UNICEF Tunisia: Keeping Tunisia's Most Vulnerable Children on the Path to Education
The Four-dimensional Model to Help Prevent School Drop-out
In the verdant rolling hills of Tunisia’s central Siliana governorate, a broad dirt road stretches through fields and leads to the front gate of the Ibn Abi Dhiaf El Kantra Junior High School. Outside the gate, young children in school uniforms with backpacks play and chat, while others walk along the road on their way home after finishing classes. Inside the school, students shuttle across the courtyard and the outdoor corridors on the way to and from classrooms with books in hand.
The Ibn Abi Dhiaf El Kantra Junior High School is one of the schools pioneering the novel M4D programme, which is a four-dimensional model, contributing to a holistic approach to reduce school drop-out. In coordination with the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Social Affairs, UNICEF has been supporting the Ministry of Education in designing and implementing M4D. The approach has been piloted in 9 Tunisian pilot schools with high drop-out rates. The first of the four elements in M4D is a system identifying students at risk of dropping out which provides information to the staff in the counselling and guidance office to enable them to better support children. The second is offering learning support and tutoring to respond to the special educational needs of students. The third is remedial education for students with learning difficulties and/or who experienced a long leave of absence from school. Finally, the fourth element is cultural and life-skills based activities.
Among other achievements, the model has enabled 5,893 children (54% of which are girls) and adolescents to benefit from drop-out prevention activities, 231 education workers were trained on M4D, and two compensatory learning pedagogy guides were developed during the 2021-2022 school year.
“Life where I grew up was very hard,” said Mohammed Faraj, 16, who is a beneficiary of the M4D programme and a student at the Ibn Abi Dhiaf El Kantra Junior High School. He is from a village nearby, called Essfina.
“In my family, our economic situation wasn’t good. It was so hard that I had to struggle to get even basic things like bread.”
Mohammed said that pursuing his studies was seriously difficult because of transportation—there was no bus to take him to and from school in a distant village, and it was too far to walk every day.
“Plus, my father couldn’t find work so he couldn’t afford to take my siblings to and from school.”
So he stayed home, and spent critical time away from his studies.
That’s why the Ibn Abi Dhiaf El Kantra Junior High School, with its dormitory for students living in hard-to-reach areas, has been so important.
“The dormitory is much better. Less money spent [on transportation] and here I’m more comfortable,” Mohammed said with a small sigh of relief.
Perhaps the most essential element Mohammed has benefited from school is an opportunity to consult directly with a counsellor, Najwa Zarrouk, a social worker at the Siliana regional branch of the Ministry of Social Affairs, who plays a key role in the school’s M4D programme for students.
Najwa explained the following to UNICEF in the ‘Bureau d’écoute et d’accompagnement de l’élève’ (counselling room), where she receives students like Mohammed to provide support in their schooling challenges, connect them to learning resources, and introduce them to available social services they may need:
“M4D aims to prevent school drop-out and academic failure in general. We, social workers, make M4D efficient and successful in the sense that we have a direct relationship with the families of students—we know where the students come from, their lives, and their families. We know the problems they’re dealing with.”
Najwa described her daily work in the school. She said that the Ibn Abi Dhiaf El Kantra Junior High School has a monitoring mechanism for students at risk of dropping out. Najwa is then notified about which students are at risk.
“Then I do research about where they come from,” Najwa said, “I call the family in order to find out exactly what the student’s problem is. If the students can’t come to see me in my office, I meet them in the director’s office and I talk to them."
"I make sure that they are fully comfortable so that they can talk about their challenges. From there, I can connect them to a range of services,”
citing family services, psychologists, medical professionals, professional training, remedial education classes.
“For the children struggling at home,” Najwa said, “This school has become a shelter for them.” Indeed, Najwa’s work is to keep students in school and lead them to a better path.
“I was thinking of giving up and leaving school—that there’s no future for me. But Madame Najwa understood me. She convinced me to do professional training, and not to waste my future. She gave me solutions. And now I want to be a painter,” Mohamed said with a smile.
Mawada Nouri, 14, is another student at the Ibn Abi Dhiaf El Kantra Junior High School. She talked about various extra-curricular activities that the M4D approach offers.
“Here we have a theatre club—we’re going to do a play today! We have a music club and recently did a show. We have a sports club as well as a dance club. These activities get us engaged in social life and help us express all the energy we have.”
Mawada said that the extra-curricular activities have changed her personality, helping her to get over her shyness through theatre and encouraging her to become more physically active through the sports club, for example.
She also said that the activities allow her fellow students, who are at risk of dropping out of school to stay in school and continue their studies.
“We had one student who wanted to quit school. But then we introduced him to the music club, and he found that he loves music. So he stayed!”
Islem Dahri, 15, said that the school’s psychological services were instrumental to not only keep her in school after considering dropout, but also make her happy and productive.
“Before I saw the psychologist, I was always alone, depressed, and didn’t want to interact with other children. But after consulting her, I started talking more, making friends, and thinking of spending time with them,” Islem said.
Just outside the classroom where Islem spoke, more than 50 children gathered in the school courtyard, some in make-up and costume. They were performing a silent play about the perils of drugs, poverty, and other social ills affecting children, and the hope of being free from them. A few minutes later, students in brightly-coloured traditional Tunisian garb went through a synchronized dance routine. Occasionally, one of the dancers would break from the formation in giggles, before the other dancers brought her/him back into the circle.
Just beside the courtyard, Mounir Yahyaoui, the director of the Ibn Abi Dhiaf El Kantra Junior High School, sat in his office, speaking about how the school got involved with the M4D programme.
“Our work in the M4D programme began in 2018, when our staff took a series of training and work practicums. Through these, we learned how to identify students at risk of dropping out based on certain criteria. UNICEF also helped us with methodology for spotting drop-out risks, and the reasons behind it.”
Since then, he said, the school has built up academic accompaniment programmes for students in need, including counselling sessions with Najwa and Mohammed in the bureau d’écoute—in order to foster a sense of love for school among the students here.
“Even if the student at risk has no desire to go to school, we try to develop in him or her a desire to continue on the academic path, so that in time he or she begins to love it.”
Since 2016, UNICEF has been supporting the Ministry of Education with the development of a drop-out prevention model, thanks to the generous contributions of the governments of the United Kingdom and Italy, followed by support from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).
Scott Dobberstein, Mission Director of USAID/Tunisia, one of the primary funders behind the M4D school initiative, said, “Education is a fundamental right, and all children should have access to quality education. The pressure students face to drop out of school deprives children of their rights and limits their future opportunities. Children's chances of finding stable employment and improving their socioeconomic status will increase by completing their education. [Further], school provides a structured environment for children to develop cognitive, social, and emotional skills.”
Andrea Senatori, Director of the Tunis Regional Office of the Italian Agency for Development Cooperation (AICS), which supported the development of M4D and its piloting, said, “A child dropping out of the educational system is a future adult who will be less professionally qualified, less informed, and less impactful for the general growth of the society he/she is part of.”
This fact compelled AICS to support M4D and Senatori said, “The M4D model is innovative as it takes into consideration the multi-faceted nature of school failure and dropout, addressing it through a four-dimensional in-school model that combines structural, pedagogical, educational and organisational prevention and remediation measures to enable a systemic dynamic to reduce dropout.”