Reaching the hard-to-reach in Lao People's Democratic Republic
A policy of inclusive education, aimed at reaching the hard-to-reach, has become the entry point for Child-Friendly Education in Lao People’s Democratic Republic. The system and individual schools focus on greater sensitivity to each learner’s needs, more concern for getting the fundamentals of learning ‘right’ and greater attention to the often difficult transition from one level of schooling to the next. This policy, involving a systematic programme of advocacy, situation analyses and pilot projects, has led to the development of national standards and sector development plans based on Child-Friendly Education (CFE). It has fostered strong partnerships that have helped CFE principles and dimensions become internalised throughout the education system.
As the country strives to meet its commitments to Education for All, it has embraced the Schools of Quality (SoQ) initiative, based on the Child-Friendly School approach initiated by UNICEF, to address access and quality in basic education.
An essential aspect of the child-friendly dimension of inclusion is reaching the hard-to-reach children. This calls for policies focusing on reaching these children through such measures as providing mother-tongue curricula, materials and teaching methods. It can also include reaching girls, people with disabilities, those living in remote areas, people in extreme poverty, members of lower castes, and people affected by HIV and AIDS.
Many countries ignore the children who are hard to reach and are satisfied with enrolling a high percentage of the primary school-age cohort, not focusing on the numbers of children who are not enrolled in education. Others develop multiple programmes aimed at reaching particular excluded groups. What is called for, however, is a more general policy on inclusive education for all that is reflected in school practices.
The Lao People’s Democratic Republic, one of South-East Asia’s smallest and poorest countries, is highly dependent on foreign aid and has a large trade deficit. The population is about 7 million people. There are at least 49 ethnic groups and many more languages spoken, and most of the population lives in rural areas. Initial enrolment in school has increased dramatically in the past 10 years, but repetition and drop-out rates are high, especially among girls, children living in remote areas and marginalised ethnic groups.
The Lao version of child-friendly education, through the UNESCO Schools of Quality programme, covers the essential principles of child-friendliness through a systematic focus on two major issues. These are that education policies are child-centred and child-seeking, and both relate to the right to education and to equity. Child-centred education acts in the best interests of children, concerning their whole well-being. Child-seeking means attempting to ensure that all learners have an equal opportunity to enter the education system, pro-actively looking for children who are not participating and ensuring their enrolment.
Leadership and a strong, common understanding of inclusion are the key factors in reaching the policy’s goals. Additional factors that are key to success include capacity-building, awareness-raising, and inclusion of women and girls, ethnic people, and persons with disabilities in decision-making processes and other efforts for reaching excluded learners. Such efforts include strengthening the capacity of schools and of the Village Education Development Committee to perform these tasks:
- Collect and analyse data, including data from local family registries, for tracking children who are not in school.
- Conduct child-seeking activities to support out-of-school learners in re-entering the education system.
- Conduct regular monitoring of learner attendance to identify those at risk of dropping out.
- Use statistics to establish long-term school development plans and yearly school improvement actions and targets for promoting retention.
- Create rights-based child-friendly schools, as defined by UNICEF, which are part of a wider framework of child-friendly families, communities and provinces, encompassing the country as a whole (Shaeffer, 2013; EFA, 2015).
In general, evaluation of the Child-Friendly School approach in the Lao People’s Democratic Republic has shown much positive impact on the schools where the programme has been implemented, and on a larger set of policies and practices throughout the Ministry. The various approaches to reaching the hard-to-reach have had considerable success, such as can be witnessed in increased net intake rate and net enrolment ratio. Most schools have reported reduced drop-out and repetition rates. The introduction of a preparatory pre-school year in many child-friendly schools, as part of the process of enhancing school readiness, has also helped increase inclusion.
Concerning other aspects of inclusion, gender disparities have decreased. Schools for children with disabilities have been transferred from the Ministry of Social Welfare to the Ministry of Education and Sports, which has slowly been moving towards genuine inclusion of children with disabilities in mainstream schools.
The main challenges in the implementation include alignment of the quality standards for Child-Friendly Schools with the larger goals and objectives of the system and its national policies. Other challenges that are being addressed as priorities include a refinement of the standards and that all levels of the education system must be fully aware of and be able to implement the standards. To achieve this, emphasis is being put on relevant units, the Ministry of Education and Sports, the Ministry of Health and Social Welfare, the Ministry of Finances, teacher education institutions and the examination unit to take ownership of the standards and actively collaborate in their implementation.
Despite the challenges, the CFE approach in the Lao People’s Democratic Republic is an excellent example of action at the local level in developing and trying out concepts, strategies and techniques. The CFE approach is also being applied at the policy level – moving slowly but surely and flexibly towards ownership of the approach at all levels and among all departments of the Ministry of Education and beyond.
Child-friendly education in Laos has also moved from ‘a UNICEF project’ to full inclusion in the nation’s Education Sector Development Framework and endorsement by the Ministry’s various development partners. As noted in the UNICEF CFS case study:
Through providing a conceptually accessible framework, Schools of Quality aim to raise awareness of every child’s right to a basic education and assists educators and community members in developing coherent and effective strategies to ensure that all children go to school … And at the macro level, it strives to embed a rights-based approach in the Ministry of Education’s policies and programming.