2009 Nicaragua: UNICEF CHILD FRIENDLY SCHOOLS EVALUATION - Country Report
Author: Elizabeth Spier; Olivia Padilla; David Osher; Nitika Tolani-Brown
UNICEF contracted with the American Institutes for Research (AIR) in 2008 to conduct a global evaluation of its Child Friendly Schools (CFS) initiative. The evaluation was expected to serve as a baseline assessment that examined the effectiveness of UNICEF’s CFS programming efforts in the areas of inclusiveness, pedagogy, architecture and services, participation and governance, and systemic management. Nicaragua was selected as one of six countries for this global evaluation.
UNICEF grounded the CFS framework in the 1990 Convention on the Rights of the Child’s principles of children’s rights, as well as other international human rights instruments and international declarations such as the Declaration of Education for All (1990). These principles emphasize the right of all children to receive free and compulsory education in settings that encourage enrolment and attendance; institute discipline humanely and fairly; develop the personality, talents and abilities of students to their fullest potential; respect children’s human rights and fundamental freedoms; respect and encourage the child’s own cultural identity, language and values, as well as the national culture and values of the country where the child is living; and prepare the child to live as a free, responsible individual who is respectful of other persons and the natural environment.
Three other inputs shaped the early development of CFS. The first was effective school research, which emphasized the importance of school factors for disadvantaged students. The second was the World Health Organization’s mental health promotion initiatives, which focus on the importance of connectedness, caring and access to support. The third was UNICEF’s interest in child-, family- and community-centred approaches to school improvement.
UNICEF envisions and promotes CFS models not as abstract concepts or a rigid blueprint but rather as “pathways towards quality” in education that reflect three key, and interrelated, principles derived from the Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNICEF, in press):
Child-centredness: Central to all decision-making in education is safeguarding the interest of the child.
Democratic participation: As rights holders, children and those who facilitate their rights should have a say in the form and substance of their education.
Inclusiveness: All children have a right to education. Access to education is not a privilege that society grants to children; it is a duty that society fulfils to all children.
UNICEF anticipates that CFS will evolve and move towards quality education through the application of these principles. The following features of CFS derive from these principles and as the principles gain traction these features are strengthened.
The purpose of this report is to present a within-country evaluation of the effectiveness of UNICEF CFS intervention efforts in Nicaragua.
Within Nicaragua, the CFS initiative is known as Escuelas Amigas y Saludables (Friendly and Healthy Schools). UNICEF has identified three principles of CFS: Child-Centredness, Democratic Participation and Inclusiveness. These three principles encompass the CFS program components that were formulated within Nicaragua: (1) Quality Learning and Achievement; (2) Friendly and Secure Physical and Environmental Conditions; (3) School Hygiene and a Clean Environment; (4) School Health and Nutrition; and (5) Rights, Responsibilities and Participation.
The UNICEF vision for CFS in Nicaragua was to give ownership to and build capacity within the Nicaraguan Ministry of Education, Culture and Sports (MECD) to sustain the initiative independently. To that end, all resources were funnelled through the MECD and other governing bodies (e.g., Ministry of Health to support the health and nutrition components of the program), and no UNICEF resources were allocated directly to schools or to regional educational offices.
For this evaluation, AIR visited 25 of the 206 schools in Nicaragua that had received support under the CFS initiative. During school visits, local trained data collectors observed the school grounds and buildings; watched teachers in action; surveyed school heads, teachers and students; and conducted interviews and focus groups with school heads, teachers, families, students and other key stakeholders. Within the constraints of the global evaluation, we were not able to tailor all of our evaluation questions specifically to the Nicaraguan context. However, we were able to benefit from the data gathered in Nicaragua in the course of the global evaluation; these data speak to the country’s own focus.
Overall, Nicaragua has made significant strides in meeting its goals for the CFS initiative. Most teachers were observed to be using child-centred pedagogical methods, and students showed a greater level of academic engagement where a child-centred approach had been taken by their teachers. Students were engaged in keeping their schools clean, and in observing healthy practices such as hand washing. Most schools had active student governments that had real involvement in their schools. Areas for further improvement included student nutrition, the maintenance of wells for safe drinking water, and the provision of age- and height-appropriate classroom furnishings. Recommendations include building local capacity in conjunction with the initiation of infrastructure projects to ensure that improvements can be locally maintained, providing a means to match school needs with the capacities and interests of NGOs to ensure fair and effective use of resources, and the provision of capacity-building at the local level to improve the ability of communities to leverage local resources and support to help Nicaraguan schools better meet their own needs in a sustainable manner. These needs include provision of safer and more accessible routes to school grounds from the community, and the provision of a comprehensive nutritional support programme that reaches all students in need.
This report is based on the data collected for the global evaluation, which featured the following methodology:
Employed site visits by teams – the data collection included one- and two-day site visits to approximately 25 schools in two or more regions in each country, for a total of 150 schools;
Focused on a range of CFS schools in terms of locality (urban versus rural environments) duration of implementation, and demography;
Employed randomization where feasible for surveys and focus groups conducted with students, teachers, and families and for classroom observations;
Addressed phenomenological issues such as learning directly from students and teachers about how they experienced their schools;
Balanced sensitivity to local context and analytical uniformity by combining AIR and local site visitors;
Created and/or tailored 14 instruments and 17 reporting scales to address the needs of the evaluation;
Employed a Web-based Delphi survey of UNICEF Education Officers to contextualize findings; and
Drew on AIR’s experience with other UNICEF CFS from other projects to evaluate and support social and emotional learning to inform this evaluation.
In chapter 3, we present key findings with regard to how well Nicaragua had achieved its goal of developing schools that were child friendly across the five Nicaraguan CFS focal areas. For each of the five core research questions, we present the indicators associated with that focal area that were developed by UNICEF Nicaragua and the MECD.9 We then present quantitative and qualitative data gathered in the course of the CFS global evaluation that can inform the reader about associations between school qualities and student engagement, successes, challenges and ongoing issues for those indicators. 10 The focal areas listed above will be addressed in this report to the extent that they were assessed as a part of the global evaluation. Student disengagement from school is a significant issue in Nicaragua, so where feasible and relevant, we examined relationships between qualities of schools and teachers and student engagement in school – with a particular focus on the three core principles of CFS (child-centeredness, inclusiveness and democratic participation).
Nicaragua elected to focus its CFS interventions across five key areas:
1. Quality Learning and Achievement
2. Friendly and Secure Physical and Environmental Conditions
3. School Hygiene and Clean Environment
4. School Health and Nutrition
5. Rights, Responsibilities, and Participation
Our evaluation revealed that Nicaragua has achieved a noticeable degree of success in each of these areas. In the area of Quality Learning and Achievement, most teachers were observed to be implementing child-centred pedagogical approaches. Students felt that they were learning what they needed to know in life. Many (but not all) classrooms were decorated with murals, posters and other materials that supported children’s learning. Teachers identified a lack of textbooks and other materials as an ongoing challenge.
In the area of Physical and Environmental Conditions, most classrooms were observed to be clean, to provide students with adequate light and ventilation, and to be equipped with a blackboard. Usually all students had a desk or chair in class and an adequate work space, but sometimes these were not the right size or configuration for students of different heights, left-handed students, and students with disabilities. While many schools were free from hazards on school grounds (e.g., no open wells), stakeholders did express concern about physical hazards students faced while travelling to and from school (such as steep terrain).
The area of School Hygiene and a Clean Environment seemed to be an important one in many schools. Stakeholders expressed interest and pride in the cleanliness of their respective schools. Students had become engaged in maintaining a clean and hygienic school environment. One ongoing area of concern was safe drinking water. Although the situation seems to have improved dramatically over the past few years, with wells being provided to schools, it seemed that when these wells became contaminated or needed repairs, the schools were left with a problem that they did not have the means to resolve.
In the area of School Health and Nutrition, efforts were being made to address these issues at schools, but this remains an area of concern. Most stakeholders seemed aware of the need to protect and promote student health, and most schools seemed to have some way of getting medical screening or care for children who needed it. Students seem to have internalized healthy practices such as brushing their teeth and washing their hands, and there was evidence that students were sharing these practices with the larger community. Some schools had also reached out to the community to provide health information. Schools did not seem to be doing as well in the area of student nutrition. Some schools had comprehensive feeding programs, but others did not, and many students reported that they were often too hungry to pay attention in school. Assessors also observed a large number of cases where vendors sold food of very poor nutritional quality on or near school grounds.
In the area of Rights, Responsibilities, and Participation, Nicaragua seemed to be doing very well. Schools had student governments that were active and included both girls and boys. Most students had been made aware of their rights. Student participation in the school permeated the discussion during the assessment, with students helping to care for the school (e.g., keep it clean), to make decisions, to provide support (e.g., hold a raffle to buy school supplies), and to educate the community regarding healthy practices.
Overall, Nicaragua has made significant strides in meeting its goals for child-friendly schools. Note that this evaluation did not cover the RAAS or RAAN areas of the country, so we are uncertain to what extent these findings are applicable to these regions.
Six key recommendations have emerged in the course of this within-country evaluation:
School improvement efforts by outside agencies involving infrastructure would be more sustainable if the effort included building capacity within the local community to carry out maintenance and repairs as needed once the work was complete.
Several school heads reported that wells that had been provided for their school had become contaminated or otherwise unusable, and they were not sure how to address the issue. So support for ongoing maintenance or an identified source of support would be extremely beneficial in ensuring that students had access to safe drinking water.
Infrastructure projects that involve accessibility would benefit students and the larger community further if they ensured that individuals with disabilities could get to and from the school, as well as ensuring accessibility within school grounds.
Nutrition seems to be an ongoing issue for many students at Nicaragua’s schools. While school heads and teachers understand the critical importance of adequate nutrition, and parents are willing to help prepare food at school, a more comprehensive approach to improving student nutrition across schools would be beneficial. This strategy should include the banning of vendors of food with low nutritional value from operating on or near school grounds, and the implementation of at least minimal provision of food to children who need it across all schools.
There are a large number of NGOs working across Nicaragua. Some schools were observed to have support from as many as five different organizations, while others had little support (but at least as many needs). One possible remedy is the establishment of a formal channel for schools to identify their needs, with NGOs then stepping in to address these needs as they are able.
And finally, we recommend the provision of capacity building at the local level that is oriented toward how communities can leverage local resources and support to help schools better meet their own needs in a sustainable manner.
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