Fighting student drop out


Ethiopia’s school dropout rate is still at bigger level and more needs to be done to make school relevant and accessible to young people who must work to survive. Schools must try different approaches says Alemayehu Hailu, Director of Geneva Global, a non-governmental organization which is working on bring children who are far away from school due to social and economic problem.
Capital’s Tesfaye Getnet sat down with Alemayehu Hailu to discuss Geneva’s Speed School and what Ethiopia should done to bring helpless children in to school. Excerpts;


Capital: What has Geneva Global been doing to reach children who are not in school?

Alemayehu hailu: Since 2011 we’ve been implementing Accelerated Learning for Africa which is a Speed School program in Ethiopia. Launched in SNNPR, the Speed School program now operates in Oromia, Tigray and Amhara regions. It has directly benefited over 140,000 young children who were out of school and their families by bringing them back into the formal education system and helping their mothers improve their economic status and literacy skills so they can afford to keep their kids in school. The core Speed School model aims to provide out-of-school-children aged 9 to 14 from the most disadvantaged families and areas with the basic knowledge and skills from the official Grade 1 to 3 curriculums so they can be successful in the formal primary school, and enter at the appropriate grade level. Operating five and-a-half days a week, Speed School classrooms are vibrant, dynamic environments where students learn collaboratively and actively. All surfaces (walls, ceilings, and floors) are covered in learning aids and student creations. The facilitator moves freely among the groups; monitoring, encouraging, and providing frequent feedback to support all students in activities that tap into and foster their natural creativity, curiosity, motivation, and talents. This happens over a ten-month period in a classroom of 25 to 30 children with a teacher trained in activity-based teaching and learning methods delivering lessons using highly student-centered, interactive learning methods.

Lessons also occur outside the classroom where students explore nature, their communities, their families, and more. Both inside and outside they learn together through play, inquiry, creativity. They sing, they act, and they motivate one another with slogans. They take responsibility for their classroom’s operation, sharing chores and greeting visitors with seasoned protocol. There are also Self-Help Groups for the mothers to help them to conduct income-earn income and save money so they can keep their children in school. The program uses UNICEF’s Child-to-Child model and provides direct training and support in the same student-centered, activity-based methods for teachers in the formal primary schools that will be receiving the children who complete the Speed School program.

Capital: Have school retention rates increased?

Alemayehu: What has been achieved so far is commendable. We cannot underestimate the amazing expansion of schools in rural Ethiopia, we can’t underrate the fact that over 20 million children are in school although the quality of education is questionable.
If your question is whether we have achieved the desired goal, obviously my response would be no. There are still a huge number of out of school children, and the majority of the adult population is still non-literate. Education is not a privilege; it is a right of every citizen. There has to be more effort to make sure this right is respected.
However, expansion should not be done at the expense of quality. Expanding quality education to all requires the concerted effort of all, a favorable and conducive policy environment, meaningful participation and ownership by the local community. In addition, unless we have sensible population control, it will be difficult to ensure quality education for all. When the population is growing at an alarming pace vis-a-vis the plodding economic development, ensuring quality education is like aiming at a moving target.

Capital: Tell us one of your saddest stories about working with children who are out of school.

Alemayehu: It is really a pity to see school age children unable to go to school and wasting their time around the village while their peers are in school. We used to assume that having schools throughout the country would bring children to school. However, experience taught us that this is not the case. I have seen children who are bread winners of their family, they have to work and generate income to keep their younger siblings and sometimes their parents or guardians alive. You may have heard about children who were brought by child smugglers and ‘sold’ to traditional weavers in the place known as Shiro Meda in Addis Ababa? One of our partners has been working to help these kids and stop such exploitation. Finally, Geneva Global and our partner decided to address the problem from the root, where these children come from. We finally started the Speed School program in the source area, in SNNPR and that effort reduced the number of children who are migrating and trafficked to Addis Ababa for labor exploitation. Seeing those children who work seven days a week for bread was the saddest thing I have ever experienced.

Capital: Why do you think as many as 5 million kids are out of school in Ethiopia?

Alemayehu: Numbers are controversial because there is no reliable data. The official source is the Education Statistics Annual Abstract issued by the Federal Ministry of Education. The latest statistical report is the 2009 Ethiopian Calendar or 2016/17report. The fact that this report doesn’t depict the number of out of school children vividly; means we will be forced to deduce from the given figures, i.e, deducting the number of children who are in school from the total number of school aged population. The point is there are a lot of children not in school and just building schools won’t solve the problem. Children and family lead their lives in different contexts. We have a sedentary community, pastoral community, urban dwellers, rural people, children with different impairments, street children, orphan children and so on. It is unfair to assume that the education needs of all sorts of children can be met with a single mode of delivery, one-size-fits-all approach. Hence, our education system more than ever, has to promote a diversified, innovative mode of education delivery.

Education is not a standalone endeavor, it is very much linked with the economic status of the community and parents. Though primary education in Ethiopia is said to be delivered for free, it doesn’t mean it is costless, there are many associated costs. When a family decides to send the child to school, there is some direct and indirect costs such as opportunity cost that family foregoes. The burden of such costs will be painful especially when education fails to pay off. Hence, the education sector should think of integrating with other community development endeavors to enable parents to strengthen their economic status on top of making the education relevant to the community. Education has to prove itself to be beneficial, a child who goes to school should be different from those children who have never been to school, they have to be different in their ability to seek solutions to problems at the household and community level. For this to happen, our curriculum needs to be revised.

Capital: What can the educational system do to keep more children in school?

Alemayehu: We should look into different ways of providing education and checking the profile of the children who are still out of school. Many children who miss school are in difficult conditions. We need different approaches to provide these children with quality education. Take the Speed School model as one example. The model caters to the education needs of older children (9 to 14 years) who have already missed their chance of enrolling at the right age. When a child misses their chance of enrolling in primary schools and becomes 12 or 13 years old, it’s embarrassing for them to be enrolled in grade one and sit with 6 and 7 year old kids. The psychology of older children is different from the younger ones. Besides, older kids bear many responsibilities in their family and schools should consider what they already know. Most rural children in Ethiopia assume adult responsibilities, they sell agricultural products take money and give change, they tend to livestock. We cannot teach such children how to count when they have already mastered counting. Lessons should start from where the children are. That is why the Speed School program takes older children, and teaches them through accelerated learning methods omitting what the children already know from the lesson and helping them to catch their peers in grade 3 or 4 with only a year of intensive learning. I know there are other innovations being implemented by small community-based organizations, NGOs and the private sector.

Capital: What can be done to get more girls to choose education over domestic work or early marriage?

Alemayehu: When girls get married early the problem is vicious. A woman who does not have education is less likely to send her children to school or take care of her children’s health. That is why I said earlier education should not be a movement that takes place in a silo. Efforts of the education sector must be integrated with efforts of other sectors such as health. Regarding domestic work, the livelihoods of a majority of Ethiopians depend on agriculture which requires a collaborative effort of the family. I don’t think we can stop children’s involvement in domestic work (if we have to stop it at all) in the short run unless there is a miracle in our economic development. In general, a strong effort should be made to raise people’s awareness on the benefits of educating girls without undermining the importance of making our education system flexible to accept more girls and rural children.

Capital: What do we lose as a nation if children leave school?

Alemayehu: Research shows educating children directly contributes to the nation’s growth. Educating citizens, not only children, reduces poverty, increases income, makes people healthier, boosts economic growth, fosters peace, reduces the fertility rate, reduces child marriage, and combats HIV/AIDS. Education has the power to make, not only a nation, but also the world a better place. Children who miss education become less productive and disadvantaged.

Capital: How can we reduce dropout rates?

Alemayehu: According to the Education Statistics Annual Abstract, the primary grade one dropout rate is 18%, which means almost one in every five enrolled students leaves school before completing the first year, before learning the basics of how to read and write.  What is more painful is these dropout students add up to the already big number of out of school children.  The School survival rate shows us the flip side of dropout. The primary school survival rate at grade 5 in 2009 EC was only about 53%, which means the country is losing over 46% of students before they complete grade 5, before they really capture real learning. Isn’t this annoying for a country that has meager resources? So we have to ask why the kids are dropping out, what is motivating them? Is it to work in the informal sector? Is it because the parents don’t earn enough to support them? There is also a hostile environment for girls. The curriculum needs to be more relevant. The quality of education and motivation of teachers needs to be addressed. It is more like the kids are pushed out as opposed to dropping out.  We must create a conducive school environment for both boys and girls, making education relevant to the life of the community and improving the quality of education. I understand that the problem is more complex than this and people may have different views.

Capital: Could you talk a bit about Adult Literacy?

Alemayehu: When I was young, I was part of a literacy campaign. I remember we had to go to a rural area and teach literacy to rural adults before we joined the university. Of course, those campaigns brought very important contributions, many people used that opportunity and pursued their education further and there are many others who still use the skills they acquired during the campaign.  Almost all national efforts to promote literacy in Ethiopia had one similar feature, they achieved results through campaigns. I would say the current administration should copy, not necessarily the methods, but the emphasis on adult literacy. We cannot afford to ignore adult learning.

Capital: Is there anything you would like to add?

Alemayehu: I think reform is moving beyond rhetoric and impacting development, including education and democratization, good governance, freedom of speech, peace and stability secure lasting and equitable development of a nation. I believe Ethiopia is moving towards that direction. GOD be with us!