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Back To The Drawing Board


new internationalist
issue 248 - October 1993

Writing on the wall: but for this child in Bangladesh there is hope.
Back to the drawing board
The war on education

Education once seemed like the magic solution to all the world’s
problems. Now children are dropping out of school, governments are
savaging spending and big business is taking over.
Nikki van der Gaag
looks for light at the end of the tunnel.

A child stands in a queue in China’s Hubei province. He waits patiently for his turn, drumming his fingers nervously on the wall. Finally he enters a blue door. Two hours later he comes out, looking a little pale, but clutching the precious reward for his travails in his hand. An exam? Some kind of test? No. He has been giving blood – blood which will help to pay the school fees that his parents can no longer afford.

Ten-year-old Ibrahim Sheikh runs the four kilometres to his home in Wagberi, in north-eastern Kenya. He is unable to hide his excitement. With shining eyes, he presents his mother with his end-of-year class placing – Number One. His mother smiles proudly at him. But her smile hides the anxiety of knowing that this year she has not been able to afford his school uniform – next year she may not be able to afford to send him to school.

US teenager Matt Johnston trudges through the snow in Kalkaska, Michigan. It is 7.00am on a cold March morning and he is off to an extra mathematics class. It may be the last of the academic year. The local school authorities, faced with a $1.5 million shortfall in their $8.5 million budget, have decided to run a seven-month year instead of cutting back in other ways. So summer for Matt begins in March.

There is a crisis in education. A crisis that is hitting not just the poorest countries and the poorest schools, but can be seen everywhere, from China to Kenya and from the US to Uganda.

Worlds apart within one continent: reading despite their rags in Mali.

It was not always so. Belief in the elixir of universal education used to be widespread. And it was backed up by government money. From the 1950s on, education was something worth investing in, particularly for poorer countries. In the 1960s and 1970s, spending on education rose steadily. More children were educated, more women learned to read and write, and innovative ways of teaching were pioneered in schools. Studies proved that education, especially for women, led to higher productivity, better family health and smaller families. Parents believed that by giving their children an education they were giving them a chance to escape the cycle of poverty. Education was the only way out of the ghetto.

This seemed true even in a global sense: newly independent countries had an idealistic sense of education as the key to development. As one of the Third World’s first great leaders, Julius Nyerere of Tanzania, told the first issue of The Internationalist back in 1970: ‘Education is not a way of escaping the country’s poverty. It is a way of fighting it.’

Then came the 1980s. Recession and structural adjustment – the economic squeeze imposed on poor countries by the IMF – meant that governments worldwide looked more closely at what they spent. And education was a large part of most governments’ budget. Politicians began counting their pennies, effectively weighing up who should get an education and who should not. They reassessed education’s place in the scheme of things and found it wanting. So they reduced teachers’ salaries. They increased class sizes. They pared to a minimum the amounts spent on repairs to school buildings, on books and equipment.

To some extent this was inevitable: in straitened economic times governments needed to get as much for their money as they could. And in many cases education was in need of reform. But all too often this reform was linked to a right-wing view asserting a market model of education. As soon as education becomes a market then it becomes something available only to those who can afford it – and puts society’s most vulnerable groups at an even greater disadvantage. In these circumstances if you are poor, or black, if you have a disability or learning difficulty, if your country has been disrupted by war, if you are a girl rather than a boy, and particularly if you combine any of these elements, then your chances of not completing school are high indeed. Your chances are better if you live in the North rather than the South, but even then your education is more likely to be guaranteed if you are white and middle-class.

The politics of this are clear. Such segregated education fits in well with right-wing philosophies which argue that education is to fit every ‘man (sic) for his proper place in society’. In the words of the nineteenth-century hymn: ‘The rich man in his castle, the poor man at the gate, God made them high and lowly, And ordered their estate’. The ‘rich man’ who can afford to pay for his children’s education will ensure that they find their ‘proper place’ in society, while the children of the ‘poor man’ are likely to lose out on any education at all; to remain forever begging at the gate.

The global rhetoric, of course, is unchanged. In 1990 the World Conference on Education in Jomtien, Thailand, reaffirmed the importance of education for all, calling for universal education by the year 2000. Three years later, this goal still seems a long way off. There are 900 million people in the world today who cannot read and write. Two-thirds of them are women. There are an estimated 400 million schoolchildren who will never get the chance to have an education. And although the amount of money spent on education increases each year, it is never enough to cover costs for the existing population, let alone to provide for those yet unborn.

The goal of education for all would have seemed much more attainable had the countries of the South not been hit so hard in the 1980s by debt and structural adjustment. Government income dropped due to falling prices on the world market for raw materials. And as public spending was cut, so classrooms crumbled. Primary student numbers declined in roughly one out of five developing countries. Teachers’ salaries no longer gave them a decent standard of living. The countries of sub-Saharan Africa were the worst hit, with education expenditure cut by 30 per cent in the early 1980s. Inflation and high unemployment exacerbated the problem.

Today, although 90 per cent of children in developing countries start primary school, up to half drop out before completing four years. They leave because their parents need them to work, or because their families have to pay too high a price to keep them in school. Girls in particular are the first to be kept at home, where they can be useful around the house. This is especially true if, despite all the sacrifices families have made to keep their children in school, educational qualifications are no longer a guarantee of a job.

This is in marked contrast to the improvements in earlier decades. In Costa Rica, for example, the constitution sets down the right to education for all; it also has the highest literacy rate in the region. Between 1950 and 1980 education provision was consistently expanding. But during that time, the country had also incurred the highest level of per-capita debt in Latin America. In 1981, the Government was given a loan from the IMF. But there were conditions. Conditions which meant that less had to be spent on items such as health and education. By 1986 education expenditure had fallen to 4.3 per cent of GDP from its high point of 6.0 per cent.

Taking measure in Somalia.

The story is a complex one but its effects on education are stark. Fewer children are enrolling in school – and more and more are dropping out. In 1986, a document from the Costa Rican Ministry of Public Education stated: ‘In recent months, the physical condition of schools and equipment has deteriorated alarmingly, due to lack of maintenance, and also due to lack of basic expenditure on light, water, security guards, chalk, stationery and books... staff members who provide technical and administrative support... are semi-paralysed in their work by lack of transport, of travel allowances, petrol and educational materials.’ 1

This could stand as an assessment of education in most countries of the South during the 1980s.

We in the North are also witnessing cutbacks. We might find it hard to comprehend the deluge of government statistics about increased spending, but anyone who talks to a teacher or walks into a school knows that education in the North is also in decline. Spending has ostensibly continued to rise, with declines being masked by a huge rise in the numbers in tertiary education, and the amounts spent on restructuring the curriculum. And there are paradoxes. Some schools are doing very nicely, thank you. Others are being forced to increase class sizes; they are short of books and equipment, and sometimes even paper. Or, like the schools in Kalkaska, they are looking for radical ways to save money. In the US local taxes and state aid pay 40 per cent of the education budget. This means that schools in low-income districts are penalized. In Illinois, one such district argued that it could never raise sufficient funds and voted simply to shut down its eight schools.


1. Questions
Never stop asking unanswerable questions. What is the sound of one hand clapping? Which comes first – personal change or structural?

2. Avoiding burnout
You have a duty to take care of yourself; and your self includes your body (for the body is not just a thing which carries your head around), and also your spirit (which is not just that strange place you sometimes visit, without being adequately consulted, in your dreams).

3. Diversity is a value
Let a thousand powers loom, a thousand gadflies bite, a thousand micro-climates flow.

4. Suffer the little ones
The periphery is beautiful, small is reliable. Small may be trusted, cherished, nourished.

5. Images are reality
In the shaping of images of our being, of our world, of our being-in-the-world, we are part of evolutions’s creativity and unfolding, we are shaping evolution’s creativity and unfolding, we are shaping evolution itself.

6. Good places for kids
Schools can be arenas for the unfolding of selves – of bodies, of souls. They are not inherently destructive, nor embarassingly irrelevant. Schools are good places, though not the only good places, on earth to be.

7. Say yes
Cherish what you touch, love where you tread, embrace and delight in the person you are with.

8. Nothing ever finishes
Unfolding is endless. A millennium doesn’t finish, nor does a culture, nor a project, nor a life, nor a love, nor a conference, nor a lecture, nor an essay. Everything, everything everywhere, is always unfini

By Robin Richardson, from his book Daring to be teacher (Trentham 1990).

Market forces have not only affected education provision: they are also entering the classroom and shaping children’s development. Children are now being prepared for the world of competition; a world in which they do battle against others for that crucial test, that particular job. Subjects that are seen as peripheral – those which help to develop a child into a fully-rounded personality – give way to subjects which develop technical and vocational skills. And those children who are seen not to possess those skills are simply thrown aside. Once again the haves are separated from the have-nots. And in an ‘enterprise culture’ who better to run, administer and pay for schools than businesses? In the US big corporations have already started running schools for profit – and, as in other fields of activity, what starts in the US inevitably spreads its tentacles into the rest of the West (The sharks move in). Education of the market, by the market, for the market.

But other forces are at work as well. All over the world there are teachers, parents and communities determined to fight for a better education for their children. This might mean striving to ensure that the state system caters for all children equally, or campaigning for a broader, more multicultural curriculum. It might involve exploring new kinds of schools which try to develop the child morally and spiritually as well as intellectually. Or it might spring simply from parents’ desperation to ensure the best for their children.

The most famous example of a community initiative which has expanded beyond the wildest dreams of its founders is that of the BRAC schools in Bangladesh. BRAC (Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee) was founded in 1972 following the war of liberation. In 1985 it began its educational programme with 22 experimental schools. In the first five years it opened over 6,000 schools, mainly for the children of the poor and the landless. And Sayeeda Anis, a BRAC programme officer, hopes that by 1998 there will be 100,000.

Reading unlocks the door to other worlds: serious study in France.

Around 70 per cent of the children are girls, part of a deliberate policy to encourage girls’ education. The BRAC schools provide three years of basic education, including literacy, numeracy and social studies, for approximately $15 per child per year. Classes are small, and the timetable and school year fit in with the farming seasons. So far over 90 per cent of BRAC’s pupils have gone on to join the national primary education system. Most of these children would never normally have gone to school.

BRAC exemplifies five key elements for successful education. It is affordable. It is accessible, so that parents do not fear to send their girl children and the journey is not arduous. It is appropriate to the needs of the girl or boy, woman or man, who is learning. It is seen as essential to their well-being. And, crucially, it is fun. For we learn best when we are involved and enjoying ourselves.

Teachers and communities in the North have recognized this as well, and are struggling to find new and effective ways of teaching and learning. This becomes more and more difficult when money is scarce, and when testing and assessment procedures restrict teachers’ scope within the curriculum. But there are still many initiatives, both inside and outside state systems, which are a testament to an education that we can all believe in.

The development-education network which operates from Osaka to Ottawa, from Manchester to Melbourne, is one such. In the UK, for example, the number of development-education centres, often run on a voluntary basis, has tripled in the last ten years and this movement has successfully lobbied the UK Government to include global issues in the curriculum. All over the rich world children are routinely learning more about development issues than was the case 20 years ago – learning to think in terms of one interconnected world. That is an achievement worth defending – and it will need defending against the depredations of the market onslaught.

We know that there are thousands of people who care enough to get involved. We know also that the content of education is as important as the cost. Paulo Freire, the populist Brazilian educator, was absolutely clear about what this content should be: ‘Education is an act of love, and thus an act of courage. It cannot fear the analysis of reality, or, under pain of revealing itself as a farce, avoid creative discussion’. If we believe in the quality of such ‘creative discussion’, then we must ensure that we campaign for an education which liberates all children to learn; to become active and participating members of society.

The goal of education for all is also worth fighting for. We know that an extra two or three per cent of GDP spent on education will make a huge difference to what happens to a country and its people a generation from now – if only debt and the IMF’s stringent terms would allow governments to spend it. We must fight for an education where State and Community together forge schools that the people can afford. Education for all by the year 2000 is an achievable goal. We are three-quarters of the way there. Let us not, through short-sighted cutbacks or misguided politics, fail to take that last step.

1 Education in the developing world, Sarah Graham-Brown (Longman 1991)

The End
Linocut by Peter Beney (14) for the Art and Development project in London, UK.
The sun represents South Africa - the bird represents peace and freedom.

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New Internationalist issue 248 magazine cover This article is from the October 1993 issue of New Internationalist.
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