Rosa María Torres

Rosa María Torres, who was a participant in Dakar, takes a critical look at what has happened since the 1990 World Conference on Education for All in Jomtien. Since then, numerous meetings have been held and many initiatives launched. But what has changed? What has been achieved? What has become of the “expanded vision of basic education” outlined in Jomtien? We publish here extracts from the book by Rosa María Torres, “One Decade of Education for All: The Challenge Ahead”, first published in English by IIEP UNESCO, Buenos Aires, 2000. Rosa María Torres, specialist in basic education, who has often written articles for this journal, is currently based in Argentina and working as an independent international education adviser with governments, international agencies, NGOs and teachers’ organizations. She is the author of numerous books and articles on basic education and teacher education.

One Decade of Education for All: The Challenge Ahead

Education for All “Shrank”

Unfortunately, although perhaps predictably, the interpretations of EFA that prevailed and translated into policies and programs in the 1990s are more along the lines of the tradition of preserving and improving,rethinking and transforming. rather than the challenge of

Faced with rapidly approaching deadlines and national and international pressure to produce results within given timeframes, Education for All increasingly adopted a minimalist approach and favored facile, fast and short-term solutions, with a focus on quantity rather than quality. The “expanded vision” of basic education and its ambitious goals for quality education for all have, in many respects, “shrunk” (see Box 1). In other words, the “expanded vision” of basic education – which is actually an expanded and renewed vision of education in general – has not (yet) been put into practice.

Box 1
Education for All

Proposal Response
1. Education for all 1. Education for children (the poorest among the poor)
2. Basic education 2. Schooling (and primary education)
3. Universalizing basic education 3. Universalizing access to primary education
4. Basic learning needs 4. Minimum learning needs
5. Focusing on learning 5. Enhancing and assessing school performance
6. Expanding the vision of basic education 6. Increasing the duration (number of years) of compulsory schooling
7. Basic education as the foundation for lifelong learning 7. Basic education as an end in itself
8. Enhancing the environment for learning 8. Enhancing the school environment
9. All countries 9. Developing countries
10. Responsibility of countries (government and civil society) and the international community 10. Responsibility of countries


The list of 18 indicators selected and defined to assess one decade of Education for All reflects this “downscaling” in terms of both the concept and expectations of EFA:

  • Conventional quantitative education/school indicators predominate, with a focus on access and enrollments at the primary school level, while key elements of EFA that are not related to the school system are excluded (for example, the educational role of the family and communication media, the importance of public information and messages aimed at meeting the basic learning needs of the population, etc.).
  • The indicators refer exclusively to the education sector, depicted in an isolated manner. EFA stressed the need for an intersectoral focus and support policies (health, nutrition, employment, etc.) to enhance the learning environment of school-age children, their families and the population at large.
  • The period during which many indicators are measured (such as drop-out rates and learning achievement) essentially covers the first four years of primary school, not even all of primary school. The notion of basic education adopted by EFA was not restricted to the school system or a specific number of years of study. It did, however, recommend a period of at least eight or nine years of exposure to systematic education.
  • The indicators for youth and adult education are still centered on literacy (traditionally defined as “knowing how to read and write”), and not on the basic education of youth and adults in a broad sense (meeting basic learning needs).
  • The status and quality of teaching are measured by two indicators, both focused on formal qualifications.
  • There is only one indicator for learning, the linchpin of the Jomtien proposal, and it is defined in an extremely broad sense – mastering “a set of nationally defined basic learning competencies”.
  • The set of indicators refer to countries’ adherence to the commitments. No indicators refer to the satisfaction of commitments by international agencies involved in EFA. This evidently serves as an assessment conducted by agencies on countries, but does not allow countries to assess agencies or agencies to assess each other.


Box 2
Ten commandments for International Donor Agencies

  1. Make education and Human Resource Development (HRD) a top priority for international aid: Increased investment in education by donors is justified on all grounds. However, the absorptive capacity – performance in disbursement and execution of programs – of each country must be carefully assessed.
  2. Adopt a global concept of HRD: Foreign aid must not cause imbalances in national education systems. Donor agencies must ensure that action responding to priority problems in certain education sub-sectors and levels is consistent with parallel convergent initiatives at the other levels and in other sub-sectors.
  3. Establish support to HRD within the framework of national development policies and firm mutual commitments: Genuine commitment to fixed objectives must be forthcoming from the receiving countries’ authorities. National priorities and objectives must be clearly defined.
  4. Widen the time horizon of international cooperation in education: Visible results cannot be obtained overnight. Donors must stretch contributions over longer periods of time.
  5. Focus on long-term extension and improvement of the receiving country’s institutional capacities: External aid must focus on institution development to develop or maintain countries’ education systems. Training at all levels of education systems is a priority.
  6. Ensure the financial sustainability of HRD programs: While each country’s financial commitment is essential, donors must also make a sustained commitment. Educational innovation requires long periods of consolidation. Donors must cooperate in the search for strategies to achieve self-sustainable funding of national education policies.
  7. Support strategic areas of education sector management: Such strategic areas for which countries might consider enlisting the support of agencies are: a) incentives (financial and non-financial); b) teacher support and guidance; c) improvement of assessment and examination structures; d) development, design and distribution of teaching materials; e) rehabilitation and full use of buildings and other facilities; f) development of secondary- and tertiary-level distance education and g) financial support for non-formal training.
  8. Improve the administrative machinery of the countries concerned: Donors and aid-requiring countries must be careful to ensure that priority is given to the development and strengthening of the existing education administration machinery and that a component for improving this machinery is included in education projects.
  9. Support “South-South” and multi-level cooperation: Donors must support the development of cooperation among developing countries, which takes the place of hiring foreign experts.
  10. Promote coordination and organizational integration in international cooperation: Many externally financed programs would have infinitely more consequential impact if support were integrated, crossed institutional barriers and operated not only at the national level but also at the regional level. Coordination of donors should be in the hands of the countries themselves.

Source: J. Hallak, Investing in the Future. Setting Educational Priorities in the Developing World, Paris, UNESCO-IIEP, 1990.

The Purpose and Direction of Education Change

A Paradigmatic Change, Not More (or Better) of the Same

"To serve the basic learning needs of all requires more than a recommitment to basic education as it now exists. What is needed is an 'expanded vision’ that surpasses present resource levels, institutional structures, curricula, and conventional delivers systems while building on the best in current practices. New possibilities exist today which result from the convergence of the increase in information and the unprecedented capacity to communicate. We must seize them with creativity and a determination for increased effectiveness.” (Article 2, Shaping the Vision)

“UNESCO is also convinced that EFA cannot be achieved through a simple policy of more of the same. New thinking and fresh approaches are required. The necessary innovations must, however, not be imposed from the outside. In fact, many countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America have come up with promising and viable innovations themselves – as if to prove that necessity is the mother of invention.” 1

Education for All, as it was defined in 1990, constitutes a step toward building a new paradigm for education, not only basic education or school education, but EDUCATION as a whole.

The concept of [Basic] Education for All outlined at Jomtien provides a framework for:

  • recapturing the dialectic unity between teaching and learning, and of learning as the primary objective of any education process (in a context that has traditionally focused on teaching, assuming learning as the automatic result of teaching), thus opening the way to rethink the current education model and to recover the value and the meaning of learning not only for pragmatic reasons but for the pleasure of learning
  • formulating a broad interpretation of learning and knowledge, where knowing and doing are viewed as an integrated whole (competence)
  • refocusing on learners and on their central status and role within education systems and the pedagogical process, and revising the underlying concept of student7that prevails in current school systems and practices
  • acknowledging that all – children, youth and adults – have learning needs to be met thus opening new avenues to enhance inter-generational learning and to articulate formal, non-formal and informal education
  • replacing knowledge at the heart of the education process (what is known, what is taught and what is learned, by both learners and teachers), and accepting a broad vision of knowledge that includes both elaborated (scientific, school-based) and common (popular) knowledge
  • reuniting content and method (pedagogical and curriculum aspects) in education theory and practice
  • reassessing the theoretical and practical meaning of lifelong learning and learning how to learn by focusing on learning, rather than on education or teaching (learning is not restricted to teaching or schooling; it begins at birth and lasts a lifetime)
  • acknowledging diversity, relativity and change (in a field traditionally characterized by uniform, universal and inflexible norms and unquestionable truths) in terms of learning needs, environments, means and ways of meeting such needs
  • acknowledging the importance of personal motivation and interest in education and learning processes (often ignored behind the group, the class, school statistics, and averages)
  • rethinking education from the standpoint of needs and demand (in a field that has traditionally been driven by supply), thus allowing a new perspective to understand education problems and solutions
  • linking educational processes to social processes (school and life, school and home, school culture and social culture, education and work, school curriculum and local reality, theory and practice) paving the way for building new bridges or for understanding those linkages in new ways

All these elements are embedded in the concept of Education for All, inviting all of us to rethink the conventional education and school paradigm, build new scenarios and relationships, and define a new common sense for education and education reform.

For conventional educational thinking, EFA appeared just as a list of quantitative goals for primary school access, enrollment and literacy, and the reiteration of old ideals and commitments to education. In fact, universalization of primary school, universal literacy, gender parity in education, early childhood development, emphasis on learning, the need for multisectoral policies, and improved international cooperation are all aspirations that have been present in educational discourse for several decades. However, putting all this into practice in a comprehensive manner would be a major innovation in itself. For that to happen it is necessary to understand that these elements make up a strategy for education development and change, that they are not policy “options” that can be adopted or discarded as policy-makers see fit.

The argument that there was “nothing new” in EFA was strong in Latin America, but it was also heard in Asia and Africa. In different countries, many people perceived EFA as a new international initiative that would distract attention and resources, or simply add to other regional or subregional programs in process and co-ordinated by some of the same Jomtien sponsors.2 The “absolutism” of EFA, espoused particularly by the international agencies involved, had a negative impact, giving sometimes the impression that the education field had no previous history, or that such history was divided into B.J. (Before Jomtien) and A.J. (After Jomtien).

Countries and agencies were eager to show results. Consequently, processes and strategies were overlooked in favor of short-term effects. The emphasis on quantitative indicators and coverage strengthened the quantitativist approach whereby quantity and quality become separate goals, and education development becomes associated with expansion rather than with transformation. Agencies cultivated this tendency by continually pressuring countries to meet quantitative goals and increase school enrollments, particularly of girls. The race for numbers contributed to reducing universalization to access, quality to efficiency, learning to school performance and expanded vision to increase in the number of years of study. The urgency of implementing massive reforms diverted attention from the importance of experimentation; pilot projects gained a bad reputation over the decade and were declared failed and useless. Lessons learned by countries and agencies vis-à-vis educational innovation – keys for success and limits for scaling-up or for replicability in other contexts3 – tended to be forgotten. The fact is that, despite the focus on quality in educational rhetoric over the decade, no indicators were developed – as projected – to measure the quality of inputs, processes, results and impact. The 18 indicators proposed for the end-of-decade assessment illustrate this.

Not only the goals, but also the guiding principles of EFA – expanded vision of basic education, meeting basic learning needs, and focus on learning – remain a challenge beyond the year 2000. The overall EFA framework applies to education in a broad sense, and some of its key ideas and principles are in step with the new paradigm deemed necessary for education in the next century.

The Report to UNESCO of the International Commission on Education for the Twenty-first Century (the Delors Report), released in 1996, complements and enriches various aspects of the EFA platform. (See Box 3, p. 152) Reaffirming lifelong learning or learning throughout life as the key to education in the twenty-first century, breaks with conventional categories related to age or education levels, and transcends the classical distinctions between formal, non-formal and informal education, in-school and out-of-school education, or education, life and work.

In both developed and developing countries, and in public and private education systems, education needs major transformation, renewed institutions and strategies, renewed ways of thinking and acting. “Improving the quality” of an education and school system that is inadequate for the times and for the bulk of the world’s population (children and youth, the poor), is a bad business for people, nations and funding agencies.

Education for All cannot be achieved with traditional mentalities and strategies, even if resources are injected, timetables are delayed and new technologies are incorporated. Ensuring Education for All implies a new mindset, a new conceptual and operational framework that integrates education and politics, education and the economy, education and culture, education and citizenship, education policy and social policy, bottom-up and top-down education change, the local, the national and the global. Education for All can only be attained by adopting a genuinely expanded and renewed vision of education, which trusts and invests in people, in their capacities and potential, in the development and synchronization of resources and efforts of society at large to work together to make education a need and a task for all.

This means promoting “learning communities” in which all educational and cultural resources of a given territorial and social community are pooled and leveraged to meet the basic learning needs of its members – children, youth and adults, individuals and families. As a matter of policy, both at the national and local level, this implies:

  • assuming that all human communities have learning resources, agents, institutions and networks operating» which need to be identified, supported, developed and linked in the effort to build a community-based educational and cultural project that is based on specific needs and possibilities
  • focusing on learning rather than education, identifying all learning resources and environments in the community: families, schools, nature, information and communication media, churches, workplace, street life, clubs, libraries, community centers, playgrounds and sports grounds, cooperatives, b?ck gardens, cinemas and theaters, museums, zoos, circus, etc.
  • involving children, youth and adults, enabling inter-generational and inter-peer learning, acknowledging the importance of adult education (parents, educators of all types, members of the community and adults in general) for the education and well-being of children and youth, and liberating the potential of youth as educators and active agents of their own education, of school change and of family and local community development
  • fostering the pursuit and respect of differences, recognizing that each group and community has specific realities, needs and resources that will shape specific educational and cultural projects
  • ensuring positive discrimination strategies so as to make sure that economic, social, educational and cultural differences among communities do not become a source of inequality

Creating “comprehensive territorial education plans” has been suggested as a strategy to put this type of proposal into practice. Such plans must:

a) adopt a broad and systemic vision of education, i.e. take into account contexts, practices and educators that actually exist in the territory

b) start by identifying, analyzing and appraising the basic learning needs of the population

c) be participatory, in terms of formulation, development and implementation

d) clearly establish the commitments and responsibilities of all bodies and educators involved

e) set up a single body for planning, implementation and monitoring that involves representatives from the various administrative levels and sectors

f) enjoy autonomy in implementation and development

g) define and include from the outset specific assessment procedures and strategies

h) ensure the necessary economic and technical resources

Finally, it must be underlined that progress or change in education will not be attained unless sectoral thinking is abandoned.

The priority accorded to basic education in the 1990s responded to social and political issues, to reasons of equity and social justice, rather than to technical issues. “Education to alleviate poverty” was the watchword of the decade, driving the Education for All initiative. However, basic education did gain currency in developing countries in the 1990s, but so did poverty.

The major EFA objective, the important social goal attributed to basic education, has not been achieved. There is thus no reason to abandon basic education and move on to something else. The commitment remains to meet the basic learning needs of all, but, above all, to fight poverty. This requires direct, comprehensive and consistent interventions, not only in the education arena but in the realm of economics and politics.


1 D. Berstecher: "Is Education for All on the right track?", in UNESCO Sources, No 41. Paris, 1992 UNESCO
2 In Latin America, for example, the three goals of the Major Project in the Field of Education (1981-2000) - universal primary education (enrollment), universal, literacy and improving the quality and efficiency of education - coincide with some of the EFA goals
3 "Educational practice is site-specific, and innovations for school improvement cannot be transferred easily. Experimentation and local adaption are essential. (...) Successful programs aim at comprehensive change, but adopt a phased implementation strategy with considerable experimentation and testing in the early phases." These are some of the lessons learned by the World Bank after 20 years of investing in primary education in 51 developing countries (Verspoor, 1991:344)


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