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Non-formal education in the Middle East: Giving adolescents a second chance

Curt Rhodes is founder and director of Questscope, an organization for social development in the Middle East, making second chances possible for school dropouts, children in conflict with the law, and youth facing futures limited by poverty.

'The State of the World's Children 2011 – Adolescence: An Age of Opportunity' focuses on the development and rights of more than a billion children aged 10 to 19 worldwide. This series of stories, essays and multimedia features seeks to accelerate and elevate adolescents' fight against poverty, inequality and gender discrimination. Here is one of the essays.

By Curt Rhodes

AMMAN, Jordan, 24 February 2011—In May 2000, two 14-year-old Jordanian boys asked for my help in finding them vocational training. They had dropped out of school in third grade, and the skills they had learned in their five years on the streets would not help them build a promising future. The short training courses they were eligible for would not provide the diploma a good job required, and they needed formal tenth-grade certification to enroll in diploma-level vocational courses.

The boys were not allowed back into formal school because they had been out too long. And without a sixth-grade education, they could not enrol in distance learning through the Ministry of Education. Literacy classes through the government were not an option; other students would be over 40, and street-smart adolescents would probably not adapt well to adults’ learning style.

While these boys faced bleak prospects, they were not alone. Of the 1992 cohort of students in first grade, 27 per cent had dropped out before 2003, when they would have completed twelfth grade. Half of these students left school for one of two reasons: the inability to perform academically or familial economic pressures. The inability to perform in school stemmed not only from poor academic skills but also from high levels of emotional and physical abuse happening in schools.

In short, the boys were unemployable because they were barred from the mainstream educational system. Second chances did not exist for the 80,000 to 100,000 dropouts like these two.

The system needed to change. The Ministry of Education partnered with Questscope to develop an alternative education path for dropouts, with a curriculum, testing and certification procedures organized by the ministry. The result was a 24-month, non-formal education (NFE) programme of accelerated learning, working toward a tenth-grade-level diploma and the option for certifiable vocational training. This programme prioritized three essential components: a safe participatory learning environment; teachers reoriented to facilitate learning and self-discovery; and a student-focused strategy for critical thinking, instilling how to think rather than what to think.

A driving force behind this programme was the unique collaboration between a government ministry and a non-governmental organization. The size of an initiative like the NFE programme ultimately necessitated ministry leadership to reach scale, but Questscope used highly effective participatory learning methods and provided a way to experiment with innovative solutions, such as youth mentoring, strong peer support and developmental activities linked to vocational options.

In May 2005 violence exploded during a soccer game among students who had just enrolled in their town’s first NFE class. Angry over a lost goal, Humam kicked his younger teammate Ayman to the ground. This kind of violence early in the programme jeopardized the entire approach to alternative education. Ayman was a shy, defenseless boy. Other boys like him might feel threatened, and the safety of the learning environment might dissolve if violence went unchecked.

The teaching facilitators decided that the violent incident would best be resolved by the students themselves ruling on justice for the harmed and a penalty for the offender. They announced a trial – with students taking the roles of judge, jury, prosecution and defense – and explained the legal process to the two boys and the other students.

The trial took place that same day. The jury found Humam guilty; the judge sentenced him to apologize to Ayman and granted Ayman the right to hit Humam back but reminded him that he also had the option to forgive Humam. As Ayman moved to hit Humam, the other students circled around. “I could feel the power of friends who cared about both of us,” Ayman said. “Then something changed inside me. I no longer wanted to hit him.”

It has been nearly six years since that trial and, today, both young men say it was the most important thing that ever happened to them. The teaching facilitators observed how well the students responded to learning through action and dialogue, and how much it bolstered their critical thinking. One said, “We saw these youth emerge as new people in this new kind of learning environment.”

In the Middle East and North Africa region, one in every three people is between the ages of 10 and 24. We cannot afford to miss this opportunity for an innovative response to their plight. Since 2005 the NFE model in Jordan has provided second chances to thousands of dropouts who would otherwise have been left on the margins of society, and it continues to grow. UNICEF in Jordan is also working closely with the Ministry of Education to reduce violence against children in schools.

Education creates positive stakeholders in society, especially when adolescents’ learning process creates a sense of social solidarity and emphasizes critical thinking for everyone who needs a second chance and for those who can provide it to them.

Curt Rhodes is the founder and director of Questscope, an organization for social development in the Middle East, making second chances possible for school dropouts, children in conflict with the law, and youth facing futures limited by poverty. The goal of Questscope is ‘Putting the Last, First’.



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