Accessible education for all children


  • Education
  • Sunday, 15 Dec 2019

Leaders from around the world talk about bridging the gap and providing quality education to children who can’t afford to, and educating families from underprivileged backgrounds on its importance.

DESPITE education being a basic human right, not every child has the privilege or access to enjoy this right.

The Unesco Institute for Statistics states that around 258 million children and youth are out of school for the school year ending in 2018.

Unicef on the other hand estimates that globally, 617 million children and adolescents are unable to reach minimum proficiency levels in reading and mathematics, owing to reasons such as lack of trained teachers, inadequate learning materials and children going to school hungry, sick or exhausted from work or household chores.

Across the globe, academic experts, leaders and entrepreneurs are working hard to ensure no child is left behind.

Malaysia, through the Education Ministry, implemented the Zero Reject Policy early this year, a compulsory policy that ensures every child in the country, including those with special needs and undocumented children, have access to education.

It was reported that the initiative saw some 2,635 stateless children enrol in national schools nationwide, while special needs students’ enrolment increased by 1,080 students between April and June.

The ministry also implemented the Zero Student Dropout Programme this year, an initiative which has managed to bring back 4,369 dropouts to school.

But Malaysia isn’t the only country striving towards ensuring its children aren’t out of school.

At the recent World Innovation Summit for Education (WISE) 2019 held in Doha, Qatar, prominent figures discussed reasons children are out of school and their efforts towards eradicating the crisis.

Going from door-to-door

Mozambican politician and widow of South African president Nelson Mandela, Graça Machel, embarked on a “door-to-door, family-by-family” process in northern Tanzania with her team to identify why their children are out of school.

She stressed the pivotal role a community plays.

“We learnt that girls are not going to school because they get married early; they are child brides.

Girls are becoming mothers at the age of 13 and are taking care of the family.

“We identified children who have to stay home to take care of their families because their parents are disabled.

“Initiatives cannot be developed in isolation... you cannot only focus on economic development without changing mindsets.

“The role of parents, communities and other organisations have been stressed to change the realities of the families where these children are coming from.”

Machel emphasised that communities must work together with teachers.

“The most important factor for change is to have a teacher who is motivated, has the right skills and connects well with parents, the school board and so on.

“There is an ecosystem that needs to be built so that you identify the children, ensure they are in school and they receive a meaningful education to progress in their studies.

We need governments to be much more interested. Education is a long-term investment.”

Starting from the grassroots to understanding why children drop out of school

Grammy award winner Shakira Mebarak used her work as an artist as her vehicle to serve what she calls her greater purpose in life - working towards eradicating poverty through the power of education.

Growing up in Colombia, Mebarak recalls seeing children her age who instead of being in school, were working on the streets and barefoot.

Mebarak is the founder of a charity aimed at helping and giving poor and impoverished Colombian children access to education. Her charity is called Fundación Pies Descalzos (Barefoot Foundation).

“Kids like me, whose reality was completely different than mine, only because of the circumstances into which they were born.

“It was hard for me to accept that something so unjust didn’t have a solution.

“As soon as I had some success, the first thing I wanted to do was to invest as many resources as I could into working for children.

“I knew I wanted to focus on children and improve their lives but I didn’t know where to start.

“I studied the reasons why children were working on the streets, why some were being recruited by violent organisations and why so many children were suffering from chronic malnutrition.

“I realised most of these issues have a common denominator - the lack of access to quality education.

“When I started building schools in Colombia, we chose the most remote areas where there was no infrastructure, no paved roads and no electricity.

“We engaged the Government as a strategic partner (and) we noticed that as soon as a school is built, everything is transformed.

“The improvements to the infrastructure were jaw-dropping, electricity and portable water were made accessible, roads were paved, malnutrition plummeted and the best part was that the kids really responded (well) academically.

“They are now on their way to university and are thriving in their community.

These are kids who could have been recruited by the guerillas or could have had different outcomes in their lives.”

Saying that her work is far from done, the singer said if all students in low-income countries left primary school with basic reading skills, approximately 171 million people could be lifted out of poverty.

“We discovered that even one barrier such as no access to transportation or basic needs like a functioning bathroom, can prevent a kid from attending school or put them at risk of dropping out.

“The government must take responsibility and the civil society should also do their part.

“Over the next three years, we pledge to get 54,000 kids who are out of school or at risk of dropping out back into the education system.

“More than 295,000 people will benefit from this project including children, teachers, families and community members, ” she said.

Education is a great equaliser, she said, adding that it is the surest way of giving underprivileged children the best fighting chance of improving their circumstances in life.

Changing mindsets

Not mincing his words, Michael Pollack said the challenges surrounding educating girl childs in India is a mindset issue.

Working to change this mindset, he said, involves community engagement.

“If I showed up in rural Rajasthan and tell them to educate their girl child, not much will happen.

“Instead, we engaged with local community members, set up meetings within the community and did door-to-door surveys.

“In over 12 years, we have so far knocked on four million doors and re enrolled about 600,000 out of school children.

“When you start with community engagement and mobilisation from members of the community, that’s when real changes can happen.”

Focusing on outcomes is key, Pollack said.

Educate Girls is a non-profit organisation in India, established to educate girls in India’s rural and educationally backward areas by mobilising communities.

“At Educate Girls, we focus on re enrolling out of school children and improving educational outcomes. “Focusing on outcomes allows you to iterate your delivering mechanisms because whatever you think is going to be the right solution, will be wrong in some way.

“We have a five year plan and what we found is that, 40% of the out of school children are (or make up) 5% of the villages in India.

“We were able to figure out where those villages are and specifically target them with our approach.

“We’re looking to move from 14,000 villages we currently work in, to 35,000 villages and to re enrol over a million and a half children because we’re able to pinpoint and focus on what methods work and how to manage those communities, ” he said.

Professional development for teachers

Peruvian economist Dr Jaime Saavedra described the global problem of out of school children as a learning crisis.

“What is the percentage of children aged 10 who cannot read and understand a simple text in each country?

“In lower and middle income countries, it is about 53%. In Latin American countries, it’s about 45%. “These are extremely high numbers.

“If these children cannot read a text by age 10, it will be very difficult for them to achieve the other education outcomes like for the Sciences and Maths.

“I call this concept learning poverty and it is morally and economically unacceptable because of the unequal opportunities.

“This is a world where many countries have the wealth, financial resources and know how to set up a school to give all children the opportunity they deserve.”

This learning poverty, he said, isn’t falling fast.

It should be zero in all countries and all children should learn to read, Saavedra said.

“This has to change and this is the challenge as this is a job not only for the education sector.

“Bringing children into school is a critical issue; it’s about transportation, nutrition and so on.

“It is the whole of society’s responsibility and for the government. It is a huge responsibility for ministers of education but it isn’t only their responsibility.

“The human factor is critical in education and hence the importance of teachers, ” Saavedra said, echoing Machel.

“Teachers must be given professional development opportunities and must internalise their immense responsibility which isn’t about a few kids learning but all of the kids in the classroom.

“If that happens, we will have fewer children out of school because they will be attracted to school, ” he added, describing teaching as one of the most complicated jobs.

Working closely with communities

Between 2015 and 2017, Stephen Katende stayed in a village working with community members to understand this issue of out of school children.

As a fellow with Building Tomorrow in Uganda, an international social-profit organisation with school-building operations in Sub-Saharan Africa, Katende designed solutions to fight the ongoing problem.

“One of the key things I noticed was the level of poverty.

“We went house to house trying to bring children back to school.

“Most parents told us that they have the will to educate their children but they don’t have the ability and money to do so.

“Many of them don’t even have a dollar to buy books for the child.

“Despite our efforts, poverty is a big issue and it (continues to) keep many children out of school.”

Katende decided to fight the problem by starting with parents and members of the society.

He started an organisation where he worked with community members and parents to bring them back to schools instead.

“We want to economically empower parents so that they can engage in income generating activities and be able to finance their children’s education.

“From a community point of view, collaboration is very important.

“Access to education is every child’s right and each one of us can contribute to it in every small way.”

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