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close this bookCERES No. 058 (FAO Ceres, 1977, 50 p.)
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The school of social life

nonformal education can only give the best of itself within a politico-institutional framework that supports it instead of neutralizing it

by Manzoor Ahmed

In the search for ways of enhancing the contribution of education to rural development efforts, increasing attention has lately centred on the role of nonformal education. To avoid possible confusion, it should be asserted first that nonformal education, as it is generally understood, refers to all purposeful and systematic learning activities with specified target groups and specified learning objectives, but organized outside the familiar institution-based, age-specific, chronologically and sequentially graded, diploma-oriented formal system, which is mostly within the jurisdiction of the ministry of education. Nonformal education also excludes all accidental, incidental and unplanned learning, which may be described as informal education and which, though a very large component of human learning, is not susceptible to a process of planning and management.

The demarcation lines are by no means rigid and there are large grey areas between programmes characterized as formal and those described as nonformal and between nonformal programmes and informal learning. It is certainly of no consequence how a programme is characterized as long as it serves its purpose. However, certain premises that are not inconsequential follow from the differentiation (for analytical purposes) made between formal and nonformal education.

First, nonformal education does not constitute a system in the sense formal education does and cannot be viewed as a parallel or alternative to the formal system or as a countersystem. In specific instances, of course, a nonformal effort may serve the same or a comparable educational purpose as a formal programme.

Second, given the diversity of nonformal education activities and their sponsorship, there cannot be a ministry, a department or a national agency entrusted with the total responsibility for nonformal education. Even a coordinating body for nonformal education, except with specific limitation of scope and purpose, would have an impossible task.

A new pair of glasses

Third, the significance of the concept of nonformal education and the discussion about it lie in creating the awareness that education is not to be equated with schooling, that a very large amount of systematic and vital learning activities goes on outside the school system, and that the planning, resource allocation and strategy building for national education must take into account the totality of organized education, including the components other than the formal institutions. Haphazard launching of some activities called nonformal education is of little hero.

The rising interest in nonformal education stems from explicit or implicit expectations that it will help alleviate some of the major educational and development problems in the Third World.

How realistic are these expectations? Very few would be so naive as to view nonformal education as a panacea. After all, the nonsystem called nonformal education is something that already exists and is not something to be constructed and installed afresh, though it may be refashioned, enlarged and intensified. It is, as Philip Coombs is fond of saying, a new pair of glasses that helps us see the totality of the organized educational efforts in a country

The educational process functions within a given socioeconomic structure. The goals set for the educational efforts and the results achieved are defined and limited by the socioeconomic framework of a society. The lessons of contemporary and past experiences around the world are that appropriate educational measures support and accelerate socioeconomic change, but the initiation and guidance of structural change in society are a political process. The overall national development objectives and priorities and the institutional and logistics measures adopted in support of these objectives and priorities define the tasks for all educational efforts and set the limits to what education will achieve by way of social transformation Nonformal education only opens up a wider range of educational options by bringing the nonschool vehicles of education within the orbit of organized and planned nationwide learning efforts.

Let us look at some of the well-lamented educational problems. It is possible to be only synoptic in this discussion.

The major culprits

About 800 million people over 10 years of age in the Third World are illiterate. Large amounts of national resources and efforts devoted to elimination of illiteracy have not produced a commensurate result. International assistance also has failed to make a major dent in the problem. The lessons of about 10 years of experience from the eleven-country Experimental World Functional Literacy programme sponsored by Unesco seems to be that people whose environment and whose daily business of life leave no place for reading and writing, generally, have no motivation to put in the necessary effort to acquire literacy. It, therefore, would take a certain level of rural transformation to make reading and writing relevant for most of the rural people before illiteracy is substantially reduced. Nonformal education by itself is hardly equal to the task.

Somewhat similar reasoning can be applied to the large nonparticipation of children in primary school and a larger dropout rate. Available evidence suggests that the economic situation in the low-income rural households and the perceived irrelevance of formal primary education as far as the life prospects of the children of these households are concerned are the major culprits. It is possible that a more flexible organization of primary education along nonformal lines may increase the participation at the primary level by permitting rural children to continue their economic role. Ultimately, however, the relevance of primary education is as much a question of altering the educational content and method as the improvement of the life prospects of the children in the rural areas. Or is the primary school supposed to teach children how to adjust to a life of absolute poverty-a condition in which most rural people find themselves?

The problem of the wastage of human resources arising from the unemployment of educated youth is symptomatic of a more fundamental ill, a development design in which a qualitatively different modern sector remains very small compared to the rest of the economy and is bound to remain small for a long time despite its fast growth. The problem will worsen because of the ever-increasing pressure to expand the privilege of formal education at progressively higher stages to larger numbers of the currently deprived population. The solution cannot be the curtailment of formal education and the protection of the privileges by restricting the entry into the ranks of the potential privileged (because, apart from the unjustness of the solution, it would be very hard to implement). Nor can the problem be solved only by tinkering with the educational contents and methods-formal or nonformal - though such change may be needed for other valid reasons and may cure some symptoms of the disease here and there. Only progress toward building a unified society by eliminating the enclaves of a modem sector and embarking on a programme that increases productivity, earning, employment and the basic public services in the rural areas will attack the root of the problem.

The attempt to shift to education the burden of solving the problem of unemployment of the educated means that there are more formal vocational and technical schools, and there is frequent call for "vocationalizing" and "giving a practical bias" to formal education. The result has been, on the whole, unhappy, partly because of the fundamental contradiction of the "enclave" phenomenon mentioned above and partly because of the unsuitability of formal institutions for producing marketable skills. Nonformal approaches probably have some special advantage in this case in ´'curing some of the symptoms," that is, in producing skilled workers for the wage-paying labour market. However, this generally does not solve the problem of employment in the rural areas.

The national problem of a much larger magnitude than the educated unemployed is the unemployment and underemployment of the millions of youths who have little or no formal education. These youths, as many as three fourths of the total in south Asian countries-if the ones going on to post-primary higher education and the children of the larger landholders in the rural areas, two largely overlapping categories, are left out-find themselves in a vicious cycle of low productivity, low earning and low demand for goods and services. The key to breaking this cycle is to maximize the productivity of the major natural resources of the country-in most Third World countries it is the agricultural land-and to share the fruits of the land equitably by putting the total work force to use in the production effort. In other words, an institutional arrangement is needed, which puts all the land and all or most of the manpower together in an optimally productive combination. Education of various types will have a vital role to play in such a context. Recognizing, however, that such a political transformation is not around the corner, the realistic possibilities in most Third World countries are limited to nonformal educational efforts for groups of youths from low-income rural families designed as part of collective productive and income-earning activities, be it the intensive cultivation of a piece of leased or rented land, or an agricultural processing enterprise, or a pond fishery project, or, more likely, a combination of several activities. An isolated educational effort either in the nature of teaching some occupational skills or general education has little to offer these youths.

The vehicles

Skills, knowledge and information in various sectors of rural development for the various categories of audience (the rural people themselves, the community-based auxiliaries and volunteer workers, the field agents of the government departments and the administrators and managers of programmes, etc.) have to be provided as an integral part of a determined effort to make the various services in the area of health, family planning, agricultural extension, credit services, cooperatives, etc., more effective. The educational components in these services can be only as effective as the services themselves.

Effective rural services, however, require that the rural people participate in the management of these services, that the government agents be held accountable to the people they are supposed to serve, that local human and material resources be mobilized for implementing the programmes, that the programmes be responsive to varying local needs and conditions, that the diverse programmes and services together form a consistent and concerted development thrust for the area, and that they serve the majority and the neediest.

The creation of appropriate institutional arrangements to meet these criteria of effective rural services has far-reaching implications for the style of development planning and the structure of public administration.

Effective local government bodies and strong participatory institutions at the local level have to serve as the vehicles for integrated locally managed development services. The national planning body, the national-level decision-making authorities and the sectoral agencies would in this case lay down national policies and priorities, set overall guidelines, determine aggregate resource allocations and play a facilitating and supportive role as providers of technical and financial assistance to the local bodies, but would abdicate the role of director and controller of programmes serving local communities.

At the local level

The area-wise organizational structure for the optimal exploitation of the total land resources and the manpower mentioned earlier and the participatory institutions for essential rural services can converge in the local government structure. In the context of such an institutional setting, relevant educational components of rural services can be planned and managed to a large extent at the local level and to a lesser extent by the national and regional-level departmental agencies which would increasingly assume facilitative functions.

Again realistically speaking, the signs are feeble in most developing countries that the transition in planning style and the administrative process visualised would materialize soon. One can, therefore, only suggest that the spirit and principles underlying the suggested transition be applied as much as possible by planning and implementing the educational components of rural development services at the local level through the involvement of local participatory institutions and local government bodies. The educational and training efforts above the local level also can be oriented and shaped to strengthen the local departmental capabilities and competence, instead of being devoted to controlling and administering programmes from the central level.

A recapitulation of the main arguments, a clearer indication of the major action possibilities, and an indication of the division of responsibilities among sectoral agencies may be helpful.

The concept of nonformal education helps to open our eyes to a wider range of educational options and instrumentalities than conventionally perceived and raises afresh the issues of how and to what extent the educational activities can help alleviate some major socioeconomic problems.

Since the overall national development policies and priorities and the related institutional structures lay down the framework within which the educational efforts are carried out, the educational system cannot overcome the limitations of this framework. The problems of illiteracy, lack of primary education opportunities, unemployment among the educated, unproductive and underemployed rural youth, inadequate skills and knowledge for rural development services-problems to the alleviation of which nonformal education is expected to contribute - cannot be effectively tackled without adopting a new national development design that eliminates the duality of the present economic structure, creates institutional arrangements for optimal use of all the land and the manpower with equitable share of the production for all, and builds strong local government bodies and participatory organizations for effective local management of the development services. Such is the ideal context for education and other development activities to bear fruit. Pragmatically, however, without waiting for the millennia, certain actions that will do some good and even may make some modest contribution toward bringing about the hoped-for structural changes can be taken.

A formal-nonformal strategy

The opportunities for a primary-level education can be widened and a larger population ensured a minimum level of educational achievement if the exclusive reliance on the usual age-specific full-time schools is relaxed. Various nonformal features such as part-time and abbreviated "second-chance" programmes for older youths; more flexible school hours, course duration and age requirements in regular primary schools; and meaningful forms of community involvement in primary schools by increasing the school's accountability to the community and by relating the school experience to the individual community circumstances can be adopted.

The broadening of the primary education base through a combined formal-nonformal strategy can be a major ministry of education effort. The aim would be to evolve a unified approach to basic education for all, granting full parity of esteem to both the regular primary school and the "second chance" and related nonformal approaches in the interim.

Functional education programmes can be launched for adults and youths only as the initial step toward economic development projects for the learner groups. Creating a critical awareness of the learners' own situation and preparing for collective self-help action would be as important (or more important) as learning literacy skills in these programmes. The help of national voluntary organizations active in rural development as well as local voluntary groups would be vital in the implementation of these programmes. Since the link of these programmes with economic development action is crucial, the main national agency with rural development responsibility-the ministry of agriculture and cooperation or a strong rural development coordination body - and a rejuvenated local government structure may jointly be the government lead horses for the effort.

A new strategy for middle-level technical-vocational skill development may shift the main burden of skill development to the employers such as the public corporations, associations of industries and individual enterprises. The strategy would involve flexible, often part-time, specifically designed ad hoc courses, usually in cooperation with the employers with a large component of practical apprenticeship and only when employment is assured. The first step would be to put a moratorium on the expansion of all formal vocational-technical institutions such as the vocational training institutes, technical training centres, technical institutes and polytechnics and then to turn them into multipurpose, flexible technical service centres. The ministries of education and labour, which generally run most of the formal institutions, may be the lead agencies in this effort but they will have to work closely with the ministries of commerce and industry, the public autonomous bodies employing large numbers of technicians, other corporations, private employers and trade unions.

Crying out for improvement

Education and training of field personnel, auxiliary workers from the communities, and the beneficiary population for the rural services such as agricultural extension, health care, family planning, cooperatives, etc., cry out for substantial improvement. Such improvement can be achieved in the existing educational efforts of these services and needed expansion can be made by drawing on the lessons and experiences of the many voluntary organizations that are functioning in most developing countries with a relatively high level of effectiveness in providing one or more of these services. While the lessons from small-scale activities may not be directly transferable to government programmes, innovative approaches in staff training and utilization, building local participatory organizations of the beneficiaries, and provisions for their education may be found adaptable for larger programmes. Each of the agencies responsible for the respective services will have to take the initiative in respect of its own programme, but each has to make a special effort to reinforce and cooperate with other services at the local level by working through the local government structure and local multipurpose participatory organizations of the beneficiary population. Close involvement of voluntary organizations with effective projects in health care, agriculture, family planning, etc., and local organizations that can spark community enthusiasm and action again would be essential.