Education for all not yet all-embracing

“Our biggest problem is that we have no school; none of the children can study,” says Edmond Tadahy, as his five-year-old daughter clambers across his lap.

The kitchen in the home of this father of five, located in a remote village in north-eastern Madagascar, is filled with the acrid smoke of roasting coffee. A drying rack dark with beans hangs above the cooking fire where his wife adds fuel to the blaze under the rice pot.

Nearby, a thin cat grooms itself as Tadahy elaborates. “None of the villages around here have schools or teachers, except Anjinjako—they have a small school, but the parents have to pay for it.”

On this vast Indian Ocean island, stories like Tadahy’s are common.
According to the Institute for Statistics of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco), just under a third of adults and youths are illiterate (these figures are an average for data collected from 2000 to 2004).

The present government’s response was to set up the Education for All programme when it came to power in 2002—an initiative aimed at meeting the United Nations Millennium Development Goal (MDG) of achieving universal primary education by 2015. Eight MDGs were agreed on by global leaders at the UN Millennium Summit in 2000 in a bid to improve conditions in the developing world. The remaining goals focus on poverty and hunger, amongst other problems.

The education programme aims both to increase access to learning and improve the quality of education.

To achieve the first objective, primary school fees were abolished in Madagascar at the end of 2002. There has also been a push to build more classrooms, recruit teachers—and distribute supplies such as backpacks, and school kits with pencils and pens.

The drive for improved quality has seen education officials and the United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef) launch a teacher-training programme, with funding from bilateral donors. Starting with the lower grades and working up, the goal is to train all primary-level educators by 2008.

Last year 43 000 grade one and two teachers participated in the programme. They were also shown how to handle large classes better, as in certain rural areas a teacher may have as many as 150 students of all grades in one classroom.

Authorities have further sought to revise textbooks, and promote contracts between schools and communities that emphasise the importance of keeping children in school—while the period of primary schooling itself has now been extended by two years.

As a result of these measures, the official figure for primary school net enrolment has increased from 82% to 98% since 2002. (Net enrolment relates to the percentage of pupils of primary school age who are registered, while gross enrolment measures registration irrespective of age.)

For the world’s 11th poorest nation, these measures represent “a dramatic increase in access to education” says Barbara Bentein, regional representative for Unicef.

Repetition rates, in turn, declined last year from about 30%—one of the highest rates globally—to just over 19%.

But, while Education for All is delivering positive results in certain respects, it has not yet been able to address disparities between regions concerning the quality of schooling—and the number of children who are able to take advantage of it.

Tadahy says that his own village and three neighbouring settlements are considered part of Ambanisana—a town two to three hours’ walk downriver where all public services are consolidated. Tadahy’s eldest daughter previously lived with relatives and attended school in Ambanisana, but things have changed since the vanilla boom that boosted the region’s economy nearly three years ago came to an end.

“The cost of life has made it too difficult [to send her to Ambanisana],” he says.

Rafetiarison Andrianantenaina, director of French non-governmental organisation Aid and Action, says different regions present various obstacles to educational improvement.

In the north-east, he notes, “the population is unusually dispersed, which creates a big problem”.

“In the north and east it’s the lack of roads and the frequent cyclones; in the south it’s a lack of interest on the part of parents, who are mostly illiterate and in some cases still nomadic,” adds Andrianantenaina, whose organisation helps identify and address social problems that hinder education efforts.

“In Tana [the capital, Antananarivo], the rate of motivation is high, but the problem is hunger.”

Unicef plans to launch a distance-learning pilot project to provide teacher training and support in rural areas by means of radio broadcasts or audio cassettes.

Additional areas of concern relate to how secondary schools will accommodate the children who are now attending primary school—and to children who fail to complete their primary schooling.

The Joint Programme to Support Education for All, run primarily by the United Nations Development Programme and Unesco, has provided courses to help children who dropped out of school pass a primary school equivalency test. The largest initiative of its kind, the programme also provided adult and adolescent literacy classes to 12 000 people last year.

“We know what needs to happen and our pilot activities are successful, but at the moment what we’re able to do is a drop in the ocean,” says Raymondine Rakotondrazaka, the programme’s national coordinator.

Back in Anjinjako, the school is temporarily closed while parents puzzle over how to repair the roof. The ravanala tree fronds normally used for thatching are in short supply because the rainforest nearby has been over-harvested, and is now a protected area and therefore off-limits.

The parents have made a request to park authorities for a sheet of corrugated metal to serve as a roof instead. But in the meantime the rough benches of the schoolroom are exposed to the sky, and the teacher—one of many paid for by local communities in Madagascar—has left.

It remains to be seen whether Madagascar will be able to address the educational needs of communities such as this. But, a promising start may just have been made.—IPS

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