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The Aga Khan Foundation's Education Programmes

By Harriet Gordon-Brown

Harriet Gordon-Brown is a Programme Officer at Aga Khan Foundation (UK), and made this presentation at the ISP alumni/student gathering in London in November 1999.

Many of you may already be familiar with some of the Aga Khan Foundation's education programmes and are probably aware of the two strategic arms that guide AKF's education work, namely early childhood education and school improvement. Rather than talking specifically about these areas of focus or giving a presentation on one project, I thought it would be useful to highlight some of the issues that are currently being grappled with in AKF's education work.

There are four issues that I will talk about:

  1. Community Participation
  2. Innovative Financing Mechanisms
  3. Quality
  4. Increasing emphasis on influencing sector-wide programmes, government systems and policy


1. Community Participation
A key principle of all of AKF's programmes is the need for community participation, in order to ensure local ownership, future sustainability of projects and to ensure that a project is addressing problems that communities have identified, in a way that they feel is appropriate. The following are some examples of where there is strong community participation.

There are two examples from our early childhood education work. Firstly:

The Madrasa Programmes in East Africa
This programme has established approximately 150 community run pre-schools in Kampala, Mombasa and Zanzibar. Members of the local community are trained as teachers, each pre-school is managed by the local community and much of the cost of running the schools is paid for by the community.

Bodh Shiksha Samiti
Another example is Bodh, one of the partners in PESLE, a programme you will hear more about later. It is a local NGO, also working in early childhood education, but in the slums of Jaipur, in India. Bodh has established a number of community-run pre-schools in the area and the local children, who previously were not attending school at all, are now attending regularly. The schools have been formed as integral parts of the communities. As well as providing quality early childhood education, the curricula and teaching methods have been adapted to the local surroundings.

A third example is some work being carried out by Aga Khan Education Service in Northern Pakistan. AKES has been asked by the British Government to become involved in a huge World Bank education programme in the Northern Areas which is establishing hundreds of new schools. The principle is that the schools being established are community-run and owned. However, neither the World Bank nor DFID had the necessary expertise or experience of actually working directly with communities - to building the capacity of the management committees and to try and ensure ownership of the schools by the local community. AKES has been asked to provide this role, as it does have the experience.

In all these cases the principles are similar. However, it is not always easy to get community participation, especially when moving into new areas. People often have reservations about external ideas or solutions, and if the new activity challenges any traditional practices or requires some changes in attitude, then time is required for communities to give their support.

For example, in the Madrasa programme in East Africa, the idea for the programme came from the need for early childhood education for Muslim children, as they were missing out on places in primary schools, as other children were going to pre-schools. There were existing traditional Koranic schools - the Madrasas - and it was decided to use these forum, but to bring in a wider curriculum and more child-friendly, teaching methods.

However, there was resistance at first, as it meant changing behaviour away from the past tradition of Koranic schools. Gradually through discussions with local communities, the first schools started to open. This lead to other communities becoming interested once they saw how the Madrasa's were operating. Now the communities are very actively involved and have ownership of the schools.

Similar issues and challenges have been faced by Bodh in India and are being faced by AKES in Northern Pakistan. Ongoing dialogue with the communities, patience and moving at a pace that brings the community along with the programme are all essential factors in ensuring that real community participation occurs.

2. Innovative Financing Mechanisms
The second issue that I am going to talk about is the need for innovative financing mechanisms.

At present in Europe there is ongoing discussion about how to reform the welfare state, in light of the fact that few countries can afford to maintain the systems that they have been running for the past 40 years. There is a lot of talk about private-public sector partnership in terms of finding solutions to problems and service delivery. This discussion is not limited to a developed country context. Similar issues are being grappled with in most developing countries. However, the starting point is different, as rarely do all communities receive basic health or education services. The provision of such services has traditionally been seen to fall to the state. However in many developing countries communities have become tired of waiting for government to reach them and in cases where services are provided, often the quality is very poor.

In recent years that has been a surge in the number of community run schools that have been established, whether in Northern Pakistan, Gujurat or East Africa. For example, in Kampala (Uganda), whilst there are approximately 80 government primary schools, over 300 private, or community-run, primary schools have been established. It is amazing to see how much very poor communities are willing to contribute towards quality education (as well as health care). In light of this development, there is an ongoing search for innovative mechanisms for financing such schools.

In AKF's education portfolio, examples of where these issues are being grappled with are: the Madrassah programme in East Africa, where small endowments are being tested out as a way of financing the community pre-schools. AKES in Northern Pakistan is also testing out possible mechanisms in its work with community schools in the region.

In both of these cases the initiatives are still in the experimental phase and there are many issues still to be resolved, such as:

This issue links closely with the next point - quality.

3. Quality
There has been a lot of attention in the past few years on achieving universal primary education. However it is not enough to increase enrolment of children in school. The quality of education is critical. Sadly in many schools the quality of teaching and learning is very poor, resources are desperately limited, the curriculum is inappropriate curriculum and the schools are poorly management. This not only lets down the children who are being educated and their parents who are struggling desperately to pay for this eduction. It also leads to high drop-out levels, with some parents not even sending their children to school as they don't think it is worth it.

AKF's school improvement programmes in East Africa have looked at different aspects of improving the quality of teaching and learning. These include:

  1. Teacher training (in school and with a focus on appropriate teaching methods - move away from Chalk and Talk to more child-centred/friendly lessons).
  2. Developing appropriate curricula
  3. Using local materials in an innovative manner (especially at primary levels)
  4. Management - head teacher training
  5. As well as work with communities and parent teacher associations, etc

Secondly, AKU's Institute for Educational Development in Karachi, Pakistan focuses on professional development of teachers. It runs a Masters course in Education - graduates of which are Professional Development teachers, as well as shorter courses for Visiting Teachers. In addition, management courses for headteachers are run and training for management personnel in Government system is provided. Overall the aim is to develop a critical mass of teachers firstly within certain schools and in the longer term within the wider education system.

In addition to these programmes, extensive research is undertaken into education issues - with the aim of developing knowledge about various issues that affect quality of education, but that are appropriate to the developing country context.

There is a close linkage between these three issues that I have discussed. How can quality education be ensured in community-run schools (as well as in the government system)? What role can communities play in financing education and how can they ensure quality in the schools that they are managing? These are massive issues and AKF isn't the only organisation grappling with them.

Which leads onto my forth and final topic. AKF is moving away from just supporting small-scale projects that test out lessons in a small number of schools. This is partially due to the maturity of its programmes - many of the initiatives that started at a small scale, have been successful and are now ready to scale-up and disseminate their learning.

It is also due to a shift in opinion that is taking place in development circles about the value of small-scale projects and the increasing emphasis being placed on sector-wide programmes and influencing policy government policy.

4. Increasing emphasis on influencing sector-wide programmes, government systems and policy
For example, the Government of India is working towards Universal Primary Education. However it is also trying to improve the quality of education and has been running the District Primary Education Programme at a National Level since 1994 to improve the quality of teaching and learning, increase retention rates and expand access to disadvantaged groups. Despite the progress made so far, there remain serious disparities in education across states, rural and urban areas and for disadvantaged groups. Learning levels achieved by children, who continue with the system are very low and dropout remains high.

Lessons can be learnt by analysing the vast range of innovative approaches generated by the NGO sector to improve the quality of school-level learning. In light of this there is a growing realisation of the need for government and the non-government sector to work together. However in practice, severe limitations are being faced in making this possible. While the larger governmental system finds it difficult to effectively meet the needs of all socio-economic groups, NGOs find it difficult to apply their innovations at scale. There is an urgent need to find effective ways of adapting successful small-scale models to a larger system, so that the impact of innovative approaches can be reflected in the wider system. The Programme for Enrichment of School Level Education in India (PESLE) aims to contribute to this challenge.

PESLE is a recently started programme in India, which builds on AKF's experience of school improvement in India over the past 15 years. The programme has four core partners, all of whom AKF has worked with for several years, they include AKES, Bodh Shiksha Samiti, Centre for Education Management and Development (CEMD) and Narsee Monjee Institute for Management Studies (NMIMS). All of them are attempting to establish strong partnerships between schools and communities, an aspect on which most of the mainstream schools rate poorly.

The programme will scale-up the work of these existing partners, as well as supporting up to a further eight partners. A key focus of the programme will be feeding lessons from the partner organisations into the wider system, whether that means working with nearby government schools and dialoguing with government at the local level, or trying to influence national policies. This is a significant challenge, but if successful could have impact on a far greater scale than its projects have had to date.

Several of AKF's other programmes are moving in this direction. For example, the School Improvement Programmes in Mombasa and Kampala, are working with and in the government system. And IED which provides training courses specifically designed for government officials and attempts to influence policy and thinking through its research.

These are just some of the interesting issues that AKF is grappling with in its education work. I hope that this has shed some light on challenges that AKF faces as it moves into the 21st century.

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