|The Courier N° 148 - Nov - Dec 1994 - Dossier: Education - Country Reports: Saint Lucia - St Vincent and The Grenadines (EC Courier, 1994, 104 p.)|
The point of view of parents by Christian Platteau
The tasks of the school include social integration: school provides the skills which the society from which it springs needs if it is to function smoothly. This is the very definition of external efficiency. Society and school must therefore work together to avoid any failure of understanding or dissatisfaction. Ideally, society must state what it needs and the school must, among other things, educate to meet this demand.
The educational reform carried out in Rwanda prior to the current crisis provides an illustration for our comments (UNESCO, African Development Bank, 1991). Rwandan society is largely agricultural. The effort to promote school attendance in the 1960s led to the award of a large number of primary education diplomas, whereas there was very little capacity for secondary education. Reform was therefore necessary to adapt the aims of primary school to fit the conditions of Rwandan society. The objective of the reform was to reintegrate primary school-leavers into rural environments and it was implemented by introducing practical agricultural and craft work, extending school attendance from six to eight years and introducing Kinyrwanda as the language of education. These changes were clearly designed to reconcile the needs of society and the education dispensed at school. However, the reform did not meet with enthusiasm from the Rwandan people and had to be modified, mainly on account of the way parents viewed school. For them, its purpose was to equip children to escape the peasant condition. School should not therefore teach the 'skills of the soil'. A different approach to reform, especially one which took account of the way people regarded school, would have been more effective. With a different scenario (for example, four years plus four years) and some thought as to the correlation between the objectives of education and the image people had of school as an institution, failure would possibly have been avoided.
Part of the reason why schooling malfunctions is the image which those concerned have of school. The way it is seen by ordinary people and parents influences the way it functions at several levels: the enrolment rate, the drop-out rate and the percentage of pupils who have to repeat school years.
Parents' idea of school influences their attitudes as regards sending and keeping their children there. Traditionally, school is seen as a means of climbing the social ladder, an opportunity of securing an economic and social position which is more highly thought of and different from that of the child's parents. Disappointed hopes lead to one of two ways of thinking: either the school serves no purpose at all, or it is useful for something else. The first attitude leads to disinvestment, the second calls for work to clarify and harmonise the perceptions of the parties involved.
To carry through action in an educational institution, it is important to know what parents' image of the school is and what their expectations are (Lourie 1992). Once this is known, more effective direction can be given to the educational system: if parents entertain expectations which the school meets, there will be no great disappointment; the school must take care to retain this confidence and credibility. If, on the other hand, parents' expectations do not coincide with the objectives of the school, a change in the perceptions of parents and the population at large or a mutual adjustment of perceptions becomes necessary. Work must be undertaken in the field of communication and adaptation.
A survey which we have been conducting in Sahelian Africa for the past 12 months seeks to identify these expectations. The main question of concern to us is the way in which society, and more particularly parents, assess the usefulness and functioning of the school, whether parents consider or no longer consider it to be worthwhile, whether or not society is prepared to contribute its energy to the institution and, lastly, whether it has expectations or criticisms with regard to the school.
These questions presuppose that we investigate the various agents involved in the education system. Our choice has focused on one type of agent: the women of Senegal,Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso.
The methodology used for this survey is based on structured interviews (directed conversation) allowing information to be obtained in a standardised format. All the interviewees reply to identical questions and receive the same explanations and the interviews take place under conditions which are as similar as possible. This produces a kind of oral questionnaire.
The preliminary results
From an analysis of the first interviews, principally involving women from Mali, three characteristic points emerge:
- there was a distinct homogeneity in the responses given. Few questions generated features peculiar to any specific category, whether in terms of age, occupation, number of children, level of education or ethnic origin.
- there was an excellent knowledge, in general, of the education system of the country, which made for lively discussion during the interviews. Replies to questions were very often relevant and highly practical.
- the image of school, of what it is and what it should be, which emerged is sometimes a long way from our view of it, and especially from that of the international organisations which are the main lenders.
Although the 'physical' image which the women interviewed had of state schools is that of schools in poor condition which urgently need renovating, excessive importance should not be given to school infrastructures. Indeed, it emerges from the interviews that although a minimum does have to be achieved, it is not necessary to focus too heavily on the buildings and classrooms to increase the school enrolment ratio. The demand is not at that level: as far as they were concerned, all that is needed is classrooms which can be closed, have doors and windows and are built in materials suited to the climate of the region. We would also stress that a large majority sees no use in classrooms except in the rainy season: the climate means that it is possible to meet outside and there would consequently be no point in investing too much in buildings.
The shortage of benches and chairs in classrooms is not a vital issue either, in the opinion of the sample. Either all the children sit on the ground and the teacher gives his lessons in this way or, if absolutely essential, the children organise themselves to take turns sitting on a bench.
Classroom conditions for pupils (overcrowded classrooms, double usage, subdividing) although not ideal, do not seem to be of too much importance either. Whereas some thought that a class should not contain more than 100 pupils, there were others who thought that the ideal class would consist of between 50 and 60 children, and yet others who said there should not be more than 40. But the vast majority were convinced that the teacher is trained to cope with this kind of situation and that should not give rise to any major problems, either for pupils or for teachers.
The cost of schooling for parents (school canteens, enrolment fees, the costs of education during the year) is the aspect which crops up continuously during the interviews. Parents in Mali, for example, have to pay CFA 2000 to enrol a child. This amount is an obstacle for a great many families. To illustrate this, a woman who sells her produce at the market may earn only CFA 20 or CFA 30 for an entire day's work. In addition to the enrolment fee, children need basic school supplies, which come to between CFA 5000 and CFA 8000, per child. Given the size of the average family, the costs mentioned need to be multiplied by anything between six and ten.
To be able to have their children educated, the view expressed by the majority of women was as follows:
'Improve living conditions for parents and we will be able to send our children to school'. Parents nevertheless believe that school is well placed to improve living standards for their children.
The interview replies suggest that the women want to devote their energies to an educational project, whether in the form of an existing parents' association or of a parents' association to be set up at a basic school. The idea of basic schools to be set up in various districts and initiated by the women is one which the women taking part in the survey find attractive.
Access to primary education for girls is still too often at the whim of the father, who seems to be the sole decision-maker at this level. It is also surprising to hear women maintain that boys have more chance of doing well at school than girls.
In conclusion, the skills of the pupils are essentially defined as being scholastic: reading, writing and arithmetic. However, 32% of this sample is totally unaware of what primary school-leavers might know. The contribution which a certificate of primary education makes to the professional lives of the children will be essentially a pecuniary one and should enable them to find employment. It should be noted that 23% consider that on concluding primary school education, the children will have gained nothing more than children who have not been to school. It must be stressed that in tourist areas large numbers of children who have not been to school manage to earn CFA 10 000 a day by selling trinkets to tourists or acting as guides.
It is still too soon to draw any general conclusions: the results from only one country out of four, and from 40% of the women, have been analysed. Nevertheless, if the current trend were to be confirmed, it would suggest some interesting challenges and should encourage all the parties involved, both national and international, to give thought to their choices as regards the action to be taken to increase the enrolment rate in primary schools.