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close this bookTowards Responsive Schools Supporting Better Schooling for Disadvantaged Children - Education research paper No. 38 (DFID, 2000, 270 p.)
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View the documentLearning for Life in the hills - A community school experiment - A case study from SIDH, India (Society for the Integrated Development of the Himalayas)
View the document'We have waited thirty years'* - Village schools and the state system - A case study from Mali

'We have waited thirty years'* - Village schools and the state system - A case study from Mali

* Said by a villager. The end of the colonial period brought the hope of primary education for their children, but no school had yet come to the village


analysis: Zoumana Kone, Bakary Sogoba, Mamadou Diallo,
Yacouba Simbe, Bill Tod
writing/editor: Marion Molteno
contributors: Patrick Proctor, Amanda Harding

What are the problems for children?

Rural poverty and education

Mali is one of the poorest countries in the world. It is part of the Sahel, an arid region south of the Sahara subject to severe droughts. Rural families depend on the labour of all members, including children, to survive.

Poverty acts as a determinant of educational chances at several levels. State poverty means that although education takes up 24% of Mali's budget, this provides schooling for less than half the children 1. Primary school enrolment rates for 1993-7 were 30% for boys and 19% for girls, compared to 61% and 55% for all sub-Saharan Africa2. Within Mali itself there are further inequalities: city children are much more likely to go to school than those in rural areas, and poorer districts have the lowest attendance. Finally, poverty limits educational chances at household level: in any district, children of poorer families are less likely to attend school.

The people of Mali experience a type of rural poverty that is common in much of sub-Saharan Africa, but exists in the Sahel in an extreme form. Villages are far apart, and transport between them hardly exists, meaning children growing up in the Sahel are effectively isolated from anything outside their village. Can anything can be done to help village children attend school?

Save the Children's experiment

Save the Children has worked in the northern district of Douentza, one of the poorest in Mali, since the severe droughts of the mid '80s. Within Douentza only 8% of children are in school. Douentza town is a centre of public facilities for surrounding villages, with government offices, a hospital, three primary schools and a secondary school. The cercle, or administrative district, has 255 villages, but only seventeen have schools3. For village children, 'going to school' means being sent to lodge with strangers in town. The lodging child is often treated as free labour, expected to work harder than other children of the household and given less to eat. Most village families, however, cannot even afford the cost of sending a child to lodge.

Box 1: The opening

The community has gathered to watch car-loads of city people coming to their village. Monsieur le President of the newly formed school committee leads the guests to the two-roomed building. Inside, the classrooms are cool, a shaded space in this fierce climate. The villagers press in close. It was the men themselves who cut the stones, the women and children who carried sand and water for the mortar. The furnishing is sparse but functional; a blackboard, a table, desks. The Save the Children animateur who has worked with the villagers has struggled to keep to a minimum the items brought in from outside, while the villagers have bargained hard for what they need. The speeches begin.

In the capital city of Bamako people who have never heard of Koubwel Koundia watch on the weekend news. What makes it news is not the event but the potential. For the first time in history this village has a school. If they can do it, why not others?

Save the Children realised that without a school education children have little chance of escape from rural poverty. The staff lacked education sector experience, but this was balanced by considerable understanding of the conditions of rural poverty. They set out:

· to understand what stops village children getting to school
· to experiment with ways round the problems.

Staff see the schools project as part of a wider set of activities intended to strengthen children's resilience in the face of poverty. Their starting point was thus to consider questions of schooling as they are experienced by villagers, both children and adults, rather than from the perspective of education officials or professionals.

They were also experimenting with a methodology. Would this bottom-up way of working give insights into how schooling could be made more accessible? And could an international agency facilitate changes in local structures (both governmental and communities) to improve children's educational chances?

A village view of children's work To consider the relationship between children's work, parental attitudes and schooling. Save the Children commissioned a study into patterns and perceptions of children's work in two rural districts (one being Douentza) and one peri-urban. The study confirmed what is obvious to most observers: 85% of 7 year olds in Douentza district carry serious work responsibilities, occupying on average 6 hours+ a day (with girls working significantly longer hours than boys.) A quarter of households said that they could not manage without the children's contribution. But it also made clear that the primary consideration in the minds of parents, even very poor ones, was the educational value of work: 'Children's work is perceived as a process of socialisation, progressively initiating children into work and transmitting skills that will enable them to support themselves and their parents and contribute to the community.' Parents expressed this in many ways:

The most important thing one can do for a child is to teach him or her to work.' 'Death can overcome the parents at any time; that's why it is essential to train children young to do the work of the parents'.

Box 2: Growing up in Mopti and Duentza

The regional town of Mopti is seven hours drive north of the capital city, on the banks of the Niger river. As the seasons change, herds of cattle are moved large distances in search of fresh grazing. Everywhere children can be seen taking serious responsibilities from an early age, herding animals, fishing, helping to move home, manoeuvring narrow boats through the flooded areas.

Douentza, a traditional town of mud bricks, lies several hours further to the north east. The many children who attend no kind of school are busy with the work they do for their families, fetching water, minding younger children, working in the market. At the other end of town the better-off families live in compounds where goats are tethered, chickens scratch, and young girls help their mothers pound grain and prepare food.

'Our daughters are married at 13 or 14 years. If they haven't learnt all the work of the household when they are young, how will they manage?'

When asked the reasons for a child not working, a common answer was 'the negligence of parents.' In other words, only parents who did not have their children's best interests at heart would let them grow up without work responsibilities.

Children too accept the necessity and value of work. Among those surveyed there were few instances of oppressive work conditions or abusive punishments. Two thirds said they liked their work 'a lot,' and only a negligible percentage said 'not at all'. Perhaps this is because children learn by doing tasks with obvious utility, for which they win approval: 'We work to have the blessing of our parents.' They can move around and be active, they are taught by familiar people, using a language they understand, and are given considerable responsibility - 74% of the children work most of the time without adult supervision.

But the occupations for which children are trained through work are those of their parents, and over 70% of both children and adults would prefer some other future, to which only school-going could give access.

What would make it possible for village children to go to school?

School attendance and family work are not seen as mutually exclusive. Villagers want for their children what only school can offer, but schooling will not be an option for most village children unless it is set up in a way that accommodates village life.

Of children who had never been to school, 30% said this was because there was no school in the village, 19% that they had too much work at home, 18% that their parents lacked the means to send them, 27% that their parents did not want to send them, and 32% gave other reasons. In a context where sending children to school means sending them away, almost all of these answers may amount to the same thing - schools are too distant. If the school is within walking distance, children who attend can still spend several hours a day working as part of the family and the family does not have to incur the cost of sending them to lodge.

Villagers defined a feasible distance from school as one that a young child can walk twice a day (coming home for food at midday.) That means a school in each village or each cluster of villages. Is it realistic to think this could happen? It is an issue for children throughout rural Africa, and the Sahel's sparse population and poverty present probably the most difficult contexts in which to attempt to tackle it.

Beyond the question of resources there are difficulties with the education system itself. Interviews with teachers and officials during Save the Children's initial study of the Mopti region gave a consistently inflexible message: the school system exists in a particular form. Children must fit into the system, or they don't go to school. The idea of modifying the system to take account of rural conditions does not arise6. Teachers must be urban trained (from an Ecole Normale, teacher training college). Only schools with a certain quality of building are recognised7. All children must attend for the same number of hours, regardless of distance and their work responsibilities.

For more village children to attend school requires not only tackling resources issues, but negotiating flexibility within the system.

Will children benefit from going to school?

For village parents, sending children to school is a gamble: 'Even if all the children could go to school, it's not certain they would all succeed.' Success means eventually being able to earn a living in some other way. If this happens the family as a whole may be economically more secure. Children who go to school and drop out after a few years, however, may be in a worse position than those who never went. Both in terms of skills and motivation, they may be less prepared to earn a living in the only way now left to them.

'Our education system is ill' said a teacher from a Douentza town school, and his colleagues agreed the education being given today is sub-standard, inferior to the schooling they themselves received. Schools often have dilapidated buildings and few teaching materials, and it is years since most teachers had refresher training. They complained of lack of consistency in government policies and a lack of understanding of the stresses they are under. The first year teacher, for example, teaches nine hours a day, in two sessions of seventy children.

Within existing resource constraints, however, there are still choices. Save the Children staffs own observations went beyond those of the teachers to focus on the children's experience. Teaching is in French, which the children do not understand. They are taught by rote, with no liveliness or active participation. The teachers' style is typically harsh; children are visibly nervous.

The parent quoted above was being over-polite: the majority of school children fail. In Douentza schools, only a quarter of the children who started in year one are still coming to school after four years. The others have dropped out without having reached functional literacy. The biggest drop out is in year one. It does not take children or parents long to decide that staying in school will serve no useful purpose 8.

There is little point trying to get village children into school unless something radical is done to improve what happens in schools. Accepting that almost any improvement would require extra resources, the challenge was to work out the minimum level: that is. the critical changes needed to make school learning sufficiently effective for it to be worth village children attending. The two selected were:

· Language: the teaching for the first few years should be in a language the children understand, preferably the mother tongue, with a gradual introduction to French.

· Child-sensitive learning methods: children should be actively engaged, rather than passively repeating. They should be encouraged, and not fear their teachers.

These are recognised internationally as key factors in effective learning. In the context of Malian rural schools they represent radical changes.

Language, the critical factor

In Mali, as elsewhere, a few innovative educationalists within the state system have been convinced of the benefits of using children's mother tongue for the first introduction to literacy9. But they remain a minority voice.

Several objections are raised. First, that there are hundreds of languages in Mali, and the education system would never have the resources to support teaching in all of them. But a national body called DNAFLA (which supports literacy for adults using mother tongues), together with IPN, the Institut Pedagogic National (which deals with curricula and methodology in schools) have identified a modest number of languages which would make literacy learning in a known language accessible to the majority of Malians. These include the two dominant language groups of Douentza district, the Dogon and the Peulh10.

A second objection is that it is impossible to implement mother tongue teaching in town schools where children of many languages study in the same class. But in villages this problem does not arise as most villages are composed of people who share a language.

The most deeply felt resistance comes from those who feel that French is the only suitable language for schooling. The point of going to school is to get a job, and for this French will be needed. Experimental primary schools outside the state system have been successful in getting children to read in their own languages, but unsuccessful in getting them places in secondary school because they do not know French11.

A pioneering alternative curriculum, the PedagogConvergente, seeks to avoid the problems of both the French-only and the mother-tongue-only systems. For the first years teaching is in the local language. French is introduced slowly as a foreign language. Once children are confidently literate in their own language, the balance changes, bringing pupils to nationally expected levels, in French, by the end of year 6, and thus enabling them to continue to secondary school. The claim is that children can achieve this level because they learn much faster (by understanding what they are learning) and that the wastage of the French-only system is avoided.

The PedagogConvergente has been used in a few schools only. Headteachers in Douentza district had never heard of it, and were resistant. While the state theoretically allows it, it has allocated few resources for implementation. Save the Children concluded for a village school to be set up using the PedagogConvergente, in the current Malian context, there would need to be outside agency involvement.

The Response

Testing a new approach

Save the Children's study of village life and the school system led it conclude:

Village communities want their children to go to school, but this would be realistic only if schools:

· are within a child's walking distance
· are responsive to village conditions, including children's work
· can offer effective teaching, starting in local languages.

The state education system

· lacks resources to provide new village schools
· is inflexible and unresponsive to changes needed to make schooling appropriate for village children
· permits the use of local languages, but this is rarely implemented.

Save the Children decided to act as 'broker' between the two parties. They took as a starting point lessons from Save the Children's international experience of education collaboration both with villages and the state system [see notes at the beginning of the chapter] and also from other NGOs/International NGOs in Mali. Two International NGOs, World Education and Save the Children (USA), have been active in community schools for some years and have significant programmes. Certain features of the approach that Save the Children has taken are markedly different from both of these:

· The Save the Children approach is unique in responding to the specific conditions of remote Sahel communities, where the difficulties of survival and economic vulnerability are most extreme.

· Save the Children's project was planned to combine a close relationship with the community with a potential for scaling up within the state system. It is the first attempt to seek appropriate innovation within the state system for the needs of villagers.

Because Save the Children's approach grew out of an involvement with the people of Douentza that included concerns for health, food security and credit, there is a wider view of how village schools could fit into patterns of village life, and a wider range of strategies for the project's community workers to draw on when helping villagers establish and sustain schools12.

It is worth noting that the experiment is taking place in a context of highly centralised decision making. Whilst there is talk of 'deconcentration', key decisions on policy, budgets, school standards and teacher employment still lie with the central Ministry. In other African countries the move to decentralisation has created a positive 'space' for experimentation that might involve village communities more in questions of schooling. In Mali this is not the case13.

Though the project itself is small, its potential relevance is huge. If it succeeds in bringing effective education to villages that have had no school, and if Save the Children as an international NGO can successfully carry the initiating role while leaving ownership in local hands (villagers and the state), this could open up possibilities for extending village schooling in other parts of rural Africa. This would require extra resourcing, but if the method works, donors may be willing to provide it.

Getting going

With an understanding of the issues and a decision on methodology made, the Douentza village schools project moved fast:

Between January and September 1997 the schools were set up and opened:

· In January Save the Children set up a consultation process with government, donors, NGOs. and village communities around Douentza, and allocated staff roles. To keep the project cost effective, there was only one full-timer, an experienced community 'animateur from the credit programme. No education specialist would be employed; state education professionals would provide inputs on curricula and methodology.

· By March the plan was formulated, the project officer had gone on a month's training on education issues from a Malian NGO14, the participation of state education professionals had been negotiated, permission taken from provincial and local officials. A feasibility study was undertaken and two villages were identified that were keen to take part in the pilot phase, one in each of the main language groups in the Douentza area, Dogon and Fulfulde15.

· In April work began in the villages. School committees were formed and trained, teachers selected. The community agreed financial arrangements they thought they could sustain and principles for allocating school places. The community undertook to build two classrooms the first year, and a new one each year until the school had all six years of a primary school.

· In Douentza and Mopti education officials were sceptical that untrained village teachers could achieve an adequate level or that things would be ready to start in that school year. But the villagers were determined, and Save the Children staff were inspired by their enthusiasm to push the pace.

· By June two classrooms had been built in both villages.

· By September the teachers had received their first six weeks intensive training, and the first curriculum workshop had been held. Led by professionals from the state system, and attended by provincial and local officials, it made history by bringing in ordinary villagers (the teachers-to-be, school committee members and parents) to adapt the curriculum and materials to reflect village children's experience. Against the disbelief of the officials, and to the immense satisfaction of the villagers, the schools opened in October 1997.

By October 1998, both schools were still going strong:

· Extra classes had been built, there had been a second intake of children, more teachers trained, the curriculum further developed, now with the input of children. The schools had received a regular stream of interested visitors, who were impressed with the eagerness and confidence of the children and the pride of the school committees.

· In Douentza district, official attitudes had changed. The schools inspector had visited the schools and agreed to register them.

· A momentum had begun outside the project schools. Thirty new applications for village community schools had been received by district education authorities16.

Save the Children staff themselves have balanced on a tightrope between excitement at what has been unleashed, and nervousness that it might not be sustained: 'It is very exciting and moving to witness the enthusiasm and commitment of the communities to their schools', says a discussion paper - which then goes on to list problem issues17. The following sections consider some of these issues, and whether the results have benefited children.

What kind of village?

It was assumed that the project could work only in a village with a strong desire for a school, and where there was sufficient cohesion to support a project requiring people to work together over a long period. There would need to be an uncontested site for the school, and people willing to build it. They would need people willing and capable of being trained as teachers. Most villages have a handful of adults with primary or even secondary education. To cover the full six years of primary school there would need to be at least six potential teachers, plus other adults willing to take on the responsibilities of a management committee. Finally, the parents would need to be willing to, and economically capable of, making contributions to support the teacher. In both the pilot villages, the community had already made an attempt to establish schools, unsupported by outsiders, and welcomed the chance to be part of the project: 'We have been waiting to get our own school since the first hours of independence.'

Why work in two languages?

In the village of Koubwel Koundia the language is Dogon, in Deb it is Fulfulde18. Working with two language groups doubles the complications of preparing curriculum materials and teacher training. But it has strong advantages:

· It avoids the danger of the project being seen to benefit one group, and offers good economies of scale: materials prepared for two project schools make possible an expansion of the methodology across villages in both groups.

· The project schools offer the first local examples of mother tongue teaching, and depending on the results officials will form opinions of whether this approach works. It is therefore important to be able to compare effectiveness across at least two languages, to show where certain outcomes may be specific to one language.

What does 'community participation' mean?

For the state, 'community participation' in schooling is usually seen as a cost-saving device: villagers provide free labour to build schools, and parents' contributions pay the teachers' salaries. The Douentza project envisages the role of the community in a more fundamental way:

'Schools should belong to the community, then they will last'

'Community involvement is fundamental and the spinal cord upon which the community school experience rests'

'Community management of a school improves access and quality of teaching whilst encouraging a demand for education'

Save the Children staff recognised that while the initiators of the project could set things up in a way that might encourage this, internal village dynamics would determine the future of the school. The outside facilitators would not wish to control those processes, but they would need to understand them.

Box 3: Language, culture and schooling

The Peulh, whose language is Fulfulde, span the Sahel, sharing a language and culture across the artificial borders that European colonisers drew. In the Douentza area they are agro-pastoralists, living in settled villages where they grow crops but also depending on animals. At certain seasons some of the villagers move the animals to new grazing areas 19.

The village of Deb does not have a population large enough to support a school of the kind envisaged in the project. Soon the school will need to draw in children from nearby villages, but will they want to participate in a project they were not involved in from the start, especially since there are caste differences between the villages?

The Dogon are said to be among the oldest people in Mali. They live along a line of rocky hills and access to water is a constant problem, women and girls climb down what looks like a sheer rock face to get water in the stream below, and climb back up again with the weight of a large bucket of water balanced on their heads.

The village of Koubwel Koundia has exceptional cohesion, with a popular chief who is himself school-educated. Villagers have worked enthusiastically on each stage of the project, undeterred by their difficult terrain - the building materials for the school were stones that had to be broken with hand tools. But language is a complex issue. There are at least 70 Dogon languages, many mutually unintelligible. Among them, the Torosso language has been selected by DNAFLA as the one best suited to be a common language among the Dogon, and therefore their first language of literacy.

What processes lead to 'community ownership'?

Ownership rests with those who commit the major effort and resources, and make the decisions. The villagers talk of 'our school', and feel the pride of ownership and control. They have built it, but more significantly, they take responsibility for running it.

The school management committee is elected by the whole village, selects the teacher, decides pupil intake, negotiates with the whole community what payment is to be made and how, and keeps accounts. A woman committee member ensures that girls get equal representation in the school, which may include negotiating with the girls' parents, and also that children with disabilities are included20. There is a member responsible for 'education', monitoring what is taught and how; another for the school environment, another to sort out problems and areas of conflict.

'The management committees are the driving force behind the community approach' said an external review of the project. The Save the Children project officer has provided training in understanding the new roles, and has worked to sort out initial problems. The committees cannot work effectively without a consensus by the whole village:

'Social negotiation with all local actors consists in arriving at an agreement about commitments made, consensus being reached through awareness raising and animation activities: through village general assemblies, small groups, village personalities and opinion leaders'

Which children get school places?

The committee makes practical decisions, but within a framework of collaboration negotiated with Save the Children. Save the Children considers certain things non-negotiable: parents should contribute to paying teachers; girls should receive equal numbers of places as boys; children with disabilities should be included in school. Where these challenge traditional assumptions, an element of persuasion comes into the picture. Save the Children commissioned a group of musicians from Douentza to perform songs to try to encourage consensus on these issues. In villages where little happens to vary the pattern of every day, the arrival of the musical group draws the village together to listen.

People do not of course change their attitudes from hearing a song. A degree of bargaining probably comes into the villagers' acceptance of these 'messages'. But the external review felt that villagers now genuinely supported most of the new ideas:

'A change of behaviour concerning the education of their children is already discernible amongst the villagers. In meetings they say, 'We regret the past."

Haw far should NGO support go?

An external review praised the way the project had set up and supported the committees:

'The approach gives communities much more freedom in the management of their schools, leads communities to have confidence in themselves, encouraging them to commit themselves more strongly.'

But it echoed the requests of the committees for more training, particularly in those aspects which will become more relevant as the schools press to be more centrally included in the state system. They will need to conform to bureaucratic standards in relation to registering the ages of children, school registers, formally agreed school rules, minutes of meetings, etc. All of these require literacy skills, and raise the question of whether committee members (or at least some of them) need to be literate.

Every 'solution' creates its own dilemmas. If committee members must be literate, this limits the villagers' choice, cutting out people who might have better ability at managing the schools as social institutions. While the arguments for adult literacy provision are sound, the costs of the project increase with each extra input. This makes it less easy to see the project as a model for other villages.

The villagers are clear that the schools are 'theirs' but they know they could not have got this far alone, and are anxious to bind Save the Children in an ongoing relationship. Save the Children staff understand that, but try not to take on responsibilities which will undermine village ownership. Their refusal to get drawn in reflects no lack of desire to support villagers; on the contrary, it comes from a strong conviction that they would undermine the long term survival of the schools if they did21.

Box 4: Teachers' salaries when the rains fail

Each village community worked out what it considered feasible for parents to contribute to teachers' pay. The amounts agreed are far less than that paid by government for teachers, but they are rates the villages felt they could sustain and village teachers were willing to accept.

The calculation did not allow for the effects of a particularly bad drought, which struck the villages in the first year of the schools operation. Parents were having to leave the villages in search of wild fruit; how could they possibly pay for teachers? Perhaps just this year Save the Children should contribute to teachers' salaries? This would help in the short term, it would undermine the long term chances of the schools being viable.

At a meeting with Save the Children staff in November 1998, the committee said that tolerance and patience was needed by the teachers until things could be put on a better basis financially. The teachers reaffirmed their dedication:

We teach in order to teach our children, not for the remuneration. Our work is a patriotic commitment, and we cannot turn back.

But they have to support themselves. The way forward? A number of ideas emerged from the meeting:

· The committees persuaded all households, not just parents, to contribute to teachers' costs. This is a step forward for equity, for individual children will not be excluded because their parents cannot pay.

· The committees hope to extend this levy to the neighbouring villages whose children will be attending the school.

Over the longer term one important issue is who should pay the teachers? Save the Children in Mali is clear that it should not be the International NGO, but should villagers have to bear this cost directly when townspeople do not? 22 And what if particular parents cannot afford their contribution - do the children drop out? Does this kind of 'cost sharing' not undermine the central premise of the project, which is to give an equitable chance of education to the poorest? 23 The logical future for the village schools is to become part of the state system, with the state paying the teachers. But is the state willing and able to take this on?

What role has the state system played in the pilot phase?

This is best seen in two parts. Specialists from the national level have:

· provided the curriculum framework
· developed the materials, incorporating inputs from curriculum workshops
· trained the teachers.

Provincial and local officials have:

· participated in events such as curriculum/training workshops
· registered the schools
· agreed to provide regular inspection and monitor standards.

An early task was to find individuals at a senior level in the education system who would be prepared to work with the project. Save the Children has had strong collaboration from the Institut Pedagogic Nationale and the literacy agency, DNAFLA, particularly through the participation of a senior IPN official, Bokary Sory Traorto whom much of the credit for the success of the use of the PedagogConvergente goes. But the decision to work with the PedagogConvergente also launched the project into controversy:

'We were confronted by the reticence that stems from the refusal of certain education officials to acknowledge the PedagogConvergente.'

The project hinged on a small number of educationalists who 'have a kind of monopoly' of how to implement the new approach, and who expected higher rates for running workshops than Save the Children felt appropriate, since it was attempting to limit dependence on outsiders for a process which it was hoped would eventually be seen as the state's. But each side depended on the other, and compromises were reached. A senior official said: I am committed to supporting the processes which the project has initiated, even if there aren't many resources.'

Does the state take 'ownership'?

Because Save the Children has put in the resources and is the catalyst/facilitator of all developments, the project is perceived by the state system as 'Save the Children's'. Save the Children aims, however, for a gradual transference of ownership. Even though state officials have not initiated what is happening, the way is open to them at any point to take a larger role. Invitations are always given to events like workshops, and Save the Children engages officials in ongoing dialogue about the project.

Responses are mixed. While the pilot schools have attracted attention, this may be threatening to education officials rather than encouraging. Though the new curriculum has approval from the national level, provincial education officials and local teachers do not necessarily approve of innovations. At the start of the project there was no real official support in the region for using local languages, and strong resistance to the idea that untrained villagers could become teachers, or that illiterate villagers might have anything to contribute to designing a curriculum. Yet only a year after the start of the project the schools inspector, who had been drawn somewhat reluctantly into visiting the schools and was definitely opposed to the use of local languages, ended up saying: 'Save the Children is on the right track and we are therefore willing to collaborate in a process like this.'

Finally, while officials' own status rises if their district or region can show improvements from new developments in their area, they are understandably nervous that they might be expected to pick up the bill. An education adviser in Douentza praised the progress of the Save the Children schools then added: 'My only anxiety is the question of funding for the training of teachers in a context of poverty. I am not sure that the state would be able to play its role.' This is a fundamental issue affecting the future of the village schooling which is returned to in the concluding section.

Box 5: Changing attitudes of state officials

Committee members and teachers took part in the workshop to prepare the first year's curriculum, on the assumption that this would encourage schooling that takes account of the realities of children's experience.

Officials from IPN and DNAFLA were willing to go along with the experiment, but on the first day of the workshop the Regional Director of Education expressed grave doubts about the basic principles on which the project was based. This took Save the children staff by surprise, for there had been months of earlier negotiations during which they had been assured of the regional administration's support. Now Save the Children staff argued for going ahead - the schools had been built, the villagers were waiting, they had been assured by the educational experts at the national level that the plan was possible. They appealed to the DNAFLA facilitator to confirm this. In some discomfort at being thus challenged, he nevertheless repeated publicly the assurance he had given Save the Children:

'It is definitely possible for us to prepare in a week's workshop what is needed for the first term; after that we can take more time over the rest. For myself, I am confident in the future of these experimental community schools'.

The workshop went ahead; the schools began in September with the first term's curriculum and materials ready. The schools were visited by many people, who found the teachers managing their role competently. Save the Children staff took courage and went one step further on the road to innovation. In the second curriculum workshop in December four children from Douentza's secondary school took part.

Can flexibility be retained?

While there are advantages in state ownership of the project there are also dangers. If the state takes more responsibility, would it be flexible enough to allow community management of schools and villager participation in adapting the curriculum? Will it insist that only qualified teachers can teach -thus cancelling the principle of relying on teachers from the village, and in effect closing the schools?

Do children learn things they need to know?

The point of setting up village schools was to equip children to face difficult life challenges. Are the schools likely to achieve this?

There is general agreement among both adults and children that what the children are learning is useful: numeracy, literacy, the confidence to express themselves. These skills are practised through a series of topics chosen to draw on the children's existing life experience and future needs. Villager participation in the curriculum workshops and village management of the schools have been the mechanisms for adapting what was already in the new curriculum more precisely to the context of these particular children, (for example, by including in the language lessons dialogues in which villagers prepare to move with the change in seasons to find grazing for the animals.) In these ways what the children are offered appears to be an improvement on what they would have got in a state school.

The principles of children's learning which are so clearly demonstrated in village attitudes to children's work are put on one side when children go to school. Once attitudes towards learning and school change there are opportunities for better learning. Parents could be brought into the classroom as resources for certain kinds of local knowledge. Children could be taken out more, to learn from the local environment. There are opportunities to make better links with other learning for life' activities that Save the Children is involved with, such as health and HIV education, credit management of accounts, etc24.

Are the teachers effective?

At the start of the project the Regional Director of Education expressed a concern shared by many others (including senior Save the Children staff):

'I assure you that the teachers of these two villages are not capable of taking on the required knowledge and skills'

The teachers themselves appear to be undaunted: 'Since we started teaching we have encountered no major difficulty. The children are very enthusiastic with what they are busy learning in the school'.

Visitors to the schools (Malian and foreign, from Save the Children, other NGOs and state officials) consistently confirm that the children are eager, confident, and appear to be learning at a rate considered remarkable by Malian standards. It is too soon for rigorous testing, but ad hoc tests showed that after a year children were able to do things - read with understanding and apply calculations beyond simple memorisation25 - which many third year pupils in state schools cannot.

How has it been possible for less well trained teachers to achieve what qualified teachers in state schools do not? The first factor is motivation; the second, the methods they have been trained to use.

What motivates village teachers?

Though village teachers are paid far less that state school teachers, their role is in many ways more satisfying. They gain status among villagers, praise and encouragement from outsiders who visit. They have cash income where before they may have had none, and they exchange work in agriculture for work which recognises their level of education. The training provides them with the stimulus of learning something new. Village teachers are chosen by the community and live side by side with the children and their parents, who will not be reticent in commenting if they think the teachers are neglecting their duties. Together with other villagers the teachers feel a responsibility not only to the children, but to themselves: 'We cannot let ourselves fail as we have been chosen amongst many villages to host this project.'

The state education adviser for Douentza acknowledged the experience of the village schools had reminded him that 'University training is not the only criterion for performance of a teacher. It's also necessary to have high motivation and a love of ones profession.': Effective teaching relies on attitudes every bit as much as it does on skills.

There is a natural tendency for these positive factors to apply most strongly in the early years of the project, when the challenge and novelty are greatest. Teaching has its repetitive sides; going through the curriculum with a group of first year pupils may be less exciting the fourth or fifth time. And there is the issue of pay. The initial aim in a project of this kind must be to pay teachers sufficient to enable them to teach. Once that level is reached, other questions will emerge. The more village teachers are brought into contact with the state teachers, the more it is likely to weigh on them that they are not paid adequately for what they do.

The experience of NGO-supported community school programmes elsewhere suggests that in the overall conditions of poverty and inequality it is virtually impossible to resolve these issues. Probably the most critical factor is the continuing availability of committed and sensitive community workers26. The role of the community worker is commonly understood as redundant once things are set up. While the aim should be to reduce dependence, complete withdrawal of outside facilitators may result in the collapse of what has been built up. When new or difficult issues arise, if a community worker who has an established relationship with the villagers is available to facilitate, a great deal can be done to maintain morale, encourage realism about options, and thereby to ensure the effective functioning of schools.

Language is the critical factor. Children understand what they are learning, therefore they can learn27. This link is obvious to a visiting educationalist, but is still a subject of controversy, and the advocates of local language teaching have a way to go to convince the sceptics. The testing point will come with the transition to French. And for this to be achieved effectively, teachers will need to be trained in new skills.

The PedagogConvergente lays stress not only on the fact that the language is familiar, but also on emotional factors - the need for encouragement, and an absence of fear - and cognitive processes28. The village teachers have taken on board principles about teacher-child relationships and learning methods that contrast strongly with the kind of teaching they experienced as children. Teachers give lessons around a series of dialogues, and they know that if they take the children through all the dialogues, following all the steps, the children will learn to read.

As inexperienced teachers, they tend to carry out the dialogues to the letter, which carries the danger that this will become a system as rigid as the old one. It is, however, effective, and it has the advantage that it renders inexperience less of an issue.

The methods work - but why?

A reason for the teachers' high morale is that they have the reward of seeing children learn. In other words, their training has equipped them with methods that work. What elements of the PedagogConvergente have contributed to this?

The curriculum and teacher training processes have been led by state education professionals. In other words, the state itself has pioneered a methodology capable of turning unqualified villagers into effective teachers. Can the system make the other adaptations needed to back its own innovators, and let them use their competence to extend schools to other villages, and beyond that, to improving teaching for all Malian children?

Box 6: Learning to read through understanding

The steps the teachers are trained to follow for each dialogue, using the PedagogConvergente method:

· show the story through pictures

· say the dialogue several times, with the pictures, while the children listen, try to remember, but don't repeat

· choose children to take roles and act the dialogue

· show them the written dialogue, and read it, letting them repeat

· get them to write it.

In contrast to traditional methods, here the children:

· understand the spoken language, and the context is familiar
· don't just chant in a group, but take individual roles
· become confident with the spoken language before seeing it written
· start by reading whole, meaningful sentences, not with the alphabet
· only write things they already can read.

Imagining, as a tool for learning with understanding:

There is one step that helps children and teachers remember that the important thing is what is going on in the child's mind, not what the teacher can see or hear: the first time children get the chance to take roles, they do so silently, miming the actions. They think the words but don't say them aloud. While they seem to be doing less, their minds are actually more engaged, as they actively imagine the whole scene. When they have done this they get a turn to act with words1.

What has been learnt?

What have we learnt from this experience about an appropriate role for an International NGO in facilitating collaborative state-community provision in rural African contexts?

Testing a methodology

It has been shown that:

· Villagers will make considerable efforts to set up schools in their own villages, are flexible in taking on new ideas, and capable of managing their schools, given adequate support and training.

· Unqualified village teachers can do an effective job, provided they are given appropriate training, a basic salary, and a sense of being valued.

· Children in such schools do learn.

In terms of links with the state system:

· Professionals from the state system have made the main contribution towards the success of the schools in terms of curriculum and methodology.

· Education officials at provincial and local level were reticent about the innovations, but through being involved at all stages have been persuaded that the approach is viable.

· The NGO (in a project managed by local Malian staff) played a critical role in facilitating both the village processes and recognition by the state system. Its commitment to the concept of local ownership (by both villagers and the state) has been a defining factor.

What are the unresolved issues?

· The village: The general level of poverty may make it impossible for villagers to continue paying teachers enough, and it seems unlikely that the state will take on this responsibility without donor funding.

· Linking into the state system: The project will need to run six years before it will be possible to test the long term effectiveness of the PedagogConvergente in bringing village children to the level of French required to go to secondary school.

· The ongoing NGO contribution: Each stage of the developing project will continue to require support (e.g. for teaching training and curriculum development for each new set of teachers and as children move to the next class). This is a necessary commitment to bring one cycle to completion. But there are dilemmas about the degree of continuing involvement. It would be possible to make a significant difference to the quality and relevance of the schooling through input on issues of children's participation, links between school and life, etc, but too much involvement may reinforce dependence on outsiders.

Costs and sustainability

What costs would the state incur if it took more responsibility for supporting community schools?29 There are generic developmental activities, for instance developing local language curricula and materials, which in the pilot phase have been funded by Save the Children these are costly but once done will serve a wide range of schools for years to come, so it is possible to imagine them being absorbed by the state system with short term donor support.

There is the cost of school buildings. The reliance on local materials and labour makes it possible to envisage low-cost expansion. Project staff have tried to negotiate a relaxation of official standards for buildings. This is a critical issue for the expansion of the village school model, since village communities cannot meet official criteria without considerable external funding.30

By keeping the project small enough in the pilot phase to observe the effects of different inputs, it is now possible to be specific about what is critical. Experience shows that facilitating costs should not be skimped (e.g. the salaries of the project staff, essential during the initiating period and in a less intense form for ongoing support to village management committees as they come to terms with their role).

All the costs so far relate to setting up, equipping and managing schools. The key question still is what happens inside them, and maintaining standards in the long run will depend on schools being brought into the framework of state provision.

The key roles for the state system revolve around the actual teaching: teacher qualifications, teacher training, and paying the teachers. The project has shown that while lack of resources is indeed a major issue, inflexibility is at least an equal problem. With tactful handling it is possible to make progress towards more flexible arrangements. The main lesson of the project is that the really essential costs are paying those adults who make the education process happen for children. The state needs to reconsider:

· which adults?
· what roles?
· being paid how much?

If the state insists the only teachers it employs are fully qualified, the costs of increasing access in rural areas will remain prohibitive. Accepting a second tier of village teachers will spread whatever additional funding can be obtained much further. For village teachers even a modest state salary would be an improvement on their present state. offering a security that villagers caught in the trap of poverty cannot guarantee. The salaries of village facilitators (who in turn activate many villagers who work voluntarily) is considerably more cost-effective than paying bureaucratic officials.

The NGO role - where next?

What role does Save the Children envisage it can play in encouraging a wider application of the lessons of the pilot project? The next stages are already being planned:

· In Douentza cercle, Save the Children will seek to put the collaborative arrangement between the state and communities on a more formalised footing, and seek donor funding to expand the project to more villages.

· In Mopti region, Save the Children will build on the reputation which its practical experience has given it to facilitate discussions between the state system, donors, and other NGOs on how to link community schools more closely with the state system.

· Nationally education policy is set to change in Mali. With the support of major donors, the Ministry of Education has developed a new framework for basic education. PRODEC, in which the PedagogConvergente is likely to receive stronger backing. Save the Children is now well-placed to contribute to these developments, particularly on how the new approaches can be made accessible in the Sahel. Plans are being discussed for a workshop bringing together national, regional and district levels of government with NGOs and agencies with experience of community schools, to discuss how lessons from these experiments can be built into the government's national education plan.

· Aross Africa, there is a need to draw together related experiences of NGOs, both local and international, who have attempted to cut through the barriers to schooling for children in remote rural areas.

Editors' Conclusions

· The education system in this rural district combined many of the worst aspects of poor quality education in poor communities: schools that are too distant, irrelevant to rural life, organised in a rigid system unable to adapt to local needs, and teaching in a language the children do not understand.

· Despite teachers' lack of formal qualifications, the community schools have been successful through the exceptional motivation of the whole community, the use of local languages, short training courses equipping teachers with techniques for child-centred teaching, and providing a structure for real community participation.

· There is a tension between the need to involve the state in community schools (to build sustainability and achieve wider impact), and the possibility that further involvement by the centralised state will threaten community management of the schools and villager participation in adapting the curriculum.

· As in other contexts, the issue of teachers' pay is a fundamental threat to the sustainability of the programme. Rigid implementation of cost-sharing by parents would threaten the principle of schools accessible to all, and teachers may not be willing in the long term to accept considerably lower pay than their counterparts in the state system.

· From the outset, the aim was to achieve a wider impact through developing a model programme that could challenge the rigidity and unresponsiveness of the state education system. Through the demonstrable success of the community schools, and through seeking to link with government at different levels throughout the early stages, Save the Children is now well placed to contribute to the development of the government's new national education plan.


1 For school attendance figures see Zoumana Kon1998. 'SCF/UK's experience in education', external consultant case study commissioned by Save the Children.

2 Tod, B, July 1998. 'Out of the frying pan into...: The experience of SCF(UK) Mali with community primary schools', Internal report, Save the Children

3 Kon998

4 Interviews with villagers, Molteno, M, 1996. 'SCF Mali: A possible education programme?' Internal report, Save the Children

5 Issa Sidib1998. 'Des bras valides pour demain? Le travail des enfants au Mali'. Study jointly commissioned by Save the Children UK, US, Sweden and Canada. It included interviews with 600 children and their parents. All citations in this section are from this study.

6 Molteno 1996

7 Kon998, p.19, quoting a report from the Bandiagara Primary Education Inspector, and p.8.

8 These problems are widespread in rural Africa. See other case studies from Africa, and Obura, A, 1994, assessment for a possible education programme in Zanzibar. Internal report, Save the Children

9 For equivalent developments in the neighbouring Sahel state of Burkina Faso, see Boulaye Lallou, 'Burkina Faso: language reform is no simple matter', in 'UNESCO Sources', Sept. 1998

10 Save the Children staff had themselves experienced the effectiveness of mother tongue literacy teaching in adult literacy classes as part of a credit programme.

11 This has been the experience of a major community schools project run by SCF (US) in southern Mali.

12 Source: Bakary Sogoba, who now works for SCF (UK) but previously worked for an NGO closely associated with World Education, and has an overview of NGO activity in general through involvement in the Groupe Pivot Education de Base.

13 See the Ethiopia case study for more on issues of decentralisation.

l4 Boubacar Bocoum, 1997. Report of training of facilitator by Partenaires du Developpement Integre, Mali. Internal report, Save the Children

15 Mamadou Diallo, Bakary Sogoba, 1997. 'Resultat d'etude de milieu et de faisibilite concernant la crion d’les communautaires dans le cercle de Douentza'. Internal report, Save the Children

l6 Tod, B, Oct 1998. 'Education case study: further thoughts on sustainability and wider impact'. Internal report, Save the Children

17 Tod, July 1998

18 Both villages have been designated 'county towns' in the new moves to decentralise the Malian administrative system. They will be well placed to act as centres for surrounding villages.

19 Quotations in this section are all from Kon998

20 A Malian NGO that works on disability issues, ADD, was commissioned to do a survey of the children with disabilities in the villages, as a basis for ensuring that they are included.

21 There is still controversy on how to handle this. The external review recommended a food for work programme for teachers.

22 At a francophone regional meeting in Bamako on community basic education in 1997, this was the main issue raised by participants. See Tod, July 1998

23 See Penrose, P, 1998. Cost sharing in education, Education Research Paper no. 27, Department for International Development; also Felicty Hill, Cost Sharing, paper commissioned for this research project

24 Save the Chilrden's experience of school support activities in the Caribbean offer good examples. See McIvor, C (ed)1999. The earth in ourhands: children and environmental change in the Caribbean, Save the Children

25 Ad hoc tests by Marion Molteno and Bakary Sogoba in November 1998

26 See the India case study. The Indian NGO, SIDH, offers an example with an impressive record of tackling such issues over a ten year period.

27 The situation in the Peulh school is simpler to draw conclusions from than in the Dogon school, because of the many Dogon languages

28 Kon1998

29 See Tod Oct 1998 for a summary analysis of project costs, and implications for expansion.

30 Compare the experience of the international NGO, World Education, which has not challenged official building standards. Donor funding is recruited for the first year to build 3 classrooms in each community (at a cost of approximately £26,000). Thereafter it is up to communities to find their own external funding to continue construction of subsequent classrooms. World Education offers skills and training support to those who succeed in doing so. Predicatably, many do not. (Source, Bakary Sogoba.)