Was the world declaration on Education For All more than a vision? asks Angela Little on the eve of the declaration's review
Next week in Dakar, Senegal, 900 educationists, donors, non-governmental agencies and heads of state will assess progress made towards the international vision of Education For All that emerged from the world declaration in Jomtien, Thailand, in 1990.
Such world declarations can often mobilise international financial resources for national system-level reform. Whether that reform is matched by changes in the organisation of relationships on the ground and in the classroom requires an understanding of local culture by international and national policy-makers and resources and professional support for teachers; twin conditions all too seldom observed.
What is the role for higher education in the realisation of EFA? Traditionally, universities world-wide have conferred very low or no status on questions of primary, non-formal literacy and adult education. Many educators, especially those in developing countries, seek career advancement not through teaching and research on primary or adult education, but on secondary and higher education.
And yet universities, and the higher education community more generally, have much to contribute. By fostering excellent research and teaching on EFA, universities worldwide could attract the extremely able and provide an environment for the development and application of the EFA knowledge base.
Educationists, linguists, cultural anthropologists, economists, health specialists, experts in law, cross-cultural psychologists, sociologists, technologists, architects - all have a contribution to make. EFA may seem like a dream. It could be a reality.
Naturally, money becomes the bottom-line question for those whose job it is to hatch, match and despatch financial resources for education. But finance is a means to realising EFA, not an end in itself. At Jomtien in 1990, I proposed a simple scheme to aid non-educationists to think about EFA, and, more important,
Learning For All. LFA, on the ground, happens when students have reasons to learn, when they and their parents value the content and outcomes of learning, and when teachers and teacher educators are able to build bridges between culturally unfamiliar and culturally familiar knowledge.
As a researcher, one of my most satisfying academic tasks over the decade since Jomtien has been the systematic analysis of a particular case of EFA achievement. At Jomtien, Sri Lanka's success in achieving near-universal access to free primary education was noted. Historically, much of the country's achievement was underpinned by economic revenues generated by the labours of the plantation community, a largely Tamil-speaking community that itself benefited little. Yet even among this community, considerable progress has been made in the achievement of EFA over the past two decades.
The reasons for this progress among this historically disadvantaged community are several. They include a takeover of the estate schools from private management by the state; an influx of teachers of plantation origin; the availability of foreign aid; the gradual resolution of the citizenship issue of stateless Tamils, a growing demand for education by plantation worker parents, and a unique combination of political and ethnic forces.
The influence of Jomtien and EFA on progress in the plantation schools in Sri Lanka is evident, if only slight. Jomtien and EFA provided an enabling framework for foreign funding agencies and the ministry of education. Without the finance, the ministry would have been unable to support an extensive programme of development. Without Jomtien and EFA, foreign funding agencies may have been unable to convince domestic constituencies to support the ministry of a foreign country over a long period of time.
In Sri Lanka, sustained educational progress has depended on a complex interplay of forces for change - economic, political, social and cultural - originating at the local, national, regional and global level. Jomtien has contributed in a modest way to progress. At the same time, it would be an error to overplay its influence. A world declaration may be a necessary tool in the struggle for human progress and in the
mobilisation of international finance. But it is certainly not sufficient in determining what happens nationally and locally on the ground.
Angela Little is head of the Education and International Development Group, a professor at the Institute of Education, University of London,
and author of Labouring to Learn: Towards a Political Economy of Plantations, People and Education
in Sri Lanka (1999).
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