The 4 As as criteria to identify "good practices" in education

Rosa María Torres

(Texto en español aquí)

Identifying, documenting and disseminating "good practices" - also called ‘successful’, ‘effective’, ‘exemplary’, ‘inspiring’, etc. - is common demand in the education field. Educators, policy makers, international agencies, coincide in the search for "models" to inspire good practices in various contexts. There are currently many banks of "good practices" compiled in printed materials and in the web. generally organized by topics as well as by countries/regions. Several experiences appear everywhere, and are also the ones mentioned in boxes in national and international reports. At first it was mainly experiences related to schooling and formal education; now, collections of "good practices" extend also to non-formal and to youth and adult education.

However, a major limitation persists: in most cases there are no explanations on how and why the selected experiences have been labelled "good practices". In general, criteria include the usual quantitative information (enrollment, coverage, attendance, completion, budget, costs, etc.) as well as subjective aspects that are not easily verifiable. "Good practices" often lack evaluations to support both quantitative and qualitative claims.

I hereby propose using the ‘4 As’ to assess the right to education - availability, accessibility, adaptability and acceptability - as criteria to help identify and develop best practices in education. Such criteria allow going beyond the usual focus on supply and on policies, and taking into account "the other side", the demand perspective - learners, families, communities, their circumstances and contexts.

The ‘4As’ were adopted in 1966 by the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights; later, they were developed by Katarina Tomasevski, United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Education 1988-2004, who contributed to give them wide visibility. So far the ‘4As’ 4 have been centered around children and schooling. However, the Covenant Application established that "education in all its forms and levels must have these four inter-related characteristics (United Nations, 1999). Thus, they can and should be expanded to cover all fields and modalities of education, including youth and adult education.

Faced to an educational practice, and before concluding on its usefulness and effectiveness, it is essential to raise questions about its availability, accessibility, adaptability and acceptability. Same questions may be raised in relation to policies.


Availability is the most basic level of the right to education. It refers to the existence of effective educational opportunities, including basic conditions needed for the programme or center to operate, whether formal, non-formal or informal.

Often, the educational need is there but not the educational provision able to meet those needs or demands. There is no child care center, no primary or secondary school, no community center, no library, etc. to satisfy the basic education needs of the population living in a certain area or region. Many programmes are small, cover only certain groups or ages, or operate only during a certain period of time, and fail to reach the hard to reach areas and groups, especially in rural and remote areas. Also, frequently the educational provision is limited to children and schooling, leaving out the needs of young children as well as of the adult population. It is important to remember that the right to education applies to every person - children, young people and adults - and throughout life.


Once availability is ensured, we must ask ourselves about accessibility. Not everything that is available is accessible to everyone. Accessibility has various dimensions:

(a) economic accessibility: the right to education implies the right to free education: no fees, learning materials available for free, subsidies to cover other costs associated to studying or learning (e.g. transportation, food, etc.);

(b) physical accessibility includes the various conditions needed to be able to actually reach the location where the activity takes place (distance from home or work, adequate roads, safety conditions, previsions for physically challenged persons, etc.) or the media necessary if distance education is at stake (radio, television, computer, etc.) as well as adequate schedules to be able to attend or follow the classes or activities;

(c) curricular and pedagogical accessibility implies learners' need to cope with the language(s) used in for communication and teaching-learning purposes, the contents, methodologies, evaluation instruments, technologies, etc., with the necessary and opportune assistance whenever needed.

Many education opportunities cannot be realized because their access conditions are restrictive. Often, attending an education programme or taking advantage of a learning opportunity implies costs that learners or their families are not able to afford, thus limiting registration or favoring rapid dropout; centers are too far away or their schedules are incompatible with family or income-related activities; lack of proper illumination or other safety conditions inhibit also people’s participation, especially girls and women. Many libraries are inaccessible for children, youth and adults because of their location and schedules, their complicated procedures and rituals, and the absence of appropriate reading materials.

Modern examples of available educational opportunities that are not necessarily accessible are to be found in the field of modern technologies. Computer and other equipments may be purchased and distributed but may remain un- or under-utilized because nobody knows how to operate or repair them, there are no trained teachers or even minimum requirements such as electric power and an internet connection. Thus the need to make sure technological innovations are really such - that is, innovations which are part of an effective and ongoing teaching-learning process - before assuming their usefulness or effectiveness.


Not everything that is available and accessible is relevant or pertinent for the people it is supposed to reach. Educational supply must adapt to learners’ realities, expectations, needs and possibilities, not the other way around. Schedules, contents, languages, media, teaching methodologies, evaluation instruments and procedures, etc. must be adapted to specific conditions in each case: geographical zone, season of the year, weather, age, gender, ethnicity and culture, educational background, time availability, motivations, learning rhythms and styles, special needs, etc. This implies empathy with the people, knowledge of local realities, capacity to anticipate and to rectify, and people’s consultation and participation in decision-making.

Responding to diversity implies flexibility and diversification, accepting individual and social differences not as a problem but as a reality, and as condition for the effectiveness of any intervention. Responding to inequality implies additionally the challenge of equity, which means giving more and better to those who have less, in order to compensate for their disadvantageous situation. Homogeneous and ‘one size fits all’ policies, programmes, strategies, and benchmarks reinforce inequality.

The greatest adaptability challenges are often faced in rural areas (dispersion of the population, distances, often lack of basic services such as electric power, poverty, harsh work, tiredness, etc.), indigenous groups (non-hegemonic languages and cultures, strong women’s subordination and isolation in many communities and cultures, etc.), errand populations (migrant workers, landless people, displaced because of conflicts or natural disasters, etc.), highly heterogeneous groups (in terms of age, educational background, languages and cultures, etc.) and groups with special needs, who require specific conditions, strategies and materials. The combination of various of these characteristics makes differentiated attention all the more complicated.

Often, the language of instruction is not that of the learners; contents and schedules are defined without their participation; children’s schools and classrooms are not adapted to the needs of adults (facilities, furniture, rules, etc.); evaluation codes and procedures are often not familiar to the learners, who may drop out before taking the test or fail the tests altogether.


Acceptability is located on the side of learners and is fundamentally related with their satisfaction. Here lies the true reason and final test of policies and programmes. Both relevance (what for) and pertinence (for whom) of educational provision are central aspects of quality education and of its transformative potential.

Satisfaction is linked to many factors, not all of them related to learning, such as self-esteem, dignity, family and social respect, breaking with loneliness and isolation, socialization and interaction with peers, and simply having fun. The best indication that an education center or a programme works and is adequate for the learners is that they are happy and feel comfortable. Children are usually very transparent in letting people know what they like and what they dislike; however, in the field of education this is rarely taken into account as an obvious and central quality indicator. If children feel unease, fearful, insecure, ill-treated ... this is certainly not a good education practice even if other signals might indicate otherwise.

For many women and housewives, class time is the equivalent of tea time, going to the movies or going for a ride, escaping from home and from daily routines, making friends. For many young people the education center is a rehabilitating experience after a traumatic and unfriendly school experience. For many participants, especially men, it is not acceptable to go to a school to learn, since they feel treated like children and publicly exposed and would rather learn at home or in less public places. This coincides, on the other hand, with the many husbands’ and fathers’ fear for their wives and daughters meeting other men when they go to study out of home. These and other fears and cultural barriers often limit the participation of both men and women.

It is difficult to value the point of view of learners since there is usually little systematic information about it, except for isolated testimonies, anecdotes, letters, etc. Ideally, every programme should include reliable mechanisms to evaluate learners' satisfaction. High dropout rates and low learning outcomes prevailing in many education programmes may be indicative of combined problems of accessibility, adaptability and acceptability of such programmes.

A key aspect of both adaptability and acceptability of educational provision lies in the degree and quality of the participation of potential “beneficiaries”, thus turned into effective partners in all aspects and phases of policy design and programming, including conception, planning, implementation, monitoring and evaluation. Rather than policies and programmes for, it is essential to build policies and programmes from and together with.

To learn more
The Indicator Tree - a visualisation of the right to education indicators
Some inventories of "good practices" in the field of youth and adult education
Convenio Andrés Bello (CAB): Portafolio de Alfabetización
Fundación Santillana: Registre su experiencia
OEI/SEGIB: Premios para la Alfabetización Iberoamericana (Experiencias en Alfabetización y Educación de Jóvenes y Adultos)
UNESCO-UIL: Effective Literacy Practice
UNESCO-OREALC: Red Innovemos - Criterios para la selección de buenas prácticas y políticas de alfabetización

* Text developed from: Rosa María Torres, "From Literacy to Lifelong Learning: Trends, Issues and Challenges for Youth and Adult Education in Latin America and the Caribbean". Regional Report prepared for the VI International Conference on Adult Education (Belém-Pará, Brazil, 1-4 Dec. 2009). A contribution from CREFAL to CONFINTEA VI.

Related texts in OTRA∃DUCACION
On Education and Innovation
From Literacy to Lifelong LearningDe la alfabetización al aprendizaje a lo largo de la vida


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