Photo: Flickr/One Laptop Per Child
Education specialist and Australia-Papua New Guinea Emerging Leaders Dialogue alumnus Brendan Rigby has done extensive research on Complementary Basic Education programs in Ghana. He explains how these types of programs could also potentially benefit children in Papua New Guinea.

As a 10-year old girl who lives in a rural village and comes from an economically poor family, Amina’s chances of education are slim; she’s more likely to be married than complete her primary education.

Amina has never attended formal schooling, even though a primary school exists in her village. Her gender, culture and lived experiences conspire against her. She is one of the estimated 58 million children who are out of school around the world.

As part of the author’s research in CBE, ten children were invited to photograph their literacy practices over two weeks. Over 4,000 images were produced. Amina captured this image of her numeracy workbook, the lessons for which are also delivered in Dagbanli.

Two countries, on opposite sides of the world, share the challenge of reaching out-of-school children. However, an accelerated and non-state education intervention in one country is taking this challenge head on. PNG, with one of the highest levels of out-of-school children, is not and could perhaps learn from the other.

Since the 1950s, there has been a global push towards achieving free and compulsory primary education for all children, and this movement has grown. PNG pledged to achieve the UN’s Education for All (EFA) commitment in 1990, along with 163 other countries. EFA comprises six goals, but universal primary education has become the centrepiece. It is also one of eight Millennium Development Goals. Unfortunately, in 2015, only half of those countries committed to EFA have achieved universal primary education.

With an estimated 85% of PNG’s population living in rural areas across 20 provinces and speaking one or more of 860 languages, reaching every child through government-provided basic education is challenging. The state of primary education in PNG presents a bleak outlook.

Completion rates are a benchmark in any education context. How many children, who entered primary school in Grade 1, are actually going on to complete Grade 6? Overall, of children in PNG who entered Grade 1 in 2002, only 61.8% completed Grade 6 (64.3% boys and 58.9% girls.).

When disaggregated by gender and province, there are clear inequities.

The provinces of Southern Highlands, Eastern Highlands and Chimbu all recorded completion rates below 50%, with less girls completing than boys in each province. In Enga, the completion rate was 28.9%, with only 22.8% of girls completing primary school. Although reliable data is difficult to come by, it has been estimated that the number of out-of-school children is at least 180,000 children. However, it could be well-over half a million.

PNG is not the only country facing this challenge. Another member of the Commonwealth, one of which Amina is a citizen, faces similar educational challenges. However, it  may offer a solution that provides accessible, relevant and quality primacy education.

Almost 700km north of Ghana’s capital, Accra, the small town of Savelugu sits on the only major road to Burkina Faso. Cows in the back of motorised tricycles, over-capacitated tro tros and 18-wheeler trucks hurry north and south. Take the dirt road just past the experimental primary school east for four kilometres and you will arrive at Bunglung. Rounded, mud-bricked homes with thatched roofing are broken up in their symmetry by adjoining rectangular buildings with zinc plates on top. It is dry most of the year, except during the wet season from March to November.

Amina lives with her family in Bunglung. Despite not attending primary school, she is not out-of-school. In fact, she is learning literacy and numeracy in her mother tongue at one of the classrooms in the local primary school. A program for children like Amina is being provided by an NGO in Bunglung. They use one of the primary school classrooms in the afternoon.

Although not as linguistically complex as PNG, Ghana also has English as the official language in addition to 11 government-sponsored languages in its schools. The country has a total of 70 spoken languages. A government-sponsored language indicates that it is used in primary education. Amina’s mother tongue is Dagbanli, one of the 11, and the language of the Dagomba.

Although Ghana’s education system has made significant progress in expanding opportunities and access, it is estimated that 20% of primary-aged school children are out of school; about 850,000 children.

For two and a half decades, NGOs in Ghana have plugged the gap, providing primary education equivalency programs to children like Amina. These programs are designed to specifically target those who are underserved; children who are excluded due to economic circumstances, geographic location, gender, ethnicity, disability and language.

Known as complementary basic education (CBE), these programs are flexible in their design and delivery. And, they are pulling their weight in reaching excluded children. It is estimated that between 1991 and 2004, one third of the increase in access to primary education in over 100 developing countries was in non-state schools.

However, what makes CBE different from non-formal education is the eventual opportunity to transition back into formal education. Amina will spend nine months in a CBE program, and will be able to transfer directly to primary school at Grade 3 or 4. The program essentially accelerates three to four years of primary school over the course of nine months.

What makes CBE programs attractive is their inherent flexibility and shapelessness. There are CBE programs in Bangladesh, Tanzania, Malawi, Egypt, Cambodia and Myanmar. Although they share similar features, each is adapted to local contexts. This makes them very different from formal school systems. Curricula is typically modified to be culturally relevant, language of instruction is the community’s mother tongue, class sizes are capped, teachers are recruited from community volunteers and there is a heavy focus on literacy and numeracy.

Despite never having used a digital camera, Amina took over 330 photographs. This image shows a page from her Dagbanli language textbook.


CBE programs could leverage the existing community school network in PNG and facilitate the transition of these schools into the new structure. A model of flexible, relevant and adaptive schooling, similar to what is being funded for secondary school-aged youth by the World Bank could not only provide primary education opportunities to primary-aged children, but also accelerate those opportunities.

As education progress stalls in countries such as PNG and Ghana, innovative and different approaches to providing primary education to children are urgently needed. Indeed, what may be needed in the long-term is a complete reimagining of formal education systems.


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About the Author

Brendan Rigby - Founder, WhyDev and Consultant, Plan Asia - Lowy Institute

Brendan Rigby

Founder, WhyDev and Consultant, Plan Asia