State of the World's Children State of the World's Children

Dreaming of school

The path from the village school leads down across the creek from which the local crocodile emerges at night. As 11-year-old Salamatu approaches her home a compound of thatched huts in the Bissa region of Burkina Faso in West Africa she bursts into an enthusiastic recitation of a poem she has learned in school. With her satchel swinging behind her and her eyes bright, Salamatu radiates enthusiasm for learning.

Back home is her half-sister Rasmatu, just a few months younger, whose response to school was entirely different. For weeks she left home with her satchel as though she were going to school, but in fact she hid in the bush all day to avoid it. Eventually the school expelled her, and she now spends her days engaged in the everyday tasks of the household fetching water, pounding grain, gathering firewood.

The stories of these half-sisters capture both the potential and the limitations of education as a safeguard against child labour. Child labour is the main focus of UNICEF’s The State of the World’s Children 1997 report.

Children who do not attend school, either because they choose not to or because they are not permitted to attend, will work instead, in low-paying, dead-end jobs that offer them nothing on which to build their lives as adults and parents. Such childhood employment perpetuates the cycle of poverty into which so many are born.

Keeping children in school is difficult, however, when the education available may cost the family dearly and be irrelevant and of poor quality. For every Salamatu who can be inspired by education despite the crowded classroom — her class numbers 64 children and the lack of books and learning materials, there is a Rasmatu, who finds school forbidding, alienating and unconnected with the realities of her life.

Education has become part of the problem, says the report. It has to be reborn as part of the solution.

In developing countries, at present, there are 140 million children aged 6-11 who do not attend school, and perhaps an equal number who drop out of school early. If all those under 18 are included, the number of children out of school surpasses 400 million. Many of these children work in jobs that are disabling and dangerous. Millions more are trying hard to balance the demands of work and schooling on their time and energy, and this juggling act is a particular problem for girls.

According to UNICEF’s report, education is underfunded and the quality of schooling is in decline. Governments must rededicate themselves to ensuring that all children receive high-quality primary education, regardless of race, gender or economic status, says the report.

Many of the problems stem from skewed national priorities that pump money into the military. In addition, many developing countries incurred large debts in the 1980s. To comply with structural adjustment programmes and thus qualify for new loans from international lending agencies, countries made deep cuts in social spending.

Sub-Saharan Africa pays more than $12 billion in debt-service charges annually and owes approximately $8 billion more that it cannot pay. In comparison, just about 10 per cent of that total would provide the extra educational resources needed each year to give all the region’s children a place in school,” says the report. It notes the World Bank’s current view that primary education is the largest single contributor to the economic growth rates of the high-performing Asian economies. Giving priority to education is not only a way of combating child labour, it is a sound economic investment.

Teachers’ wages and status are too low to keep talented, educated people in the profession. Many teachers have been forced to take jobs or pursue businesses outside school simply to survive. The report makes a number of suggestions on improving teacher training within the confines of existing national budgets. It cites the example of the Zimbabwe Integrated National Teacher Education Course, a four-year course in which only the first and last terms involve college attendance; the rest is spent at work in schools. ZINTEC has been successful in combining quality with low cost; training a teacher this way can be done for less than half the expense of conventional training.

Money is not the only problem, however. To attract and keep students, educational systems must change. Schools in developing countries frequently pursue courses that are irrelevant to the needs of the local community. All too often they do not teach students in their mother tongue, but use the foreign language of the former colonial power, as was the case with Salamatu’s school in Burkina Faso. Neither are school schedules flexible enough to accommodate the children who try to combine school with work.

What working children themselves have to say about school is very telling. The 50 girls and boys, aged 10-17, enrolled in the Namma Shale alternative education project for working children in the south Indian state of Karnataka described the abuse, discrimination and frustrations they had encountered in the formal system.

In school, teachers would not teach well, says 11-year-old Sudhir. If we asked them to teach us alphabets, they would beat us. They would sleep in the class. If we asked them about a small doubt, they would beat us and send us out. Even if we did not understand, they would not teach us. So I dropped out of school.

Narayan, a boy of 15, complained: The teachers would not beat the children of the important people but only beat the children of the poor. The children who could not read would be made to sit on the back benches. We would not understand the lessons they taught.

Distance and time can pose enormous burdens to children, as one child explained: The school is far away from home and the bus facilities are not good. The class would start at eight in the morning but there was no bus at that time. Schools have to move towards children, says the report, particularly in rural areas. Small multigrade classes can bring education within easy walking distance.

UNICEF studies in Bhutan, Burkina Faso, Myanmar, Uganda and Viet Nam showed the costs to families of supplying uniforms, textbooks, school building funds and parent-teacher association contributions were so high 10-20 per cent of per capita income that they discouraged school attendance. And those figures do not reflect payment of any tuition fees. When I was promoted from the fifth to the sixth standard, says Ganesh, I had no money to buy the books, so I left school.

Informal education programmes are providing viable if limited alternatives. The Karnataka children are happy with the Namma Shale programme, which adapts its schedule and subject matter to the needs of the local community and aims to foster creativity, independence and equality.

As in a number of such projects, the mix of basic education subjects with relevant vocational training such as weaving, agriculture and carpentry appeals to the children. The life of Tangraj from Indiranagar, for example, has been altogether changed by the programme: [I] enrolled for the training in construction.... I have also learnt to read and write. Now I am employed and am working. I have work at hand. I have the confidence to construct a house at a low price. I look after my family members.

Nevertheless, the children know that attendance at government schools is necessary for some qualifications. Hema, who is 16, said, “If we need certificates, we should go to the formal schools. To make use of any of the facilities of the Government, certificates are essential.

The challenge is to make the existing education system more flexible and responsive, learning from the non-formal programmes to develop schools that will cater for the rights and needs of all children.