Four ways to improve rural education

By Varissara Charassangsomboon

How four countries in South America and Southeast Asia are improving quality of education in rural schools.

For decades, people have flocked out of rural towns to the big cities, drawn by the bright lights and the allure of better lives. Unfortunately, the same rings true for education.

In Southeast Asia, inequity between the quality of education in rural and urban schools remains an unresolved challenge. Developing countries are especially vulnerable, with factors such as poverty, hunger, and violence contributing to lower performance in rural schools.

Here are four innovative ways through which governments around the world are improving access to and quality of education for children in rural areas.

1. The ‘school vs. supporting family’ dilemma

Across the world, the first step to improving students’ education is to physically get them to school in the first place. For many countries, particularly in rural areas, a number of children drop out at the end of primary school to help support their families.

To reduce the drop-out rates from this, Mexico came up with Progresa (now renamed Prospera), a conditional cash transfer initiative. The programme provides a fixed monetary transfer to families if their children attend at least 85% of school days, and receive regular health check-ups. The amount of aid increases as children age to match the rising opportunity cost of income if they were working instead of in school.

The programme increased school retention rates by an average of 3.5%; the effect is especially significant between the last years of primary school and the early years of secondary. Other countries, such as Brazil and Cambodia, have since adopted the conditional cash transfer model.

2. Providing nutrition

For provinces such as Oudomxay in Laos, however, children do not miss school because they need to work but because they need to eat. Hunger still keeps millions of children out of school around the world.

As their parents often have to leave for work very early in the mornings, many children in Laos’ poorest villages have to walk hours to school on an empty stomach. Parents are also worried about their children’s safety if they attempt to cook alone. Many families opt to take their children to the fields with them, where they can be fed, instead of sending them to school.

In response, the government launched the National School Meals Programme in 2013, which provided free school lunches to children in the poorest provinces. With support from the community, local volunteers lead this initiative, using home-grown ingredients to prepare nutritious meals. The schools receive a steady supply of fresh fruits and vegetables from local farmers.

While the results of the programme have not yet been published, a similar school feeding programme in Ghana resulted in a 43.4% increase in school attendance rates.

3. Reducing teacher absenteeism

It is challenging enough to get children to school. Many countries also have to find ways to also get teachers to work as well.

High levels of teacher absenteeism is common in both remote and urban areas in many developing countries across Asia, Africa, and South America. It not only negatively affects students’ learning outcomes, but is also very costly - absent teachers across rural India cost the government up to $1.5 billion per year.

Indonesia has one of the highest rates of teacher absenteeism at 25%. This led to the government launching the KIAT Guru Pilot in 2016. The initiative enlists local community representatives to monitor the performance of teachers, who may receive special allowances based on these evaluations.

By mid-2017, community satisfaction on teacher presence rose by 22%, along with a 36% increase in teacher performance satisfaction. The programme also helped improve students’ literacy and numeracy learning outcomes at participating schools.

4. Empowering students

Sometimes, the teachers do show up, but there just aren’t enough of them. It is difficult to find a balance between increasing the number of schools and increasing their quality. While having a higher number of smaller schools improves coverage, it ‘stretches’ the supply of teachers.

Multigrade schools are not uncommon, especially in sparsely-populated areas. One teacher, who is typically not qualified to teach all the subjects that they are required to, must attempt to cater to multiple (sometimes even every) grade levels in the same classroom. As a result, students at these schools typically fall behind their peers in better-staffed urban schools.

To improve the effectiveness of multigrade education, Colombia developed the Escuela Nueva learning model. Students were given the resources to take charge of their own learning, and teachers were trained to be facilitators.

This child-centric, active learning model alleviates the burden on teachers, as well as allows students to learn at their own level and pace. Instead of the traditional format of teachers lecturing students, students at Escuela Nueva schools get to work on their own projects with their classmates, which not only make learning engaging, but also fosters critical thinking and problem-solving skills.

Third grade students in Escuela Nueva schools outperform their traditional school peers in all of the assessed areas (Spanish, maths, creativity, civics, and self-esteem), scoring an average of 3.7% higher in Spanish and 2.4% higher in maths. Fifth graders saw similar achievements for everything except maths.

These innovative approaches indicate that a good education for children in disadvantaged areas is not out of reach. Simple interventions that remove the barriers to education can level the playing field, boosting access to education no matter what the circumstances.