CYC-Online 90 July 2006
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Towards a curriculum for more appropriate education for out-of-school children

Jean Pease

Out-of-school children, including “street” children, continue to pose a challenge to many countries, especially underdeveloped countries, where universal primary education has yet to be achieved. The paper looks at non-conventional approaches to education at the primary, level, drawing on some case studies as researched by UNESCO. Some parallels are drawn with the situation in South Africa and an overview done of where we, as practitioners, are in relation to provision and state support. The paper explores what we mean by “appropriate education“ and the attempts to develop a curriculum for out-of-school children, in terms of the experience of the Primary Open Learning Pathway – a project which grew out of the needs of out-of-school children in informal settlements.

There are 188 million school-aged children in the world who are not enrolled in school – and this excludes those who drop out before achieving literacy (Ramaweera, UNESCO 1989). Of these, almost 3,5 million are in South Africa, in addition to which 0,5 million drop out annually!

In order to arrive at an approach to a curriculum for out of school children, we could examine the many factors which were identified through a UNESCO survey of 18 countries where non-formal approaches were being attempted to complement formal schooling. I will merely highlight a few of which an important one is what is called a lack of commitment or motivation of parents to send their children to school – identified as a major cause in many underdeveloped countries where many parents are illiterate. Studies indicate that a high adult literacy rate of about 70% is the critical threshold for achieving universal primary education in any country.

Does this assume that illiterate parents do not want education for their children”? I think not. But there is a real resistance to education which does not deliver even the basic promises of literacy – or a livelihood – such as in many South African schools! In June 1995 we tried to have almost 90 children in a non-formal school (which we indirectly were responsible for setting up) in Langa, Cape Town, placed in a formal school – with guarantees to parents that we would be training the teachers so that the classes were run on the same principles as the non-formal class, and that through education governance training of parents, we would assist them in intervening if their children were not educated in the way in which they wanted. In this way the teacher would be paid and the classroom resourced. Their passionate responses were the most dramatic indictment of formal schools that I have heard for a long time and their resistance to their children being placed in any formal school – in the basic years – was total. They tried to lay a charge at the police station the next day, to prevent the non-formal school from being closed down, then staged a sit-in of parents and children in our offices to elicit our help in keeping the non-formal school going! They obviously want their children educated “but they were saying, quite clearly that they wanted substance, not simply the trappings of education. The insufficient achievement of those who pass through the system and ill-treatment of their children were the major reasons, besides teacher corruption, financial problems and the rigidity of the system to meet their children's needs.

The initiation of a new culture of learning and teaching in our schools (and not only black schools) is vital. Another anecdote of a “better model C school in Cape Town” provides another insight: Here an erring child was placed in the dustbin by the teacher who then labelled her as “rubbish, rubbish, rubbish" – and the whole class was asked to join in the chant.

We, who have to deal with out of school children, have therefore to look at the whole curriculum including the significance and implications of the formal curriculum, as well as the roles of all players in the education of children-parents, teachers, and society at large. Holistic and long-term solutions must be sought, not ad hoc, piece-meal or based on sentiment.

We need to ask very seriously:
What is education? What are the rights of all children to education? What are the rights of parents? Do we need a teachers' code of conduct? Surely one of the basic assumptions must be that anything done in education must be in “the best interests of the child” (another contentious issue because there are so many assumptions about who knows best what that means). A further criterion could be: Who benefits most from all “childwork”? “Childhood”, in the opinion of David Oldman, has become “a mode of production”, where adult control over children's activity has become more about the creation of paid employment for adults and less about the real needs of children. “(T)he commercialisation of childcare is essentially exploitative of children”, he argues, while recognising that “...those women who get paid for looking after children are themselves (often) excessively exploited” by the economic system.

We need to ask the question of the formal education system, educare, non-formal educational projects, “street” children projects or the Child Welfare system. If we take the formal education system and measure this simply in terms of where money is allocated: according to Prof. Bengu 82% of money allocated to education is spent on salaries – for adults! Worse, the children are made to feel that they are the cause of their own failure.

Teacher unions, labour organisations and parent organisations have yet to take to the streets to demonstrate the need for a learning environment (which includes what they contribute towards this) which allows optimal growth for children, if they intend to assist in the development of the country. In Brazil, “street” children and sympathisers took to the streets to demonstrate that these children had human rights-when shopkeepers began paying off-duty policemen to wipe them out as if they were vermin because the image they created was bad for tourism and business.

Another basic assumption must be that all children are entitled to an education which provides opportunities for optimal growth-note, not only relevant growth, as assumed and defined by many well meaning people and institutions. Certainly it must be relevant – to their needs – but do we stop to find out what not only their real needs are but what they aspire to?

The UNESCO survey identifies common features across the 18 countries studied, that

the children denied schooling come from rural areas, from urban slums, and from minorities and marginal groups who are either geographically and economically, isolated, culturally isolated or both. In some countries, girls can be included as one of the categories. (Ranaweera 1989:13)

Alternative approaches must therefore have flexibility and adaptability, produce quick results, be need-based, innovative and economical and has to adopt innovative teaching/learning methods to overcome the weaknesses of the traditional approaches. They should attempt to reduce the power and control exercised by those who want to maintain the traditional formal system as a superior system and treat non-formal structures as inferior substitutes. This becomes possible only if a pedagogical model is adopted in which:

This has also been our experience of out-of-school children and the self-paced curriculum which we designed, as well as the parents' experience I related earlier. The parents wanted their cultural traditions celebrated in the school situation they wanted to feel that school and home were not two totally conflicting situations. They wanted to retain the identity of their children, not be alienated by a foreign experience which often bred failure as a result. And, even as they wanted an adaptation of formal systems to their situations of deprivation and poverty, they felt a need for a close linkage with the formal system accreditation and market value.

I would like to argue then, from the outset, that there is no such thing as an “appropriate” curriculum for out-of-school children – as if a curriculum for them is inappropriate for other children or vice versa.

In the final analysis, we really need to find a curriculum – in the widest sense of the word – which allows enough flexibility for all children to develop to their best potential. I want to argue that what we have in our formal schools is not necessarily that curriculum. It is not only the content of the syllabus which is the major concern – although relevance is an important factor, it is our view of the child.

What is a child? I think that the only thing we will all agree upon is that a child is a vulnerable, growing, developing being. But a child is not an object – not an object of concern, or love or care. Each child is a subject.

Every child comes into a classroom or learning situation with its own social construct of the world it has known. Those constructs differ. For many, basic human needs have not been met. But that does not mean they are deprived or always disadvantaged. In terms of what? Of a westernised idea of childhood as a period when they had to play, to be coddled or pampered? Of course all children learn through play – and are entitled to happiness, love and care. But for all of them, learning through play is a deadly serious business. For many, play is what happens on the streets. What we need to know as educationists is what that play involved by the time they reach us. We need to begin to operate from the premise of what the child knows, what and how s/he has learnt, what s/he knows and the strengths s/he brings into the learning situation. Then we need to create for that child the most positive surroundings which are favourable to further growth and development. The teacher has to be a facilitator of positive, empowering experiences – not pity the child who has apparently missed out on toys and experiences like going to the zoo, because we have a notion of that is how children should be brought up. Millions of children will never know that reality. Do we continue to perpetuate it in order for those who miss it to feel inferior?

For millions of children, work, for example, is part of their lives-or they would not survive. I do not condone exploitation of children's work, just as I would not condone the exploitation of the work of adults – what I am arguing for is a recognition of children's multiple realities. We need not accept those realities in which case we work towards radically changing society. But we need to forget the idea that the only reality there is, which is acceptable to educators, is a middle class, western reality of what childhood should be and therefore what education for children should be. If we can get away from this static notion, we could begin to look at a curriculum which acknowledges and builds upon the cultural capital which each child brings to the classroom.

So what sort of curriculum are we talking about?

We need one for all children, whether in school or out of school, that acknowledges the child's cultural capital, by accepting and confirming that

Non-formal classes in many countries are heterogeneous with respect to age and level of education; have multigrade classes with flexible entry and exit points; are self-paced although often condensed into a shorter period of time, and oppressive, didactic teaching methods have been changed to learner-centred, with teachers seen as facilitators of learning, with emphasis on learning not teaching.

Finally, what of teachers and teacher training? It is obvious that teachers need special training – and that this training should prepare them for classes where learning is facilitated as described above not simply teaching to get through a syllabus. Such a teacher needs to be innovative, be open to change, risk and experimentation and should encourage this in children.

In the final analysis, how do we define democracy? And when we ask the question: “What curriculum is appropriate for out-of-school children?”

Should it not also be appropriate to your child and mine? And if not, why not?

This feature: Pease, J. (1995) Towards a curriculum for more appropriate education for out-of-school children. In Child and Youth Care: Reconstruction and Development for Peace. Cape Town: National Association of Child Care Workers, pp. 16-22

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