Reaching the Unreached: Non-Formal Approaches and Universal Primary Education

Rosa María Torres
and Manzoor Ahmed

Photos: BRAC, Bangladesh

Photo: CONAFE indigenous school, Mexico

This text is part of a dossier prepared by Manzoor Ahmed and myself in 1993, while both of us worked at UNICEF/HQ Programme Division in New York. The dossier was one of many UNICEF/ Education Cluster contributions to the policy-making process following the World Conference on Education for All - EFA (Jomtien-Thailand, 1990). The dossier included this conceptual text and a selection of twelve innovative primary education programmes from all over the world. Some of them are now over forty years old, such as BRAC in Bangladesh, Cursos Comunitarios - CONAFE in Mexico or Escuela Nueva in Colombia (BRAC and Escuela Nueva won recent WISE Awards). The term "non-formal" - adopted mainly from the South Asian experience - refers to the innovative, flexible and alternative nature of these programmes.
There was no Internet back in 1993. The dossier was printed and distributed by mail to all UNICEF offices. Two decades later, many of the ideas contained here remain valid. Many things have changed in the world, for good and for bad, and opportunities for education and for lifelong learning have widened, but many of the key educational problems addressed by the six EFA goals are still unsolved. Universal Primary Education - UPE (EFA Goal 2) remains a major challenge - not only universal access and retention but, most importantly, universal learning.
In 1990, at the launch of the global Education for All initiative (World Conference on Education for All, Jomtien), according to UNESCO there were 106 million children out of school. The year 2000 was established as the deadline for achieving UPE. In 2000 (World Education Forum, Dakar), the promise was postponed until 2015. However, in 2013 (data from 2001-2012):

- "More than 57 million children continue to be denied the right to primary education, almost half of whom will never enter a classroom."
- "Progress in reducing the number of children out of school has come to a virtual standstill just as international aid to basic education falls for the first time since 2002." (EFA Global Monitoring Report/UNESCO-UIS, Policy Paper 09, June 2013).
- Nigeria, Pakistan, Ethiopia, India, the Philippines, Burkina Faso, Kenya, Niger, Yemen, and Mali are the 10 countries with the largest number of out of school children.
- About 25% of children who enroll in school drop out before completing primary education.
- 120 million of those who complete four years of primary education are not able to read, write, and calculate.
“We are at a critical juncture. The world must move beyond helping children enter school to also ensure that they actually learn the basics when they are there. Our twin challenge is to get every child in school by understanding and acting on the multiple causes of exclusion, and to ensure they learn with qualified teachers in healthy and safe environments. Now is not the time for aid donors to back out. Quite the reverse: to reach these children and our ambition to end the learning crisis, donors must renew their commitments so that no child is left out of school due to lack of resources, as they pledged at the turn of this century.” Irina Bokova, UNESCO’s Director General, June 2013.

The proximity of the 2015 deadline - both for Education for All (EFA) and for the Millennium Development Goals (MDG) - has revived old concerns, discussions and ideas with a long history. Governments and international agencies have weak institutional memories; documents that are not on the web are invisible today. These are some of the reasons why we resuscitate this text and make it available in digital format, as a contribution to current reflections and analyses on primary schooling, educational innovation and education reform worldwide. 
Reaching the Unreached:
Non-Formal Approaches and Universal Primary Education

Dossier Prepared for the Second EFA Forum by UNICEF,  New York, 1993
This paper is the product of a collaborative effort. A draft prepared at UNICEF by Rosa-María Torres and Manzoor Ahmed was circulated to the international EFA Forum Steering Committee and others. Comments received were taken into account in preparing a longer draft that was reviewed in a meeting held at UNICEF headquarters in New York on 7-8 June 1993. The meeting was attended Olivier Berthoud, Anil Bordia, Frank Dall, Lavinia Gasperini, Aklilu Habte, Khadija Haq, Aster Haregot, Anthony Hewett, Uyeng Luong, Frank Method, Nyi Nyi, Heli Perrett, Ana Maria Quiroz, Elsie Rockwell, Kate Torkington, Daniel Wagner and Fred Wood. All these contributions are acknowledged gratefully.

The term Non-Formal Education (NFE) denotes here an approach to education rather than an educational domain or sub-system. Such approach introduces greater flexibility with respect to formal education: a decentralised structure, more democratic management and relationships,  adapting programmes to specific contexts and people (families, learners, educators), learner-centred pedagogies and content, creative ways of mobilising and using education­al resources, community ownership and participation in planning and management. Non-Formal Primary Education, as it is called in South East Asia, refers thus to non-conventional school programmes that "deformalise" schools in a number of aspects. In order to reach the unreached - the hardest to reach, the poorest, the most vulnerable and distant, those trapped in conflict situations - flexibility is essential. Rigid and homogeneous school patterns, imposed to all, have not and will not serve the purpose.

"Non-formal" approaches can be applied to all modes and levels of education - including initial, primary, secondary and tertiary education, as well as adult education, and vocational training.  Given the paramount importance of universal primary education (UPE) -- UPE being recognized as the core and the cutting edge of 'basic education for all' within EFA efforts -- this paper concentrates on NFE's potential for achieving UPE.


The main delivery system to ensure children's basic education outside the family is the school. Primary education must be universal, meet the basic learning needs of children, and take into account the culture, needs and expectations of families and of the community. Non-conventional, alternative programmes can help meet such basic learning needs, even in highly disadvantageous situations, if they are given the necessary conditions to facilitate children's access, wellbeing and learning.

Achieving universal primary education has been an explicit aim for most countries since the early 1960s. However, UPE was understood in terms of enrollment, regardless of retention, completion, and actual learning. This model, centered on a linear and homogeneous expansion of the regular school system, overlooked the different contexts and needs of the population, the actual teach­ing/learning conditions and processes, and ultimately, the learning results. Access and enrollment, infrastructure and central administration consumed most efforts and budgets destined for education, to the detriment of the quality of teaching/learning conditions and results. Non‑enrollment, repetition, dropout and low learning achievement are still major challenges, particularly for 'developing countries' and for the most disadvan­taged groups of society.

Although progress in the last three decades has raised net enrollment rate in developing countries from around 50 per cent of the primary school age-group to over 80 per cent, there are still at least 130 million eligible children who are not enrolled in primary schools. And of those who enroll, at least one-third, do not complete the primary cycle because of a combination of poverty and other socio-cultural disadvantages of children and their families, and the poor quality of the education offered. These figures hide profound disparities, such as those between rural and urban areas, between and within countries, and between boys and girls.

"Education for All" launched and approved in Jomtien (1990) re-defined UPE beyond enrollment or numbers of years of schooling; UPE must ensure "meeting basic learning needs" and "alternative programmes" must ensure:

(a)  quality,
(b)  linkages with the regular school system ("the components should constitute an integrated system, complementary and mutually reinforcing"), and
(c)  adequate support.

(a)  Quality: Quality is a major concern in all forms and levels of education. In particular, quality remains a key issue within the NFE field, historically marked by low academic status and weak political and social recognition. The most effective way to gain legitimacy, indispensable to success, is by demonstrating results. Achieving equal results as those of the school system -- often claimed as a proof of success-- is important but not enough if we consider the low learning outcomes of the school system and the ongoing efforts to improve them.

(b)  Linkages with the regular school system: The battle for UPE requires convergent -- although diversified -- efforts, integrated within a unified system. Not only is the school system the most widespread educational institution worldwide, but it also defines and influences social perceptions and expectations about educa­tion in general. Associating NFE with "out-of-school" education has contributed to its marginalisation. Rather than developing two parallel systems, it is necessary to create linkages and coordination between school and out-of-school, formal and non-formal, based on complementarity, mutual exchange and mobility between them. NFE approaches have much to contribute to the renovation and the "deformalisation" of the school system as well as to the creation of non-conventional programmes complementary to regular schools to serve the difficult-to-reach groups. 

(c)  Adequate support: NFE has been traditionally viewed as a cheap compensatory alternative to the school system, operating with untrained, underpaid and voluntary personnel, with low budgets and precarious management. NFE primary education programmes are required to achieve the same or more than the mainstream school system under more difficult circumstances -- serving the most disadvantaged populations, most heterogeneous groups, in hard-to-reach zones - with fewer resources. If NFE is to improve its quality and play an effective role as a national UPE strategy, it will require greater resources and support at all levels of the educational and administrative hierarchy. Govern­ment policy and decision-makers must assume a lead role in promoting diversified educational approaches, in mobilizing and sustaining a favourable climate of opinion towards them, and in guarantee­ing the conditions (political, financial, legal, techni­cal, and managerial) required for success.


There are today, in broad terms, three main strands of organizational and institutional arrangements in primary education: a) the formal school system, b) traditional indigenous education systems and institutions and c) non-conventional programmes generally labelled as NFE programmes. The three are present in all regions, although operating under very specific realities, with different emphases, approaches and strategies. All three require major changes and improvement.

a.  Innovations within the formal school system

The need to reform and revitalise the formal school system is evident all over the world. Counterbalancing the growing tide of criticism and skepticism about schools and public education, identify­ing and disseminating "success stories" ("good practices", "effective schools") have become a major thrust both nationally and interna­tionally. Programmes such as Colombia's Escuela Nueva, Chile's Programa de las 900 Escuelas, Mexico's Cursos Comunitarios, Zimbabwe's Educational Reform and the "Community School" approach revived in several African and Asian countries, show that change is possible and taking place within school walls in state-run public education systems. Many of these reforms have been inspired or become acceptable and possible as a result of the legitimacy of change and innovation spawned by NFE practices and research. Since formal primary schools serve the large majority of children, the greatest potential for NFE's contribution to universal primary education lies in its possibilities to trigger change and innovation in the public school system.

b.  Traditional indigenous education institutions

Traditional indigenous institutions, primarily stemming from the religious tradition predating European colonialism, are widespread in 'developing countries' and can be found in many countries under different denominations (Buddhist temple schools in several Asian countries, African bush schools in Liberia, Islamic schools in Asian and African countries, Church Schools in Ethiopia, etc). Many of them are elaborate systems that have been maintained outside the standard school system, have not been incorpo­rated in educational diagnoses and statistics, and have been overlooked by policy makers and researchers. Some provide an alternative to modern schooling, including a whole range of levels and modalities that play an equivalent role to the conventional "ladder" from pre-school to middle and even special­ized education. Some of them have been undergoing changes and introducing innovations in an effort to adapt to changing times and to "modernization". This is particularly true of the Islamic or Koranic school system, prevalent in over 40 countries and a large school population numbering in tens of millions of children.

Today, with ongoing educational reforms and a sense of urgency promoted by EFA, there is an increasing interest - particularly in Africa and Asia - in studying, documenting and revitalizing these traditional indigenous education alternatives, incorporating them within UPE efforts, and nourishing them with new curriculum and pedagogical methods, some of which are derived from NFE  approaches. 

c.  Non-formal primary education programmes

Primary education programmes categorically labeled as "non-formal" have been emerging since the early 1970s, with a marked increase during the 1980s, particularly in South Asia, the region with the highest percentage of out-of-school children in the age group 6-11.  (Bangladesh's BRAC Non-formal Primary Education is one of the best known programmes of this type). These programmes are still incipient in Africa and rather unfamiliar in Latin America and the Caribbean, where the term "non-formal" continues to be associated with adult education and out-of-school activities.

Non-formal primary education is aimed at out-of-school children/ youth, covering both the non-enrolled and the drop-out; most programmes operate in the rural areas; some are specifically designed to deal with gender disparity through a range of measures including gender-segregated programmes; some are addressed to very specific groups such as working children/youth, abandoned or street children, refugees, nomads, etc;  many derive methodology from adult education programmes, and some have maintained that link and even developed an integrated child/adult education framework; and some have attempted systematically to establish links with other development activities such as community development projects, women's groups, recreation and reading centers, etc.

These programmes present a great variety in terms of magnitude and scope, management, modes of delivery, curriculum, teaching approaches, and relation­ship with the school system. Some common features of the more effective non-formal primary education programmes can be identified:

Organization of the programme: annual calendar, daily schedule and number of total yearly hours determined by local circumstances, including part-time and spare-time schedules as well as multiple-shift arrangements. Emphasis on utilizing shorter hours more effectively.  Local and community involvement in planning, management and budget with accountability to community and parents.

  Teachers: Para-professionals and community members, including part-time and volunteer staff for all or most of the teaching personnel. Flexible formal education requirements, short pre-service orientation/training; reliance on on-the-job learning and supervision for maintaining teaching quality and teachers' motivation.

Learners: Flexible age requirements and no pre-requisites, although usually "affirmative action" approach in favour of the disadvantaged is followed.

Curriculum and teaching-learning methods: Curriculum and learning materials are adapted to local needs through simplification, shortening, condensing or re-structuring the curriculum. Flexible evaluation, promotion and certification criteria and procedures. Pragmatic mix of a variety of approaches and methods: self-learning, group and individual work, peer-tutoring, ability and interest grouping; self-paced learning; multigrade classes and arrangements.

Physical facilities: Any convenient physical facility (including private homes or even open spaces), multiple use of building, no capital investment for building within the primary education budget.

Types and degrees of linkages with the formal school system vary considerably from one programme to another, as well as the understanding and operationalization of the issue of "equivalence", depending on the role seen for NFE in the total UPE effort.  Many programmes run parallel to the regular school system and have no connection with it. A number of them seek equivalence either with the complete primary cycle or with some initial grades -- usually the first three or four grades. Some have lateral entries to the school system at several points. A few have a much wider and more complex relationship with the formal system, collaborating with it in areas such as teacher training, planning, learning materials, etc. Others operate in a compensatory role, as school reinforcement, providing poor and deprived children a substitute for elitist private tutoring (e.g. the Explicaçâo - "Explana­tion Schools" - in Guinea-Bissau and other countries). Establishing a modus operandi for links between the regular primary system and the non-formal programmes is critical for realizing the full potential of NFE for universal primary education.


Experiences have accumulated and lessons have been learned over the past decades to help avoid common mistakes, anticipate common problems, and limit the search for strategies, approaches and measures that have proven useful in different circumstances. Major requisites for effective application of NFE approaches in UPE can be identified from the wide vista of practice and experience in all regions of the world.

1.  A unified comprehensive system for UPE.  NFE and diversified approaches to primary education need to be seen as components of a unified system.  Major non-conventional and non-formal primary education initiatives must be a key component of the total UPE strategy to reach all those not reached by the regular system. This unified approach requires:

(a) decentralized local structures of planning, management and monitoring of the UPE strategy in geographical units small enough to allow meaningful involvement of communities; and

(b) a partnership for basic education and UPE at community and other levels among government, private sector, community organizations, parents, teachers and local government.

An unplanned voluntary sector expansion of NFE programmes, in a general climate of heavy criticism of public education and a government withdrawal, is not the answer.  Governments have to assume a strong and pivotal role in UPE in establishing general policies and indicators, guaranteeing basic inputs, compensating for regional imbalances, creating the conditions for local actions, and providing professional support for making a unified system with diverse approaches function effectively. 

2.  A supportive climate of opinion.  The greatest obstacle to adoption and effective application of NFE approaches is lack of understanding and appreciation of their potential both among national policy-makers and in the entrenched educational establishment. NFE has been traditionally conceived as "second rate" education, a low-cost compensatory alternative to the regular school system intended for the poor and for marginal populations. An effective way to counteract the perceived low status of NFE is to demonstrate its effectiveness, by carrying out well-conceived projects, assessing these and other relevant experiences, and disseminating the results.  Government policy and decision-makers must assume a lead role, especially in defending and promoting diversified educational approaches.

3.  A support structure for planning and implementation
.  Several factors are of crucial importance for success in NFE within UPE:

(a)  Organisational, administrative and management issues are often underestimated in the NFE field. The idea persists that NFE is, by nature, a non-systematic, non-structured type of education. NFE primary education programmes cannot succeed without a decentralised local structure for planning, management and monitoring in a small enough unit for effective community and parental participation in the local UPE effort. This local structure needs to have adequate authority and support by higher levels of the educational planning and administration hierarchy.  NFE cannot play its role fully as long as it is planned and managed in isolation from mainstream primary education.

(b)  The curriculum, pedagogy and learning materials are often neglected as key components of the educational process and as specialised areas. NFE approaches can help rethink conventional ways of addressing problems related to curriculum and content -- overburdening with too many academic subjects, use of a non-local language as medium of instruction, fragmentation of the curriculum and lack of practical relevance, which prompt children to drop-out and defeat the main purpose of primary education. Some successful programmes have simplified the curriculum, organized relevant learning materials, related content to the life and experience of learners, and adapted it to the specific needs and possibilities of teachers. Regional and even local adaptations to centrally produced materials that foresee the need and include built-in mechanisms for such adaptations have proven effective in programmes such as Escuela Nueva in Colombia.

(c)  Capacity-building and training of personnel in planning, administration, pedagogy, curriculum, supervision and evaluation at different levels are another neglected area. Teacher training in NFE approaches becomes all the more crucial considering the limited formal education and lack of pedagogic preparation of the usual para-professional and community teachers. A short initial training complemented by frequent refreshers and close supervision has proven successful in many programmes. Multigrade methodologies require specialized training targeted at the specific components and requirements of multigrade teaching (group learning, peer-tutoring, self-paced learning, self-instructional materials). At the same time, desirable levels of competence should be set realistically so that too high standards do not become an obstacle to expanding or replicating the programme and serving those deprived of any primary education opportunity.

4.  Adequate resources  NFE has been traditionally viewed as a cheap alternative to the formal school system. It is expected to accomplish the "mission impossible" with few resources and support.  Often, the very concept of "cost-effectiveness" is misunderstood: a programme may be cost-effective but not necessarily inexpensive, while a low-cost programme may turn out to be an ineffective investment. It is clearly necessary to pay attention to costs, benefits and resource mobilization for both formal and other complementary primary education programmes with a perspective of attaining the universalisation goal. NFE is not the remedy for chronic under-financing of primary education.  NFE approaches, however, offer the opportunity for developing a more efficient pattern of resource allocation, that de-emphasises capital costs and concedes greater importance to factors that are critical to the teaching-learning process and results, such as capacity building, learning materials, and monitoring.

5.  Strong community and parental involvement  Community and parental involvement are crucial not only for the necessary ownership of the programme but also for the indispensable accountability at local and community levels, both of which are crucial to sustainability. "Participation" is an ambiguous term and often understood in a restrictive sense -- provision of materials and labour force.  One essential condition is to create and cede authority to local planning and management structures that lead to community ownership of the programme.  Participation involves all phases of the programme, from design to evaluation.

6.  Assessment of learning achievement  Developing appropriate assessment methodologies and tools implies coming to an agreement on, or a definition of, basic learning needs in terms of literacy, numeracy, and basic life knowledge and skills. This also implies a clear understanding and assessment of implementing conditions and better use of information for planning, management and monitoring at local and higher levels. BRAC's Assessment of Basic  Competencies (ABC) -- a simple and rapid assessment method to assess reading, writing, arithmetic and essential life knowledge and skills -- is a pioneering attempt applicable to both formal and non-formal components of UPE.

7.  Taking advantage of modern and traditional media  Communication media are fundamental allies of UPE: (a) as complementary teaching and learning tools for everyone; (b) as a means for continuous teacher professional development and solidarity, and (c) as channels for advocacy, information, citizenship building and shaping public opinion. Better use of media and technologies for educational purposes requires developing technical capacities and critical thinking.

8.  Expansion and replication of innovations  The lack of plans and mechanisms for scaling up of programmes is a major issue in NFE approaches, especially the ones managed by NGOs. "Pilot projects" (often confused with "small projects") have become a matter of controversy as a result of many failed experiences. The opposite danger is of massive programmes that are implemented without previous experimentation or hurried scaling-up of emerging small-scale experiences. A balanced approach that recognizes ample lessons from experience in NFE as well as in other social development programmes must be adopted. More important, however, is the need to initiate and design programmes from the very beginning with an eye to expansion and replication, if we consider that in many countries UPE cannot be achieved without large-scale efforts.

9.  Addressing gender disparity  Studies conducted all over the world have consistently documented some of the main constraints in girls' and women's access to education, and the need for specific strategies to address them. Such strategies include, among others, the location of schools closer to homes or communities; promoting the recruitment of female teachers; reducing hidden costs to parents; developing relevant curricula; increasing community participation; promoting localiza­tion and decentralization; encouraging advocacy and social mobiliza­tion; designing systems that accommodate the needs of female students; and supporting multiple delivery systems that involve multi-media approaches. All of these constitute features commonly attributed to NFE approaches. If properly put into practice (at least a combination of several of them), NFE can make a specific contribution to greater gender equity. One concrete experience is that of BRAC in Bangladesh, where over 70 per cent of children enrolled in schools are girls.

10.  Continuing educational opportunities beyond primary education  Primary education cannot be viewed as a terminal and the only educational opportunity for the vast majority of the world's population. Invariably, expansion of primary education has led to an increasing demand for more education. Expanding, improving and diversifying post-primary educational opportunities are thus also challenges for both the regular school system and NFE programmes. Basic education, as defined by the World Conference on Education for All, must satisfy basic learning needs of children, youth and adults. In as much as one of these basic needs is building the foundation for lifelong learning, continuing post-primary education, also flexible and adapted to learners' specific needs and conditions, cannot be lost sight of in planning for UPE and NFE strategies.

Related texts in this blog
International Initiatives for EducationIniciativas internacionales para la educación

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