International Bulletin - Spring 1997
EFA 2000 reports:
Asia contains two-thirds of the world's population and includes some of the world's biggest, smallest, richest and poorest countries. While East Asia has an enviable record for high and sustained economic growth of between 6-10 per cent annually, South Asian countries such as Bangladesh, Nepal and Bhutan are among the world's least developed nations.
What is the key to the East Asian success stories, and what prevents some countries from taking off? According to the Human Development Report 1996, education is the key. This is illustrated by the stories of Pakistan and the Republic of Korea; both countries had similar incomes per capita in 1960, but Pakistan had a primary gross school enrolment ratio of 30 per cent while that of the Republic of Korea was 94 per cent. As a result, the per capita gross domestic product (GDP) of the latter grew to three times that of Pakistan over twenty-five years, says the report.
The Republic of Korea belongs to the club of "the economic tigers" that includes Thailand and Malaysia. These countries, together with the rapidly developing nations of Indonesia, China, and Viet Nam, have invested substantially in education in the past decades and virtually achieved universal primary education. As a result, the incidence of absolute poverty in East Asia has fallen from a third of the population in 1970 to a tenth in 1990, according to a 1995 UNICEF report. Indonesia, for example, invested between 12 and 18 per cent of total government expenditure in education over the past twelve years, increasing the adult literacy to 84 per cent today, up from 67 per cent in 1980.
However, South Asia is the only region in the developing world where education expenditure as a percentage of gross national product (GNP) has not increased since 1990. Although primary enrolment jumped from 135 million in 1990 to 157 million in 1995, countries such as India, Pakistan and Bangladesh continue to have large numbers of out-of-school children and illiterate adults. In Pakistan and Bangladesh, only half of all men and a quarter of all women are literate, and in India 66 per cent of men and 38 per cent of women can read and write, according to UNESCO's World Education Report 1995.
"In certain countries, it almost seems as if the feudal system wants illiterates to stay that way in order to preserve their relation of dependency," said Namtip Aksornkool, programme specialist in UNESCO. She stressed that the gender gap in education is widening in Asia, despite remarkable progress in education in East Asia.
To overcome the inertia of conventional school systems, various innovative programmes, often run by non-governmental organizations (NGOs), have mushroomed in the region. In India, night schools run by the community give children who are working or who dropped out of school a second chance to get an education. A programme in Thailand enables children in rural areas to complete a three-year vocational certificate course while they are earning a living. An NGO in Bangladesh, Saptagram Nari Swanirvar Parishad, has helped thousands of women to improve their self-esteem, to study, to start their own business and to become independent. Specific groups such as girls, street children, refugees, prisoners and children with special needs are also increasingly reached through specially tailored education programmer.
"More and more countries are now exploring how these non-formal programmes can get accreditation equivalent to that of the formal education system," Aksornkool said.
Another area in rapid expansion is early childhood development (ECD), which is essential not only for preparing boys and girls for school, but also for providing children and mothers with community-based services to meet their basic needs. A unique initiative in India, the Integrated Child Development Service, benefits some 18.6 million children and mothers, providing children aged 3 to 6 with pre-school education and their mothers with health and nutrition information. New initiatives in Bangladesh, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Pakistan and Viet Nam target the poor and underprivileged, especially girls in rural areas, and are mainly run by local communities and NGOs. China is aiming to provide pre-school education to 60 per cent of all children, and ECD programmes in Thailand already cover around 45 per cent. In Australia and New Zealand efforts are being made to introduce family literacy programmer, which develop literacy skills of parents and children, thus strengthening the critical link between the education of adults and their children.
However, enrolment figures of children attending school do not indicate whether basic learning needs are being met, the quality of education is adequate and the required reaming is relevant. One of the greatest challenges is to link education with learners' concerns and experiences, such as health, sanitation, nutrition and work.
A recent document of the Education for All Forum, an inter-agency watchdog body that monitors and promotes basic education, concludes that drop-out and repetition has actually worsened in Asia over the past five years. In some South Asian countries, less than half of all children who start Grade I reach Grade 4. In Myanmar, for instance, only 34 per cent of primary pupils reach Grade 5.
"The rapid expansion of education to the fringes of rural areas has failed to attain the quality that usually exists in urban settings," said Victor Ordoņez, director of UNESCO's Bangkok office. "The reasons are lack of adequately trained personnel, inability to provide adequate resources for learning and a system that is insufficiently flexible to meet all needs."
To address quality issues, Indonesia launched a new programme in 1991 focusing on higher qualification requirements for future teachers and retraining 85 per cent of the country's more than I million teachers. China, Myanmar and the Philippines have adopted systems of continuous monitoring of educational quality, and in South Asia several countries are seeking to overcome shortages of textbooks to improve learning achievement. Bangladesh, for example, is engaged in an enormous effort to provide free textbooks to all pupils in Grades 1 to 5.
In Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia, primary education is being extended from six or seven to nine years, curricula are regularly revised in order to meet new demands, and programmes focus more on skills-oriented training. Some school systems now include "work experience" in the curriculum, and links between industry and technical colleges have emerged in countries such as Australia and New Zealand.
In Thailand, where some 70 per cent of the labour force is made up of those who have had no formal education beyond primary school, needy students in Grades 7 to 9 get financial support to encourage them to continue their education.
However, the OECD report stressed that unless countries in the region invest more in adult education programmes and retraining, large numbers of illiterate and low-skilled adults will be unemployed and unemployable.
"Governments must realize that the pressure from modern industrialized society makes adult education as important as the education of children," commented Ordoņez. "For adults to survive in the 21st century, they must be able to continually absorb the new technologies and information they need."
Mrs. Kasama Varavarn na Ayudhya, Director-General, Non-formal Education Department, Thailand
Asian countries have generally invested great effort in achieving universal primary education. They deserve much credit for that, but one important area has been seriously neglected and underfunded: non-formal literacy and education programmes for adolescents and adults. This is a serious mistake: more than 70 per cent of the world's 900 million illiterate adults live in Asia, mainly in South Asia, and the rapid economic development of the region is creating a growing demand for educated citizens and highly skilled workers.
If nations in Asia are committed to achieving Education for All, then they cannot limit their efforts to merely supporting primary and secondary-level education in the formal system. Non-formal education must be recognized as an equally important area for action. It plays a crucial role not only in reaching the unreached, but also in complementing learning in the formal school system by instilling a thirst for learning and a continued habit to seek out knowledge and information. Thailand's long experience in non-formal education illustrates the benefits of investing in this often neglected area. And it has given us some valuable lessons. First of all literacy and basic education have helped the economic development of the country. The steady and high growth rate in Thailand affirms that investing in a literate workforce pays off.
Secondly, by recognizing non-formal education on equal terms with the formal system, hundreds of thousands of Thais of all ages have, after gaining their high school diplomas in their own time, enrolled in tertiary and professional education, often through an open university system where learning through television and correspondence are the name of the game. This accreditation of learning outside the school is crucial in order to integrate those who "missed out" on formal education system.
Thirdly, non-formal education in Thailand has helped bring information to those living in remote areas. Two newspapers are made available in every village learning centre, and radio and television programmes are designed to improve the cultural level of the public and their participation in the life of their communities and nation.
However, the Thai experience illustrates that it is not enough to give learners the opportunity to get an education, learning also needs to be useful and relevant. Non-formal education activities, to be successful, need to be flexible and adapt to the development of society. People should learn to understand, analyse and link new experiences to previous ones. this well help them to evaluate and to make the decisions which are best for them.
Furthermore, to improve the overall quality of life, education must develop vocational and professional skills. It must also help people - particularly women - in the development of their families, communities and society as a whole.
Over the past years, the Department of Non-formal Education in Thailand has cooperated with local communities, the State, the private sector and the mass media to mobilize energies and resources to reach the unreached. The result is evident: today, more than 3 million Thais are enrolled in some form of non-formal education courses. Moreover, the network of learning centres has expanded, and people all over the country have access to distance education.
Last Modified: June 05, 2010