A major goal of the Foundation is to improve the quality of basic education by a programme of grants to governments and NGOs. Four objectives set the wider agenda: ensuring better early caring and learning environments for young children; increasing access to education; keeping children in school longer; and raising levels of academic achievement. In common with other donor agencies, the Foundation intends that girls, the very poor, and geographically remote populations should receive special attention. Of the many factors that influence the quality of basic education, four in particular are the focus of current grants:
AKF's education portfolio is distinctive in one other respect. It interprets 'basic education' as the continuation of learning which stretches from birth to adolescence. Thus roughly half the education projects it supports and half the financial investment is concentrated on stimulating the development of the young child. In developing countries, the Young Children and the Family portfolio is experimenting in both rural and urban settings with various community-based approaches that enhance early childcare and education opportunities, while work in Europe and the USA focuses on newly immigrant or economically marginalised families. A common concern across most of these projects is the quality of experience received as a child moves from home to early childhood development settings to primary school.
Research in western countries indicates that successful educational change is achieved by treating the individual school as a unit and ensuring that the school principal is a key player who mentors teachers repeatedly as they deploy new skills in their classrooms. Foundation projects are testing how far this formula holds true in contexts where many teachers have no more than primary-level education themselves and where the extreme shortage of funds dictates that materials and training have to be concentrated in Resource Centres to which individual schools and teachers have access.
The increasing inability of governments to fund even the primary cycle of schooling from tax revenue is producing an ad hoc set of 'cost-sharing' arrangements. The Foundation is attempting to turn this unsatisfactory situation to advantage by experimenting with mechanisms, such as mini-endowments, which allow parents and communities a wider role in managing and co-financing their children's education within specific cultural, social and economic contexts. The rapid growth of the private education sector in Africa and Asia, as well as in the former Soviet Union and western countries, calls for projects which reassess and redefine the respective roles and responsibilities of government and other stakeholders.
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