• By Kevin Mount
  • Posted on Thursday 28th February, 2008

Does community action hold the final ten per cent solution?

During 2007 the UN spoke pessimistically about the likelihood that the nations would succeed in honoring the Millennium Development Goal pledge to allow every child access to education by 2015.Prospects in 2008 are not much brighter. There has been some progress – for example, around 90% of children in the world now attend some form of school and that’s a much healthier figure than a decade ago – but current trends suggest that achieving the last 10% will be difficult indeed.Such concern will inevitably be translated into ever greater efforts by international and national bodies to impose political solutions, but the evidence weighs heavily against them. Research shows that solutions are more likely to be found among local communities and schools than among the administrations in New York, Delhi or other capital cities.The work of Pratham, a non-profit organization based in India, exemplifies the value of the community-driven approach. Its primary goal is for every child in the sub continent to be in school and learning, and the method rests on an ambitious approach that brings citizens and governments into close partnership.Pratham touches the lives of over 150,000 children with its projects in urban areas of Gujarat, Maharashtra and North India. It is also a worldwide movement with initiatives in the US, UK, Canada, the Middle East, British Columbia and Germany. On of the Pratham’s proponents is Rukmini Banerji who leads activities in Delhi and is also part of the North India group coordinating programs in Patna, Allahabad, Lucknow and Jaipur. Initially trained as an economist, she was a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University between 1981 and 1983 and later studied at the Population Research Center of the University of Chicago examining issues concerning education, fertility and labor markets in South East Asia. She now spends most of her time designing, implementing and assessing the progress of Pratham’s urban initiatives.At the core of her work is a conviction that measurement of school drop-out rates in the developing world is notoriously unreliable and that local people are much better placed to find solutions than international or national policy makers. Among likely reasons for the measurement errors is the high proportion of children required to repeat their school year. When this happens, Rukmini Banerji says, they are often counted as drop-outs from the class they would otherwise have attended. Another reason is the frequent movement between schools, and schools systems. Many Indian children move from the public to private sector and between schools in a sector. Within India there is also considerable migration. All of these transitions distort the figures.In considering the response to the problem and dismissing the value of government interventions, Banerji argues that school curriculum content is likely to be more vibrant if it is owned by the teachers and adapted to suit students’ needs. Too many curricular requirements are imposed on schools by government and, where drop-out rates are concerned, top-down strategies are counter-productive.Banerji is also critical of efforts to keep children in school when what really matters is what they learn. Good local teachers understand this and they should be supported, she says.At the same time, she notes, teachers ought to be held accountable for children's progress in literacy and numeracy. Inviting parents and other community members to assess teacher competence makes for better schooling, which increases participation. As things stand, she argues, too many teachers in the developing world are promoted on the basis of seniority rather than on the strength of their contribution to student learning and achievement.As well as giving more autonomy to schools, teachers and the communities, Banerji encourages them to abandon national policies that hinder local innovation. For example, she claims insufficient support is given to schools in low-income communities to fill vacant teacher posts. In the developing world, governments often control recruitment, but the evidence suggests that teachers drawn from the communities where students live and selected by the principal for whom they will work, form the best relationships with student and make the biggest impact on their learning.Reference Rukmini Banerji, Why don't children complete primary school? A case study of a low income neighbourhood in Delhi, Economic and Political Weekly, August 9th, 1997.[See also: Can Information Campaigns Spark Local Participation and Improve Outcomes? A Study of Primary Education in Uttar Pradesh, India]

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