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close this bookTowards Responsive Schools Supporting Better Schooling for Disadvantaged Children - Education Research Paper No. 38 (DFID, 2000, 270 p.)
View the document(introduction...)
View the document'As different as ground and sky'* - Involving children and communities - A case study from Ethiopia
View the documentListen to those who use the schools - Civil society and education policy - A case study from Peru


The problems:

· Under-resourcing, and the problems for school providers
· The quality of human interaction
· A culture of non-responsiveness

The approach:

· Strengthening the voice of school users
· The Ethiopia study:
· The challenge of how to support service delivery
· Does responsiveness make a difference to quality?
· The Peru study:

A stronger role for civil society


· Children's participation vs. adult attitudes
· Making decentralisation work

· The language of school - a key to participation + quality

In Section I we identified that one of the fundamental causes of poor quality schooling is that in many societies there is no organic link between school systems and the society they serve. The case studies in this section describe attempts to improve schools by re-establishing this connection between the providers of schools and the users.


The two studies are set in very different political and institutional settings, one in Africa and one in Latin America, yet there are underlying similarities to the problems they attempt to address. Both cases describe situations where it is widely acknowledged that state schools fail to deliver an effective education to many children, and particularly for children of the poor. Under-resourcing is a major reason, but the assumption behind both these studies is that there are other factors about how schools are set up and run which stop them being effective, and that to bring about long term improvements it will be necessary also to tackle these.

Under-resourcing, and the problems for school providers

Ethiopia, one of the poorest countries in the world, serves as an extreme example of how poverty and under-resourcing limit school opportunity. An estimated 65% of the population live below the poverty level, unable to afford an adequate diet or obtain basic necessities. Rates of access to health, education, welfare services and water are extremely low. Government school provision currently serves fewer than 20% of children of school age, with large disparities between rural and urban areas. (The equivalent figures for access to health services are a national average 45%, while in rural areas this often falls as low as 2%.) But even where schools exist they are often under-utilised, reflecting their poor quality and irrelevance to the lives of people facing serious survival problems.

The Somali-speaking Region, where the Ethiopia study is set, is one of the poorest and most under-developed in the country. When political change led to decentralisation in linguistic-based regions, the newly-set up Education Bureau in this region started from an extremely limited base of resources, both human and financial. It also faced unusually difficult obstacles for any service provider: an area of low population density, where many people have to move periodically in search of grazing, plus a large refugee population being resettled. While the switch to Somali as the medium in schools was welcome, in a population with few school-educated people it was impossible to find a supply of trained teachers able to teach in Somali, or people with the experience to prepare a new curriculum and text books.

The quality of human interaction

While not all of these problems are caused by under-resourcing, all are made much more difficult to solve when resources are limited. But in similar contexts elsewhere donor-supported reforms that have concentrated on resource inputs have failed to turn poor quality school systems into more effective ones.

The Peru case study takes the analysis of problems one step further. A group of education professionals who form the NGO featured in this case study, Foro Educativo, have criticised the national processes of education reform, led by the World Bank, on the grounds that there is too little involvement of school users in defining problems. Foro Educativo, with Save the Children's support, attempted to define what criteria one would use to judge quality from the point of view of what children experience. Schools are social institutions, and whatever the level of resourcing, the quality of the school experience for children is primarily determined by the human interactions. In this teachers have the definitive role, and Foro Educativo consider that the national reforms do not pay sufficient attention to the critical question of teaching quality. This is a situation paralleled in many other donor-supported education reforms. Though they may include elements of teacher training this is usually not a major component, and the issue of teachers' pay is usually specifically excluded - yet only with adequate rates of pay can one expect to keep trained people working in schools.

To upgrade existing schools in these contexts to an acceptable level of quality (let alone extend such provision to all children) would require a massive increase in resources, and this cannot be achieved in any sustainable way without changes in international economic relations. Meanwhile many school systems will continue to be under-resourced, and generations of children will receive a sub-standard experience of schooling. Are there other points at which some of the problems for children can be tackled?

A culture of unresponsiveness

Section I made the case that many problems of poor quality schooling are not essentially resource-related. [See What is wrong with schools?] This is true particularly in the critical area of human interaction. Most poor quality school systems are over-bureaucratic, run by officials with little contact with the actual problems faced at school level, and dominated by rigid assumptions. Curricula are fixed from above and cannot be locally adapted by teachers to the reality children face. Relationships of teachers to children do not provide the kind of atmosphere in which children can learn and flourish. A narrow conception of progression through school prioritises examinations. Lack of experience by teachers of other approaches leads them to fall back on rote-learning of often irrelevant 'facts'. Parents have no role in determining what happens in school. Little about the way school is run encourages children to develop the ability to think for themselves. While it would take a considerable effort and some short term resources to bring about change in each of these areas, once change is set in motion it is not more expensive to run a flexible and responsive school system than a rigid and inappropriate one.

These negative features can be summarised as a culture of unresponsiveness: an assumption that schools are to be set up by centralised decision making processes, with no requirement to involve the people who use schools. But this is only one side of the problem. Rigid and inappropriate systems could not continue unless teachers, parents and children accepted that they have no role in deciding what happens in schools. The culture of unresponsiveness has been in place for so long that school users are disempowered.


The premiss of both case studies is that it is possible to move to a more responsive relationship between school providers and users, and that if this can be done it will result in better schools, even within the parameters of lack of resources.

Strengthening the voice of school users Section II gave examples of how energy could be generated in poor communities to build and run their own schools. These studies describe programmes that seek to release similar energy in communities that do have schools, but poorly functioning ones. At the same time they seek to encourage school providers to be open to listening to these contributions, and to act on them. The two cases approach the task from opposite starting points, but both with the intention to strengthen the voice of school users (children, teachers, parents) in decisions about what happens in schools.

The Ethiopia study

Here Save the Children's primary relationship is with government education providers. Its efforts have been directed at encouraging officials to listen to what parents, teachers and children could tell them about the problems in schools, and to plan how to use their limited resources accordingly. Additional resources brought in by Save the Children were allocated within the plans produced in this way, and the key inputs enabled officials and teachers to acquire the skills and orientation to be able to continue running a more responsive school system.

· The challenge of how to support service delivery

This approach was in fact a considerable departure for Save the Children's own staff, who were experimenting with this approach learnt alongside their partners. Most local staff were new to work on education issues, and their formative experience of development work was either within the framework of relief operations in a refugee camp. Expatriates were more used to Save the Children's style of support to government service delivery (in health, food security, etc) where a standard mechanism was to attach technical advisers to ministries, with the aim of supporting better planning and policy development. In certain cases this approach has demonstrably brought about change more wide-reaching than one could hope to achieve through discrete community-based initiatives. But the fragility of governments' capacity to deliver effective services has become more evident in many countries in sub-Saharan Africa, and has led staff in Save the Children to question the value of centrally placed technical support.

The Ethiopia programme was one of the first to demonstrate the potential for an external agency to play a catalytic role in building linkages between the two sides of the "systems and users" spectrum. Middle managers in Save the Children recognised the need to build their own staff capacity to work with communities, not just as receivers of services but as a primary participants in the planning. Training was given at various points in Participatory Rural Appraisal methods, Child-to-Child approaches, how to tackle disability issues, and the importance of listening to children. Regional Education Bureau participated in each type of training, so the partnership between government and international NGO took on new skills simultaneously, and together experimented with putting them into practice.

· Does responsiveness make a difference to quality?

The qualitative changes that one would hope to see as a result of a more responsive type of school system are difficult to measure. The Ethiopia study made a concerted effort to do this, through a participatory review of how parents, children and teachers perceived the changes in schools since the start of the programme. They looked not only for specific outcomes from specific inputs (e.g. was there a perceptible improvement in teacher-pupil relations after the teachers had been on training courses?) but also on the more long term question, whether there were indications of a change in the general culture of responsiveness. When people identified problems, did they attempt to do anything about them?

The review shows clear benefits of this 'linking' approach. The Regional Education Bureau has understood through practice the advantages of consulting communities, and while schools continue to suffer from all the problems of resource constraints (human and financial), they are nevertheless able to give children a more effective start towards a basic education.

The Peru study

In the Peru case the primary relationship is with school users. Here Save the Children has supported a local grouping of education professionals to initiate a series of activities that aim to equip teachers, children and parents to be a stronger voice on what goes on in schools. One way of doing this is to give them regular access to information about national debates on education reform, so that they have a context into which to voice opinions. The other main set of activities aims at building their experience of articulating their views, and finding ways to get them heard publicly.

· A stronger role for civil society

This study demonstrates the role a local NGO can play in building connections between civil society and the government. There has been a growing recognition internationally of the vital role of 'civil society', but the term is vague and there is not much clarity about strategies. Within each social or political context, different possibilities open up or are closed. The task is to develop mechanisms that are politically feasible within that context; and the aim is to enable a variety of groups in society to act as a force to monitor the impact of national policies, to pressure government to be more transparent, and to open up national debate on education. This study builds on the strong Latin American tradition of social participation and organisation. It provides an example of a process through which many individuals who are not currently organised can be equipped to collectively press for education policy and practice that is more responsive to children's real needs. A pioneering series of national and regional consultations empowered groups such as parents to see that they had a valid contribution to make to the education debate, and similarly put government officials in a position where they recognised the value of listening to practitioners and users of schools.


Children's participation vs. adult attitudes

Both studies the issue of children's participation emerged out of a more general set of processes to encourage participation by adults with an interest in what happened in schools. In neither case was this a simple progression. In the Peru case, while the NGO initiators were conscious (at a conceptual level) of the importance of seeing what happened in schools from the perspective of what children experience, it was the process of participation itself that led them to realise they needed to place more emphasis on promoting children's participation, and to challenge prevailing paternalistic social attitudes to children. In the Ethiopia case the programme worked within a culture in which 'consulting the community' meant 'consulting the adult males'. Specific attempts had to be made to set up situations where women and children were involved in the discussions. These situations are typical of what would be encountered in many societies. The cases are interesting in highlighting the limits on children's participation, and also the possibilities that exist for challenging those limitations.

The language of school - a key to participation and quality

The Ethiopian case also highlights the issue of the language used in schools, which has direct relevance both for more participatory approaches, and for improving the quality of the experience of schooling for children. Participation is overwhelmingly oral; for parents and children, and also for most teachers, to have a serious input into discussions about what goes on in schools, they need to be free to do this in the language in which they are most articulate. But the aura associated with the official state language, which is usually the language of school, excludes such participation. The move to providing the first years of schooling in the language of the community opens up new possibilities of a real link between schools and society.

A change in language policy, and backing that up with practical support, is also a key to access and quality. With some notable exceptions most governments in Africa have only recently made provision for local language use in the first years of schooling, and in many other contexts there is still no recognition of the issue. In Ethiopia it was the move to regionalisation that brought with it a change in language policy. Amharic was historically the only permitted language of instruction in primary schools, which meant that all non-Amharic speaking children were having to learn in a foreign language. Now it is up to the region to decide the language of the first stages of schooling, and in most regions this is the language of the majority group of that region. In Region 5 the great majority of children are Somali speaking, were previously seen as a 'minority' and had to learn through a language they did not understand. They are now the majority group in their region and are able to learn in their own language.

But there are many practical challenges in making a reality of such a change in policy. New skills are required to develop a curriculum and materials in the new language, and to train a new intake of teachers who can teach in the new language. There are also knock-on effects for other groups of children: what can be done to give an equally positive start to children from language groups other than the majority one of the region?

Making decentralisation work

The Ethiopian study also illuminates questions about education provision within the context of decentralisation. In theory, decentralisation allows education provision to be more responsive to local needs. In practice there are many obstacles. There is typically a lack of clarity about the responsibilities of the centre and local levels, and lack of skills and capacity at local levels to carry out their new roles. The resource problems remain, and are in fact more extreme in remote districts which have little capacity to raise revenues but are expected to carry out a much increased range of functions. Even given the best circumstances, a fundamental change of philosophy about service delivery would be required to bring about the hoped for advantages. Local level officials may be nearer the ground but they lack the experience and usually also the orientation to work effectively with communities. Without support to communities to encourage their active participation, 'decentralisation' will remain an affair of bureaucrats. And without specific support to officials to make the required transitions, and the chance to experience participation in action, the potential that decentralisation offers to involve local communities is unlikely to be realised.