Jim Ackers, Regional Education Advisor
During a mission to Eritrea, Jim stands in to teach nomadic children.
Having spent most of his professional life in this continent, 22 years to be exact, Jim considers Africa as his second home. Before joining UNICEF Eastern and Southern Africa Regional Office as Regional Education Advisor, Jim was Chief of Education for UNICEF Tanzania and Nigeria, and an education advisor for the Government of UK in Senegal and Kenya. In his earlier career, Jim taught at primary, secondary, and university levels, as well in adult education. Jim holds a Ph.D. in Education Policy and Planning in Developing Countries. He is married with three children.
1. What are some of the biggest challenges in providing a good education to the region’s children?
We have a lot of unfinished businesses in the pursuit of the Education for All targets and those set out in the MDGs. It is true that we have made a lot of progress, particularly in the area of getting children to school. But the number of out-of-school children continues to be huge, and if we look at the data from some household surveys, the actual figure could be double! In Eritrea, for example, more than half of all children are not in school. Even for those who are in school, the quality of education is of a major concern, and so are completion rates. In our region, only 49 per cent of children are completing primary education, and their learning outcomes are lagging behind compared to the rest of the world.
2. What do you think the root causes are? And how can we tackle them?
I think part of the problem is the low level of investment in education, which is about $170 dollars a year per child, compared to $5000 in the West, and $1200 for the world as a whole. Clearly, this is not sufficient to generate the desired competencies and skills for the region’s children. Fortunately, most of the development partners are recognizing this shortfall and are also trying to do something to complement government effort. However, expanding access and improving quality in primary education again creates challenges: People are now saying - with some justification - that primary education is not enough to provide the human capital required, and that more children need to go to secondary school. But there are again serious issues over the quality of education in most secondary schools and their relevance to employability? Even university graduates often struggle to find jobs.
All of these issues are important. The challenge is for UNICEF to figure out how much support we can provide and how much other partners can do according to our comparative advantages. Can we support the sector as a whole? Although I think we should, in terms of advocacy, technical advice, and so on, whether we can move our limited resources into secondary education is more doubtful. The situation is really calling on us to be more creative in finding solutions that are flexible and relevant, while getting more partners involved to address these challenges.
3. With so many competing priorities and limited resources, how should UNICEF position itself?
Both quality and access are important. We certainly feel that there is no point in having children in school, simply so that we can record the fact that they are in school. They have to be in school for a purpose - there has to be decent education outcomes. That’s why we work closely with partners like the Southern Africa Consortium to Monitor Education Quality (SACMEQ). Another area that I haven’t touched on is school readiness. Increased evidence is suggesting that if children are not well fed, free of diseases, and stimulated, their brains will not develop fully and they will not perform well in school. That’s why we are putting a lot of effort into assisting countries to develop comprehensive Early Childhood Development policies, working with governments on curriculum design and capacity development, etc. Other areas, such as climate change, disaster risk reduction, emergency preparedness and response, and education for peacebuilding, are all very important, attracting a lot of donor interest and are part of our programmatic focus.
Overall, UNICEF’ role in education has become increasingly prominent. You can see the evidence in our engagement in the Global Partnership for Education (GPE). UNICEF has taken on the Managing Entity role for GPE in many countries. In Zimbabwe, for example, a country with a complex political environment, we have been asked by the donors to manage their funds through the Global Partnership. In Madagascar, we are managing funds on behalf of the EU and Norway. Likewise in Somalia and South Sudan. These examples attest to UNICEF’s reputation for getting things done, and the trust that donors have in us.
4. What are some of the things UNICEF is doing to support the children in school, and those out of school?
We have always worked with the concept of what used to be called “child friendly schools”. We now call it child friendly education, because we don’t believe that we should just support schools at the micro level. The idea is to ensure education systems become more child-friendly. It means health, nutrition, water and sanitation, protection for the children, and adequate support, training for the teachers, as well inclusion of vulnerable, marginalized children and the participation of parents and children. You’ve got to look at all of these factors in order for education to be truly effective.
A good number of out-of-school children are from the Horn of Africa countries, where you have large nomadic populations. What we are trying to do is to work with governments to develop specific policies to address the specific needs of these groups. There are no parents, I believe, who don’t want education for their children. The issue is what type of education they want, and when and how it can be delivered. Once we know that, we need to adapt the curriculum and timetable to meet their needs. This is a big challenge, but deserves our attention, now, and for years to come.