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A new idea for educating adolescents

Across Asia, an amazing number of adolescents are still reading at a primary grade level. Although even more staggering are the numbers of them who are still in primary school.

But the real “mind blower”, says Cliff Meyers, UNICEF East Asia and Pacific Regional Education Adviser, are the number of teenagers out of school.  

Of an estimated 345 million adolescents – aged 11–19 – in UNICEF’s Asia and Pacific region, an estimated 239 million have either dropped out or are not learning adequately because of partial attendance.  While the region had reached an impressive primary net enrolment rate of 93 per cent by 2006, only 79 per cent of those students actually completed it.

At the same time, higher education teachers and private sector employers in the region have been questioning the competencies of secondary school graduates, finding their skills way afield of market demands.

So what happened to students on their way through the classroom in the beginning of the twenty-first century, in a region that has reached near universal primary education enrolment? 

An unfortunate thing happened, says Mr. Meyers. In the rush to meet the Millennium Develop Goal on access to primary education, many schools forgot – or couldn’t afford – to worry whether the new crowds of students were actually learning.

Not only did schools not do well in keeping students’ interests stimulated, they often failed in keeping the students. “School lost relevance for many kids who knew what they were learning wasn’t preparing them for anything,” contends Mr. Meyers, who adds that many schools have not considered how to keep students engaged and involved.

The 2009 UNICEF EFA Global Monitoring Report discloses, as it has for several years, that school graduates show low levels of math, literacy and language skills as well as weak critical thinking, problem solving and reasoning skills.

The issue of quality learning, or the lack of it, in both primary and secondary schools, has become a troubling concern throughout Asia and the Pacific, according to Mr. Meyers. And now in looking to make up for what was lost during the push for universal access to primary education, governments are asking that UNICEF country offices pay greater attention on secondary education and out-of-school adolescents, as well as to support efforts to improve quality n primary schools. 


Preparing adolescents for changing futures

Part of the government unease is the changing demographics that are diminishing the “youth bulge” that gave countries a bonus of productive age workers who heavily ramped up economic growth. Declining birth rates and an ageing population means fewer young people left to earn for the elders. Countries such as China, Japan, the Republic of Korea, Singapore, Thailand and Viet Nam need to shift from reliance on a labour quantity to a highly efficient labour force. Robust worker productivity, typically associated with higher levels of skills, is going to be required.

According to World Bank and other research, primary school completion improvements were a watershed for socio-economic status in the 1980s and the early 1990s. Today, the impacts correlate with each additional year of secondary education completed because primary school completion no longer provides the same level of return.

As the World Bank also notes, labour market composition in this region is increasingly based on services, sales and trade, particularly in middle-income countries, which require relevant skills learned in secondary school. Increases in wage employment are now linked with more than nine years of schooling.

The new strategy for educating adolescents

After taking stock of the adolescent situation and the need for new approaches that engage and retain secondary students in a learning programme, the UNICEF East Asia and Pacific Regional Office produced a strategic framework that “provides a lens to look at the layers of disadvantaged adolescents,” explains Mr. Meyers.

The framework, according to the Education for Adolescents strategy framework document , is not about requesting additional funds or creating new programmes. Instead, it promotes learning to use existing resources, networks, partnerships and programmes to avoid the mistakes of the past by giving adolescents not only an education but a relevant one. It stresses that countries need to make decisions based on carefully compiled evidence, analysis and discourse. 

But the strategy’s novelty is its approach for empowering while engaging adolescents: It proposes clustering them into four target groups, based on their educational status. And that grouping is defined by a new emphasis on ‘positive pathways’ that education can open:

• Adolescents who have never attended primary school or who dropped out are considered as the Building Strong Foundations group. Learning opportunities will be organized around functional literacy, life skills and non-formal education.

• Adolescents who are enrolled in primary school but are overage, attending irregularly and repeating grades and thus with untapped potential are in the Being a Resource group. The strategy proposes targeting these students with cooperative and collaborative learning approaches and the use of peer teaching and team techniques.

• Adolescents who dropped out in lower secondary school are seen as the Making It Work group. Learning opportunities to improve their livelihoods will include livelihood skills, non-formal education certification for secondary equivalence, learning clubs and networks and computer-based distance learning.  

• Adolescents enrolled in lower secondary school but who are overage and or not learning in overcrowded and under-resourced facilities are seen as the Stepping to Success group. They will benefit from emphasis on applying the child-friendly concept to their schools.

The strategy was designed to concentrate on UNICEF’s strengths in five priority areas: identifying education disparities and filling knowledge gaps; improving quality in formal schools and building on experiences with child-friendly schools; supporting alternative approaches and non-school models of learning; promoting adolescent participation and active citizenry; and education for well-being and behaviour change.

Thus, the strategy proposes that country offices veer away from supporting vocational education centres, large-scale construction of secondary schools, curriculum revision or extra-curricular materials, conditional cash transfers and incentives and upper secondary and higher education.







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