessons from BRAC (Bangladesh)

Rosa María Torres




I learned about BRAC and got in contact with its education programme while working as a senior education adviser at UNICEF's Education Cluster in New York, in the early 1990s. From the start, I became fascinated with BRAC's 'non-formal primary school' concept. This programme, initiated in 1985 with 22 schools, attempted to address the needs of the poorest sectors in Bangladesh, especially in rural areas. The specific aim was to attract girls, who were mostly absent from schools.

I visited Bangladesh twice, in 1993 and in 1995, and had the opportunity to see BRAC's non-formal primary schools in action. Together with Manzoor Ahmed, UNICEF Programme Director at the time, we wrote a dossier called Reaching the Unreached: Non-formal approaches and universal primary education, (UNICEF, 1993). BRAC's non-formal education programme was one of the experiences included in the dossier. BRAC's programme was also included in Education for All: Making It Work - Innovation Series organized jointly by UNICEF and UNESCO right after the Jomtien Conference on Education for All (1990). Dieter Berstecher (UNESCO Paris) and I (UNICEF New York) coordinated the project. (In 2000, 10 years after the Jomtien conference, the series was transferred from UNESCO Headquarters to PROAP, in Bangkok. See issue No.14 dedicated to Lok Jumbish, in India).

One thing that astonished me was the basic and pragmatic wisdom with which BRAC was developing the programme. The first step was conducting a survey to find out why parents were not sending their daughters to school. Three major reasons came out: 1) the school journey was too long (they needed girls to help at home with domestic chores); 2) teachers were mostly men (parents expressed they would feel more comfortable if there were female teachers in the schools); and 3) the school - when available - was too distant from home.

Acknowledging parents' expressed needs, BRAC acted accordingly. The design of the programme adopted three key measures:

1) shortening the school journey (3 hours a day), rethinking the entire school calendar (more months in school, no long holidays), and adjusting the curriculum to fit those time arrangements (the idea is to complete the nation's five-year primary school cycle in four years);

2) identifying women in the local communities and providing them with some basic initial training so that they could act as teachers; and

3) building schools that were closer to home. 

BRAC's non-formal primary schools were the simplest and nicest schools I had seen in poor rural areas. One-room schools built with local materials, with the help of the community. Bright, clean, colorful. Small mats on the floor for the children, a medium-sized chalkboard, posters and visual aids all around.

Children walked shorter distances to school and remained there only for 3 hours a day, so they could continue to help at home.

There were few women in the communities with a teacher certificate, so BRAC selected in each community women with the highest school level (often primary education) and interested in teaching, and trained them. Initially with a 12-day course, later complemented with monthly refresher courses and yearly orientation courses.

This is how BRAC managed to include girls who would otherwise have never attended school. By the time I visited BRAC the NFE programme was already a 'success story' attracting attention not only in Bangladesh but worldwide. Since then BRAC has continued to grow - it is today "the worlds' largest development organization" - and its education programme became a full education system. It remains free of charge. It reached also urban slums, it incorporated e-learning and it includes now a university and a network of mobile libraries. In terms of learning results, BRAC's NFE schools do not lag behind government formal schools; on the contrary, their results are ahead of the country average.
Some data for BRAC's  non-formal primary schools (January 2017):
14,153 schools
389,910 students, of whom 62.17% are girls
5.3 million students completed courses, of which 60.43% are girls
5.55 million students transferred to formal schools to date, of which 60.12% are girls
14,153 teachers
BRAC's education programme has received numerous international awards, one of them the prestigious WISE Prize from the Qatar Foundation in 2011. I was happy to be in Doha, attending the WISE event, when Sir Fazle Hasan Abed, BRAC's founder and director, received the prize.

Girls' education remains a major issue worldwide, starting with early childhood and primary education. The problem continues to pose old and new challenges. Diagnoses and studies multiply, debates and fora repeat often what is already known, there is hunger for more data. In the middle of all that, I often remember BRAC's long and fruitful experience, its pragmatic wisdom, its short, medium and long-term vision, its consultation with families and communities, its permanent interest to connect with local needs and realities.

In times when everything seems to start from scratch and anything can be considered an innovation, it is essential to look back and learn from experience.

Related texts in this blog
» Aprender a lavarse las manos
» WISE Prize for Education Laureates: Bottom-up Innovators
» Kazi, the graceless | Kazi, el sin gracia
 
 

10 false ideas on education in Finland


Rosa María Torres
Less is more . e-volv

1. FALSE: Finland has the highest investment in education

Finland allocates 11.2% of its public budget to education, from early childhood to higher education, including the latter (the Ministry of Education and Culture deals with the whole system). 

The average in OECD countries is 12%. Many countries with poorer learning outcomes and not providing free education have higher education budgets (for example Switzerland, Sweden, Germany, the United States, the Netherlands, or the UK).
 

Education is free, including transportation and a daily school meal for all students. (Textbooks are not free in higher secondary education). 

- OECD, Education at a Glance 2015 (2012 data).


2. FALSE: The secret is more time dedicated to school 


Finland is the OECD country that dedicates less time to school education.
Schooling starts at age 7. 180 days a year, less school hours, less homework. 

A teacher teaches an average of 600 hours a year, 4 classes a day or less. (A school teacher in the United States teaches 1.080 hours a year, 5 or 6 classes a day). 

The formula is less class time, more and longer recesses (75 minutes in total).


Finland is the OECD country with the least homework. Students have more free time to play, to engage in physical activity, to learn out of school, to be with family and friends.  

3. FALSE: Intensive use of technology for teaching and learning in schools

The Finnish school system trusts teachers' skills and expertise. Finland's education strength is pedagogy, not technology. ICTs are at the service of pedagogy rather the other way round. 

Finland is back from some illusions created by technologies over the past decades. It ratifies the importance of handwriting, of reading on paper, of not relying solely on keyboards and screens. 

ICTs are not confined to laboratories any more. They are incorporated to classrooms and other learning spaces within the schools.


4. FALSE: Finland has great education infrastructure


A few modern and innovative school buildings have been built over the past few years. But most school buildings have been operating for many years, and are well maintained.

The key is the organization and use of space, and the creation of a stimulating and informal learning environment. Everything aims at generating collaboration, group work, peer learning, in and out of classrooms.

Class groups are small (max. 20 students per class) so as to facilitate interaction and personalized attention. This is considered especially important in the first two grades.


5. FALSE: Teacher candidates are selected from "best students"


"The best" are not necessarily those with the best grades or the most titles.


Several aspects are valued and observed in the selection of "future best teachers": motivation, attitude towards lifelong learning, reading habits, critical thinking, creativity, artistic and communication skills, knowledge of languages, values such as empathy, perseverance and social commitment. 
 
6. FALSE: Finland has the highest teacher salaries

Teacher salaries in Finland are below the OECD average.

The key behind teachers' excellent performance is not the economic incentive. There are other factors explaining their motivation and professionalism.

Finnish teachers are carefully selected, trained with high quality standards, and socially respected. They enjoy professional autonomy and take decisions every day in their work. The education administration, parents and the whole society trust them. They feel important and respected for what they do.


7. FALSE: Teachers are not unionized

 
95% of Finnish teachers are unionized.

The Finnish teacher union (OAJ) is strong and a main actor in education and education reform in the country. Its 120.400 members come from all levels of the education system, from early childhood education to higher education. 

8. FALSE: Finland applies standardized tests 


Finland is not a fan of standardized tests. It does not believe in them it avoids them. It applies one single standardized test to students after they are 16 of years of age. 

The main concern of the school system is learning, not grading or testing. Less time devoted to testing, more time devoted to teaching and learning. 


There is no teacher evaluation system in place. No standardized tests are applied to teachers. 


9. FALSE: Finland sets and publishes rankings 


Finland encourages collaboration, not competition, between learners, teachers and schools. Consequently, it avoids ranking them

It does not publish learning outcomes. 

Finland's objective has never been to be the best in the world, not even in Europe. The objective remains being the best education system for its own students. 


10. FALSE: Finland is satisfied with its education system and its learning outcomes  

Despite its top performance in PISA and its many top economic, social and cultural indicators, Finland is dissatisfied, always looking for ways to make education more meaningful and pleasurable for students. 

The country is currently engaged in a holistic and profound basic education curriculum reform. It is also rethinking the role of ICTs in teaching and learning, and revisiting early childhood education. 
 

Related texts in this blog 
» Rosa María Torres, FINLANDIA
» Rosa María Torres, Sobre la educación en Finlandia | On education in Finland

Visita de estudio en Finlandia | Finland study visit



Rosa María Torres

(English below)


Finalmente camino a Finlandia, a ver in situ su sistema escolar y su sistema de bibliotecas. Un modelo educativo que he llegado a admirar a la distancia, desde América Latina, sobre el cual he leído mucho y he escrito algo. 

De hecho, este Glosario mínimo sobre la educación en Finlandia - escrito en 2011 y agrandado con sucesivas actualizaciones - es el post más leído en mi blog OTRA∃DUCACION. La niña leyendo en una hamaca, sin zapatos, es la imagen que sintetiza para mí algunos de los elementos más preciados de la educación finlandesa: la escuela pausada, con tiempo, sin miedo, que se parece al hogar, que cultiva el juego y la lectura, que respeta a los niños y a sus individualidades, que crea buen clima escolar, que sabe motivar hacia el aprendizaje, que se lleva bien con la informalidad y los ambientes relajados ...

¿Es así o, entre imágenes y lecturas, lo fui ajustando a mi medida? Quiero observar, escuchar, preguntar, conversar, entrevistar, fotografiar, dentro y fuera de las aulas. Quiero recorrer escuelas, observar clases, meterme a las bibliotecas, hablar con profesores, directores, alumnos, padres de familia, bibliotecarios, profesores universitarios y académicos, y también con gente en la calle. Sé que debe haber de todo, que la perfección no existe, que las cosas deben ser muy diferentes entre Helsinki y el resto del país, y sobre todo en pueblos pequeños y en zonas apartadas.

De Finlandia no me atraen particularmente sus resultados y su ránking en PISA sino cómo ha llegado hasta aquí y cómo hace las cosas. Cómo logra lo que logra con mucho menos padecimiento que países asiáticos también bien ubicados en PISA como Corea del Sur, China y otros.

La educación finlandesa es tema de continuado interés en el mundo hispanohablante. A América Latina nos llega principalmente desde Estados Unidos y desde España, mediada por análisis y comparaciones con las realidades educativas de esos dos países. Nos llega también, cada vez más,  a través de consultores y empresas finlandesas que han empezado a vender servicios educativos a América Latina. Yo quiero verla con ojos latinoamericanos, como investigadora y especialista en la cuestión educativa.

La visita incluye reuniones con especialistas de la Finnish National Board of Education así como una charla sobre educación y reforma educativa en América Latina, organizada por el CIMO, en Helsinki. Me dejé algunos días libres, no programados, a fin de incluir en la marcha nuevas actividades que vayan surgiendo.

Muchos funcionarios del actual gobierno ecuatoriano han visitado Finlandia para ver su sistema educativo. Mi visita es personal, no financiada por ningún organismo nacional o internacional.

Compartiré en este blog impresiones de la visita. También iré contestando las preguntas que algunas personas me enviaron, a través de Twitter. Mi idea es escribir un libro, si consigo financiamiento para dedicarme al menos seis meses a investigar y escribir.

Agradezco a Pasi Sahlberg su ayuda para concretar esta visita y a Jaana Mutanen, del CIMO, por organizarla y acompañarme en varias de las visitas y reuniones. También agradezco a Johanni Larjanko por organizar las visitas a centros de educación no-formal de jóvenes y adultos en Helsinki y en Porvoo.

Camino a Helsinki, 28 octubre 2015

* * *

Finally on my way to Finland, to see its school system and its library system. An education model I admire at a distance, from the distant Latin American realities, and on which I have read a lot and written - mostly in Spanish.

In fact, this Glosario mínimo sobre la educación en Finlandia (Basic glossary on education in Finland) - written in 2011 and successively expanded with updates - is the most popular post in my blog OTRA∃DUCACION. The girl reading in a hammock, without shoes, synthesizes for me some of the most precious elements of Finnish education: the school with time, without fear, that feels a lot like home, cultivates play and reading, respects children, creates a good school and classroom climate, knows the difference between testing and learning and knows how to motivate towards learning, gets along with informality and with  relaxed environments.


Is it really like that? I want to observe, ask, talk, take pictures, in and out of schools. I want to visit schools, observe classes, sit in libraries, talk with students, parents, teachers, headteachers, librarians, researchers and academics, and also with people on the street. Perfection does not exist, and I know there must be big differences between Helsinki and the rest of the country, especially small towns and isolated areas.

I am not particularly attracted to Finland because of its results and rankings in PISA. I am interested to learn how Finland reached this point, how it does what is does and achieves what it achieves, with much less suffering than Asian countries that also get good positions in PISA such as South Korea, China and others.


Finnish education remains a topic of great interest in the Hispanic world. It reaches Latin America mainly through the United States and Spain, through analyses and comparisons with the education realities of those two countries. Increasingly it also reaches us through Finnish consultants and consultancy firms that have begun to sell education services in the region. I want to see it myself, with Latin American eyes, as a researcher and an education specialist.


The visit includes meetings with specialists of the Finnish National Board of Education, as well as a conference of mine on education reform in Latin America organized by
CIMO (Centre for International Mobility), in Helsinki. I decided to leave some days free in order to add any new activities that came up.

Many Ecuadorian civil servants have come to Finland to see its education system over the past few years. I undertook this study visit with my own resources, not depending on public or international funds.

I will be sharing some of my impressions on Finnish education in this blog. I will also respond to the
questions several people sent to me through Twitter. My idea is to write a book, if I manage to get some funding to allow me full time dedication to research and writing for at least six months.

Thank you to Pasi Sahlberg for helping me materialize this visit and to Jaana Mutanen of
CIMO for organizing it and accompanying me to several visits and meetings. I also thank Johanni Larjanko for organizing the visits to non-formal youth and adult education centers in Helsinki and Poorvo. 

On my way to Helsinki, October 28, 2015


También en este blog
| Also in this blog
La educación finlandesa comparada | Finnish education compared
Cuba and Finland | Cuba y Finlandia
On education in Finland | Sobre la educación en Finlandia
¿China, Corea del Sur o Finlandia?

Visita de estudio | Study visit
» Preguntas sobre la educación finlandesa
» Conversando bajo la lluvia  | Talking in the rain
» Timo y Giorgio
» Escuelas sin zapatos
» Finlandia: Tecnologías en escuelas y bibliotecas
» Dos malentendidos sobre la educación en Finlandia
» Confianza: Palabra clave en Finlandia
» Los estudiantes finlandeses no saben de Sudamérica
» El secreto finlandés es hacer todo al revés
» Yo estuve en "la escuela del futuro"

WISE Prize for Education Laureates: Bottom-up Innovators


Rosa María Torres


(Texto en español: Los Laureados con el Premio WISE a la Educación)


2011 WISE Prize for Education Laureate:
Sir Fazle Hasan Abed (Bangladesh)

2012 WISE Prize Laureate:

Dr. Madhav Chavan (India). Interview.
 
2013 WISE Prize for Education Laureate:

Vicky Colbert (Colombia)
. Interview.

2014 WISE Prize for Education Laureate:
Ann Cotton (UK) - Interview

"The WISE Prize for Education is the first distinction of its kind to recognize an individual or a team of up to six people working together for an outstanding, world-class contribution to education. Established in 2011 by Her Highness Sheikha Moza bint Nasser, Chairperson of Qatar Foundation, the WISE Prize for Education sets the standard for excellence in education, giving it similar status to other areas for which international prizes already exist, such as literature, peace and economics. The Laureate receives a monetary prize of $500,000 (US) and a gold medal. The WISE Prize for Education Laureate is honored as a global role model and ambassador for education."


What are the educational innovations that draw the attention of the global education community at this point in time? The first four winners of the WISE Prize for Education (2011, 2012, 2013, 2014) and their respective education programs share several common characteristics. One of them: they are bottom-up innovators and innovations, that have started small and local, have become national and later expanded internationally over a long and sustained period of time. My personal knowledge of two of them, BRAC and Escuela Nueva, through study visits, research and follow up over many years, provides some insights into the specific nature and process of these inspiring educational models and experiences.   


BRAC - Bangladesh

The 2011 WISE Prize for Education was awarded to Sir Fazle Hasan Abed, Founder and Chairman of BRAC, "the largest development organization in the world." Created in 1972 in a remote rural village, BRAC (Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee) reaches today nearly 135 million people in 11 countries in Asia and Africa, and also in Haiti in the Caribbean.

BRAC is not only an education-related NGO. Its holistic and multifaceted approach to development covers various areas and issues: microfinance, education, healthcare, legal services, community empowerment, and social enterprises. Education has been one of its key and most successful areas.

So-called BRAC Non-Formal Primary Schools, which became internationally renowned in the 1990s, have spread as a viable and replicable primary school model. Starting with ver modest primary schools, BRAC has developed a whole education system, that includes today BRAC University.

WISE Jury and Committee
 

Pratham - India

The 2012 WISE Prize for Education was awarded to Dr. Madhav Chavan, Co-founder and CEO of Pratham, the largest education NGO in India. Pratham's mission is "Every child in school and learning well". It was created in 1994 to provide pre-school education to children living in the slums of Mumbai. Community volunteers were recruited, trained, provided basic teaching-learning materials, and encouraged to organize classes in any space available in the communities (temples, offices, people’s houses, etc.).

Pratham Balwadis
(pre-school classes) multiplied in other locations. Today Pratham reaches millions of children in rural and urban areas in 19 of the country’s 28 states, through early childhood education, learning support to in-school and out-of-school children, mainstreaming of out-of-school children, computer literacy, vocational training for youth and special programs for vulnerable and working children.


An area approach (whole community interventions) was adopted in 2002-2003. Pratham’s Learn to Read (L2R) technique is an accelerated learning technique targeted at teaching both in-school and out-of-school children how to read in 4- 8 weeks. Facilitated by Pratham, The Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) is the largest survey undertaken in India by people outside the government. It measures the enrollment as well as the reading and arithmetic levels of children in the age group of 6-14 years.

WISE Jury and Committee


Escuela Nueva - Colombia

The 2013 WISE Prize for Education
was awarded to Vicky Colbert, founder and director of Fundación Escuela Nueva, and co-creator (together with Prof. Oscar Mogollón) of the Escuela Nueva (EN) model from its start.


EN was initiated as a local project in 1975, covering a few public schools in rural areas, and grew as a regular program within Colombia's Ministry of Education. In 1985, EN was adopted by the Colombian government as a national policy to universalize quality primary education in rural areas.

EN has shown that the multigrade school (one or two teachers in charge of all levels in a single classroom), if given appropriate conditions and treated as a multigrade system, can become a quality alternative rather than a "poor temporary solution for the poor". In fact, Colombia has been the only country in Latin America where students in rural areas have shown higher learning achievements than children in urban areas when UNESCO's LLECE tests were applied. EN has also shown that, even with many problems and ups and downs, radical and meaningful innovation can be developed within government structures and within formal, mainstream education.

The Escuela Nueva Foundation was created in 1987 in order to help strengthen the program, adapt it to urban areas, and expand it to other countries (the EN model has been experimented in 16 countries). Over the years, EN has received numerous international awards, including a WISE Award in 2009.

WISE Jury and Committee


CAMFED - Zimbabwe, Zambia, Ghana, Tanzania and Malawi

The 2014 WISE Prize for Education was awarded to Ann Cotton, a UK citizen founder of CAMFED.
"When you educate a girl in Africa, everything changes. She’ll be three times less likely to get HIV/AIDS, earn 25 percent more income and have a smaller, healthier family."
Camfed is an international non-profit organisation that works in the poorest rural communities in sub-Saharan Africa. It wants to break the cycle of poverty and disease in rural areas by supporting girls to go to school and succeed, and empowering young women to step up as agents of change. Since 1993, Camfed has been working in Zimbabwe, Zambia, Ghana, Tanzania and Malawi, supporting over 1,202,000 students to attend primary and secondary school. Over 3 million children have been benefited. They are selected by the community as being the most in need. Camfed supports them throughout their development, from primary school until adulthood.

In every country, Camfed works through national and local systems - with parents, teachers, government officials, and traditional authorities. It does not set up a parallel system. Programs are devised, managed, and monitored by the community, and all of Africa offices are staffed by nationals of that country.

The Camfed Alumnae Association (CAMA) is a pan-African network of Camfed graduates, currently with 24,436-members. They receive training in health, financial literacy and ICT, as well as business development and entrepreneurship. They, in turn, support vulnerable children to stay in school, and deliver health and financial literacy training to over 150,000 students and community members in their own countries.

Camfed's values are: 1. Focus on the Girl, 2. Involve the community, 3. Operate transparent, accountable programs. Camfed’s model has been recognised as best practice by the OECD for setting the standard for governance, sustainability and development innovation at scale.

WISE Jury and Committee

What do these four education programs have in common? 

Two of them are located in Asia, in two of the "nine most populous countries" on earth, where education issues and problems are massive and extremely complex. One is located in Latin America, in comparatively small Colombia, affected by long-term violence, social inequity and conflict. One works in Sub-Saharan Africa - Zimbabwe, Zambia, Ghana, Tanzania and Malawi - where social and education challenges are extremely big. Very different "developing countries", each of them unique and specific within their own regions.

The four programs:

» Have a long history and process behind: BRAC started in 1972, Escuela Nueva in 1975, Camfed in 1993, Pratham in 1994.

» Started local and small
, before expanding and becoming national and later international models. This bottom-up approach, plus the long term effort, have been key to their sustainability and success.


»
Emerged as educational alternatives for the poor and some of the most disadvantaged groups in their respective societies. BRAC, Escuela Nueva and Camfed were rooted in rural areas. Their respective education models were tailored for the specific conditions of rural areas.


» Serve children, through primary education in the case of BRAC and Escuela Nueva, early childhood and pre-school education in the case of Pratham, and primary and secondary education in the case of Camfed. BRAC started targetting girls, given the huge gender gap in primary education enrollment and attendance in Bangladesh at that time. Camfed is devoted to girls and women.

» Expanded gradually
beyond their original visions, missions and scopes, paying attention to the needs revealed by reality and by the learning process itself. They ventured into new areas, covered new ages and levels. All of them were aware of the importance of involving parents, families and communities, and have worked consistently in that direction.


» Focus on ensuring the basics: reading, writing and numeracy, survival, life and social skills, family and community empowerment.

» Give great importance to pedagogy and to pedagogical transformation,
much more than to infrastructure, administration or technologies. They all adopt learner-centered pedagogies.

»
Have been developed by NGOs, with the exception of Escuela Nueva, which was built within the existing ministry of education structure. In this case, the NGO has played an indispensable role in accompanying, sustaining and promoting the innovation. Camfed is an international NGO.

» Are low cost
: they take advantage of all human and material resources available in the school, the family and the community.

»
Have been supported by several international agencies, especially from the United Nations as well as from the World Bank and other regional banks and organizations. Also by the private sector.

»
Have received much recognition both at national and international levels.

»
Curiously enough and worth noticing: all of them have a rather low technological profile. Technologies are not the driving force. Human beings, participation, volunteering, school-community relationship, pedagogical transformation, are the key.



See also:
Rosa María Torres and Manzoor Ahmed, Reaching the Unreached: Non-formal Approaches and Universal Primary Education  
Rosa María Torres, Escuela Nueva: An innovation within formal education (Colombia)
Rosa María Torres, "Antes, aquí era Escuela Vieja" (Colombia)
Rosa María Torres, On Innovation and Change in Education 
Rosa María Torres, The Green, the Blue, the Red and the Pink Schools
Rosa María Torres, On Learning Anytime, Anywhere (WISE 2011)
Rosa María Torres, Knowldedge-based international aid: Do we want it? Do we need it?

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.


INTRODUCTION


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.

1. ESCUELA NUEVA: AN ALTERNATIVE WITHIN FORMAL EDUCATION

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.  

2. ESCUELA NUEVA: FROM LOCAL PROJECT TO NATIONAL POLICY

"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. 
3. ESCUELA NUEVA: A SYSTEM APPROACH

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.

4. ESCUELA NUEVA: A PEDAGOGICAL INNOVATION

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.

5. ESCUELA NUEVA RESULTS

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.

6. SOME CONCERNS 

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.

6.1. IS ESCUELA NUEVA A MODEL THAT CAN BE REPLICATED?

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.

ADDED NOTES


[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.

REFERENCES

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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