Old promises, new commitments

Print edition : May 13, 2000

The World Education Forum recognises education as a fundamental right and calls for renewed action to ensure that every individual receives education by 2015.

NITYA RAO

THE World Conference on Education for All, held in 1990 in Jomtien, Thailand, marked a joint commitment by 155 nations and the United Nations to universalise basic education and eradicate illiteracy. The Jomtien Framework for Action articulated an expand ed vision of basic education to include the following six dimensions:

* Expansion of early childhood care and developmental activities, especially for poor, disadvantaged and disabled children;

* Universal access to and completion of primary education by the year 2000;

* Improvement of learning achievements;

* Reduction of the adult illiteracy rate by one half of its 1990 level by the year 2000, with sufficient emphasis on female literacy;

* Expansion of basic education and training in other essential skills required by youth and adults; and

* Increased acquisition by individuals and families of the knowledge, skills and values required for better living and sound and sustainable development, made available through all education channels including the mass media, other forms of modern and tr aditional communication, and social action.

The last dimension, in fact, summarises the overriding purpose of the global movement for education for all in the last decade, to ensure a better life for all people. The Dakar World Forum was the culmination of a Global Assessment process of the past d ecade. Have learning opportunities been provided to all people? What have been the rates of progress and what are the continuing challenges in meeting this goal? The Education for All 2000 Assessment process was initiated in early 1998 jointly by the Uni ted Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and the World Bank. Some technical guidelines were prepared by the EFA Forum Secretariat. National governments then prepared their own assessment reports. These were discussed and synthesised at sub-regional and regional levels before the Global Forum. These reports focussed on some statistical ind icators as well as thematic and qualitative assessments.

The EFA Assessment has revealed considerable progress in many countries. There are, however, still more than 113 million children who have no access to primary education, and 880 million adults who are illiterate. Gender inequities persist in education s ystems, as does poor quality of education and learning. Apart from stock-taking, the Forum therefore sought to discuss strategies and develop mechanisms to ensure that EFA becomes a reality in the coming decade.

Of the six Jomtien targets, data have mainly been gathered and analysed for three, namely, early childhood care, primary education and adult literacy. On quality, skills and education for a better life, information is vague.

FROM available evidence, it appears that awareness on the importance of early childhood for subsequent development and learning has grown. However, implementation of programmes and the setting up of structures to foster child development and learning hav e been slow. A small number of countries - France, Belgium, Sweden, Iceland and New Zealand, among them - have well-established, comprehensive programmes based on national legislation, health and welfare provision, appropriate buildings and facilities, c urricula and learning resources. The very strong provision that existed in eastern and central Europe deteriorated in the 1990s owing to a mixture of financial crises, political turbulence and changing views on the role of the state with the fall of soci alist regimes.

The Integrated Child Development Service (ICDS) in India is targeted at children below six years and pregnant and nursing mothers, particularly those living in remote areas. The need has been recognised, but progress and outreach are still low. Enrolment in early childhood education is still less than 20 per cent. Of the E-9, that is, the nine most populous countries of the world, only Brazil, China and Mexico and, to a lesser extent Indonesia, report significant enrolment of pre-school children, nearly 50 per cent. India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Egypt lag far behind.

THE major focus in the last decade has been on primary schooling. In fact, in most countries including India this has overshadowed all the other Jomtien targets. Progress has been reported in primary enrolments across the board, yet there are countries a nd regions within countries that have seen decline. In the developed world, the goal of primary education has long since been achieved and the focus is now on improving its quality. In the Asia-Pacific, the most notable progress has been made in East Asi a, where both gross and net enrolments are close to 100 per cent. South East Asia too is not far behind. In South Asia, increases in enrolment have barely been able to keep pace with population increases in school-age children. While the number of enroll ed children increased from 111 million to 132 million from 1990 to 1998, the number of out-of-school children dropped only from 53 million to only 46 million. Sub-Saharan Africa saw an increase in the number of out-of-school children from 39 million to 4 2 million over this period.

But these figures mask considerable contrasts between countries as also serious internal disparities. War, population growth, poverty, the HIV/AIDS pandemic, economic inequities, linguistic and cultural differences, gender ideologies and differential rur al-urban access are some of the factors responsible for this. While the gender gap has narrowed globally, it is still pronounced in the Arab states, South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa. Enrolment rates for boys in South Asia is 20 per cent more than that f or girls. People with disabilities, working children and ethnic groups have been left out.

While participation has improved, quality of schooling remains a major issue. Drop-out, non-completion and failure rates remain high. The completion of primary education is no longer a sufficient criterion for basic education. Secondary and some form of tertiary education are being seen as essential for enabling active social and economic life.

Quality of learning is an issue that on little probing brings forth an inescapable conclusion. In the words of the Arab Framework for Action, "quality education is still a privilege of the few". This implies from a global perspective that first, in a few countries, and second, within countries, there are differences - education of good quality is enjoyed by the minority and considerably lower-quality education is available for the majority. Hence, there is the need not only to focus on removing the ineq ualities in provision, but seriously address the issue of improving quality with improved public spending and training of teachers, better school infrastructure and teaching-learning materials, and relevant, responsive and contextual curricula.

Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have played a key role in improving the quality of education in specific local contexts. Their grassroots innovations need to be up-scaled by the state. This means a genuine partnership between the state and civil so ciety groups engaged in educational activity. Jomtien had sought to enhance this partnership, but it has not always happened. The process has begun in India. Examples include Eklavya in Central India, the Rishi Valley Education Centre in Karnataka and Pr atham in Mumbai. These groups have developed both formal and non-formal curricula, interesting learning materials and a methodology for teacher training. The problems being on a mass scale, they cannot take on the task of education delivery but can help enhance the quality of education in the state system.

At school in Kerala. The Dakar meet has stressed the state's obligation to provide to all education that is of good quality and of relevance to contemporary needs.-C.RATHEESFHKUMAR

WHILE there have been some gains in literacy, the number of illiterate people remains high and is in fact increasing in some parts of the world. The large majority of them are women in developing countries. In the Arab states, gender disparities have inc reased, reflecting the continuing cultural bias against women's education. In South Asia almost half the adult population is still illiterate. Despite sub-national efforts such as the Total Literacy Campaigns in India that led to dramatic gains in the ea rly 1990s in some districts, the progress has slowed down. Sub-national and local-level efforts involving communities and civil society groups and adopting a diversity of strategies are essential in dealing with heterogeneity and responding effectively t o the life conditions of the illiterate people. Adult literacy and non-formal education have been accorded insufficient priority in most countries during the last decade.

Most skill development programmes across regions have been driven by labour market changes. In the Asia-Pacific, there has been considerable emphasis on improving the skills of the workforce, particularly in South-East Asia. While the synergy between adu lt literacy like skills and labour market capability is widely recognised, South Asia continues to lag behind. Collaboration between Ministries and coordination among diverse programmes are weak.

The Dakar Commitments

ONE hundred and eighty-two of the world's 193 countries attended the World Education Forum at Dakar in Senegal from April 26 to April 28, 2000. The Dakar Framework of Action has been adopted by all of them. It recognises right to education as a fundament al human right. It reaffirms commitment to the expanded vision of education as articulated in Jomtien. It calls for renewed action to ensure that every child, youth and adult should receive education by 2015.

Apart from these general commitments, given the wider changes in the last decade - the political, economic and social shifts in eastern and central Europe, the rapid development of Information Technology and the Internet, the growth of poverty and incre asing debt, the growth of inequalities with the swift advance of economic and cultural globalisation - some thrust areas have been identified.

The Dakar Framework focusses attention on the excluded and marginalised groups, countries and regions. South Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa and countries in conflict have been mentioned as priority areas. United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan formally la unched the Girls' Initiative - an educational intervention for girls - to be coordinated by UNICEF. In his opening speech he listed the excluded groups - the poor, minority and ethnic groups, the disabled, refugees, street and working children, to name a few - and called for careful targeting to ensure access to these groups.

Director-General of UNESCO Koichuro Matsuura reinforced the need to address the issue of increasing inequalities within education systems. He also stressed the importance of quality, relevance and effectiveness of education. The commitment to free and co mpulsory primary education of good quality has emerged as a second major thrust area in Dakar.

From the process of stocktaking, it appears that formal schooling has been the major preoccupation in the field of education over the last decade. Early childhood education, adult education and a combination of formal and non-formal methods to achieve th e EFA goals were emphasised.

A major gain of Dakar has been the commitment that no country with a viable plan for education will be allowed to fail for want of resources. Education in the past decade was under-financed by most countries and the donor community. One of the reasons wh y education did not get the necessary status in the last decade was the lack of structures and mechanisms to achieve the EFA goals post-Jomtien.

At Dakar, the focus of EFA structures shifted from the international to the national level. National EFA plans will be prepared by countries latest by 2002. Addressing all six EFA goals, these will be developed by national governments in consultation wit h a broad-based alliance of civil society groups. In fact, a major gain of Dakar has been the emergence of a broad-based alliance of civil society groups - trade unions and non-governmental organisations - at national and international levels under the b anner of the Global Campaign for Education. The donor community has committed itself to coordinated support for these plans, which would be time-bound and action-oriented. Sub-regional and regional EFA forums will also be set up. The functions of these m echanisms will include, to varying degrees, advocacy to keep education high on the agenda, resource mobilisation, planning and monitoring, and knowledge generation and sharing of lessons learnt. South Asian representatives at Dakar have already initiated discussions on a sub-regional forum to discuss specific strategies needed for meeting EFA goals in South Asia.

The Dakar meet has stressed the state's obligation to provide education to all, education that is of good quality and is relevant to contemporary needs. It has promised to engage more fully with civil society in order to meet this goal. It has expressed the determination to act now.

Nitya Rao, who has been working in the field of development, focussing particularly on women's organisations, education and livelihood issues, is based in Mumbai. She attended the Dakar conference.

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