In preparation for CONFINTEA VI, the ICAE has set up a forum for exchange of views on its website, www.icae.org.uy . This aim of this virtual debate is “to start reflecting on the concept of benchmarks, challenges, limitations and expectations; to take into account the already existing experience based on the elaboration of benchmarks for other issues; and to make proposals and suggestions, specifically on adult education, supporting the CONFINTEA VI preparatory process.” We print here the contribution by David Archer of ActionAid. All contributions to the virtual forum can be found at the ICAE website www.icae.org.uy
In 2004/2005 the Global Campaign for Education (GCE) decided to conduct a survey of good quality adult literacy programmes in order to produce a credible set of benchmarks on adult literacy that could be used internationally. This process was timed to coincide with the EFA Global Monitoring Report on adult literacy and we secured funding from UNESCO to do the work. The idea came from the EFA Fast Track Initiative (FTI) indicative framework and benchmarks which had proved influential on donors to education but which only focused on primary schooling. We wanted to do the same for adult literacy and also specifically to help the GCE develop positions on adult literacy five years on from Dakar when many people felt that GCE had followed the donors in being overly focused on primary schooling.
There were four key moments in the process of developing the benchmarks:
The result was a set of 12 simple benchmarks (see appendix). These were designed to help governments who are committed to developing adult literacy programmes. They did not themselves aim to convert or convince sceptics although we hoped that the case for investing in adult literacy came through. Rather, they aimed to provide a framework for policy debate. They touched concisely on critical issues that need to be considered in designing an effective adult literacy programme. We thought the benchmarks might also be used as a checklist against which a government or donor might ask questions about an existing or new programme.
We were very clear that we did not expect the benchmarks to be used as a set of conditions to be imposed on programmes.
“They should not be used to constrain or limit programmes. There may be contextual factors that justify deviation from these benchmarks. Our intention would be to ensure that such contextual factors are manifested clearly in a dialogue that uses these benchmarks as the starting point. The benchmarks are not an end-point in themselves. This is particularly important in the context of a sector like adult literacy where flexibility is often key and standardisation can be a problem. It is this very fear that has perhaps prevented this sort of exercise from being conducted before.”
The benchmarks were published in a GCE report, “Writing the Wrongs” in which the process was explained in full and the rationale behind each benchmark was articulated, using statistics from the survey, examples and quotes from respondents. The EFA Global Monitoring Report (GMR) included the GCE benchmarks though we felt they were somewhat lost within such a vast publication. There was a clear contrast between the GMR and the GCE report. The GMR was undoubtedly a comprehensive analysis of the adult literacy sector but was not a document that would realistically be read by any policy makers or practitioners … it was not user friendly. The GCE report was short and the benchmarks laid out on a single page could be used in practice to stimulate debate and reflection.
Writing the Wrongs was published initially in English and later in French and Spanish, in each case being accompanied by a simple poster that displayed the benchmarks. These were distributed widely. Through the national education coalitions affiliated to GCE the benchmarks were launched in about 20 countries on International Literacy Day 2006.
However, there are limits to how far any material, even simple benchmarks, can be internalised by Ministries of Education without some continued pressure. For this reason we organised a major international workshop on the benchmarks in Abuja in February 2007. In preparation new research was commissioned from Vietnam and Tanzania, analysing the national literacy programmes in the context of the benchmarks and showing how they could be used in practice.
60 participants from 24 countries came to the Abuja workshop including Ministers of Education, Permanent Secretaries, Directors and Managers of National Literacy Programmes, United Nations officials, donors and civil society organisations. After four days the participants were all fully committed to “writing the wrongs” in the field of adult literacy. They issued a call for action at national and international levels. Nationally they called for new literacy surveys to reveal the scale of the literacy challenge; national dossiers to show evidence on the benefits of literacy; new national dialogue on literacy policies and practices using the international benchmarks, and the inclusion of adult literacy in education sector plans, especially those submitted to the Fast Track Initiative. They made specific calls for action from UNESCO, the World Bank, FTI, the IMF, donors and others.
The Abuja participants are now committed to following up the Abuja workshop, maintaining pressure at all levels. This has all helped to cement the benchmarks in international and national discourse. Inputs on the benchmarks are being made at major international meetings including the regional Ministerial meetings convened by the UN Literacy Decade. Much more remains to be done but it is clear that the benchmarks have helped to re-galvanise dialogue on adult literacy in many contexts where there has been little interest for many years. And we are seeing new money on the table. In May 2007, the FTI endorsed a sector wide education plan for Benin: the first plan that they have ever endorsed which includes a significant investment in adult literacy. We are now promoting the message to all countries developing sector plans for FTI endorsement that adult literacy can and should be included. At last we might see a reversal in the decades of underinvestment in adult literacy and a recognition of the pivotal role that adult literacy plays in human development.
The benchmarks that are set out below are designed to facilitate a more rigorous policy debate about literacy, especially with governments, funding agencies and practitioners. They have been developed by experts in adult literacy from around the world and are based on responses to a global survey of effective adult literacy programmes.
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