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Non-formal education: Past, present and future

Kanwal Singh

The international focus on the Millennium Development Goals and Education for All (EFA) has led to the development of structures to get all out-of-school children into formal schools. However, many of them struggle with academic pressures and social exclusion, and so they drop out. Alternative options for supporting education for these children are increasingly being sought. Here, Kanwal Singh discusses some concerns about the way non-formal education (NFE) has sometimes been approached as an alternative route for achieving EFA.

Although initiated with enthusiasm and expectations of being flexible and learner-centred, NFE has traditionally been valued less than formal systems of education. In India, the ambiguous nature of NFE, combined with the absence of a framework, ad-hoc implementation, and a lack of continuity, evaluation systems and accountability resulted in the NFE programme slowly fading into the background. In recent years, however, there has been a renewed interest in NFE, with it being viewed as an important means of achieving EFA. Diverse NFE programmes – such as basic literacy skills; second chance literacy; bridging courses; accelerated learning; after school support; vocational skills; life skills; and home-based sessions for children with disabilities – have been implemented.

When I worked as a NFE teacher in a special school for children with disabilities in India I was disturbed by several issues: 25 years down the road, these issues unfortunately still seem pertinent.

  • Low value/status of NFE: ‘Formal is for normal’ – though never shared verbally, the underlying message was evident. Students who did not ‘fit’, were unable to cope in the academic stream or who disturbed other students were combined to constitute the NFE class.
  • Discrimination and segregation: Unintentionally the special school, which advocated against discrimination faced by disabled people, initiated practices of further segregation and exclusion amongst their students. The school split students into formal (also called academic) and non-formal (also called functional and prevocational) streams.
  • Absence of a curriculum framework, goals and relevant teaching learning material: The NFE agenda seemed to be ‘managing’ or ‘keeping the students busy’ in class rather than ‘teaching/learning’. The teacher independently decided what to teach, when to teach and how to teach.
  • Minimal expectations from teachers and students: Little was expected from the NFE students in terms of learning. The ad-hoc planning of goals, and the absence of documentation and review sometimes resulted in a child having the same goals for 3-4 semesters.

These experiences leave me wary of NFE being endorsed/used to achieve EFA.

If we are really wanting genuine education for all, and are not just playing a game of statistics, then NFE needs an overhaul. The current system needs to be re-examined and steps taken to upgrade its status and value.

Solutions include: developing a NFE curriculum framework; ensuring recognition, accreditation and certification for NFE graduates; creating relevant and productive teaching and learning materials and activities; establishing improved links with the formal education system; and providing professional training and capacity building for NFE teachers. Without such measures it will always remain an inferior stream of education.

We need to recognise the potential of NFE, raising it from the status of an ‘alternative education programme’ to a ‘partner in making education accessible to all’. The biggest challenge is to prevent NFE being just a cosmetic repackaging of a system that keeps some children out of formal education.

Kanwal Singh is an inclusive education consultant. She has been involved in designing curriculum, resource material and teacher development programmes at the State level. She has written handbooks and manuals on inclusive education.
Contact: kanwalsingh.in@gmail.com