The world changes quickly, and local contexts differ wildly, education practices have to keep up to remain relevant and useful, says Ed Francis (programme director at Restless Development) on International Education Day.
Education has been central to the work of Restless Development’s work for over three decades and young people continually tell us about its importance, yet have a read of Restless Development’s strategy and you might find something seriously concerning: education is not mentioned once.
Lessons young people taught me about education.
I started my journey with Restless Development at the age of 18. Ahmed, my Ugandan counterpart and I were based in a small village on the Uganda/Kenya border, leading a group of young students in learning about sexual health, HIV and AIDS and how to make their own informed decisions about their bodies. We didn’t use a blackboard or ask students to open their exercise books but instead used role play, discussion, and games – tools that recognised that those in the room already had relevant experience, and gave them the confidence to express themselves, and come up with their own solutions.
Restless Development was founded on the premise that relevant education can unleash the potential of young people to lead change in their own communities. In 1985 this took the form of young people volunteering in under-served schools and was still core to our work when I started working in international development 15 years later.
Today, education continues to be the number 1 priority for the young people we asked across the globe. For years young people have been telling us about the importance of education in their lives – no more so when we consulted them on our current strategy, our vision to 2030. We started a ‘Big Conversation’ – thousands of young people in more than 60 countries told us their first priority was increased access to education. In fact education came well ahead of their next priority; increased employment opportunities.
But what kind of education is important for young people today?
The reason education isn’t mentioned in our strategy is because when we dug deeper into the Big Conversation, young people weren’t talking to us about education in the way it is commonly perceived. I’m reminded of Jim Cogan, Restless Development’s founder, himself a teacher, who remarked in an interview several years ago;
“I was standing in a classroom in Tanzania last week and do you know what the teacher was teaching? In a classroom 20 miles from a road, 100 miles from a town. The Brownian motion!”.
Young people aren’t telling us that they want education for education’s sake, they’re not demanding more rote learning in under-resourced schools, or just aiming to get that certificate. They’re talking to us about teaching to enable them to voice concerns in their community, education that helps them make ends meet, education to help their communities be better prepared for events they’re seeing unfold such as floods, droughts, and crop failures. They’re talking to us about the leadership role they can, and want to, play in communities, about education so they can protect themselves from HIV. But they’re also telling us that this is very different from the education they’re receiving at the moment, and in order to meet their needs power imbalances need to be fundamentally redressed.
Restless Development’s work is all about shifting power by teaching young people to lead. The power of this, the biggest youth generation in history, to address growing issues; whether that’s climate change, failing political systems, shrinking civic space, youth unemployment or HIV prevention, is enormous. But is the global education system really set up to mobilise this Peak Youth generation?
Education must address young people’s needs
In order to support young people to become leaders in their communities, the education system must go some way to redressing injustice, support young people to claim power, and exercise their agency. This is especially true for young girls during adolescence, a key time in which they journey through the school system. Education that aims to end harmful practices like Chhaupadi (discrimination against women and girls, that can include banishing them to a hut during menstruation), female genital cutting, early child marriage, or gender-based violence is essential, but these areas are completely absent from most teaching agendas.
Don’t get me wrong – the gains that have been made through education in the last 35 years are hugely important, with millions more children in school (worldwide the number of children out of school has nearly halved) and there have been considerable increases in literacy rates. This is an incredible feat and we must continue to strive to ensure every child has a free, quality primary and secondary school education. But we must also focus on the content and process of that education. Whether it’s really transferring power to young people, especially young women, enabling them to lead, providing them with the platform to make the choices they want to in their lives.
So what needs to be done?
Education must set out to do something different; building confidence, giving young people the tools, skills, and networks to be leaders, to set up businesses, adapt farming to climate change, to join governance structures. Young people shouldn’t just be seen as the users of education but active participants in the process, with a responsive education sector listening to their needs, adapting their practices, and being held to account for delivery – by young people – whether in schools in the hills of Mount Elgon in Uganda or through global education commitments.
Education for Restless Development is about how young people are able to navigate adolescence, claim power and become leaders in their communities. Only then will they be able to tackle the biggest problems on the planet. That’s not what young people are currently learning from textbooks and in classrooms around the world, but it should be.
Ed started his Restless journey as a volunteer in Uganda in 1999. From there he went on to help set up Restless Development’s operations in Zambia, where he stayed for 5 years, leading the Monitoring, Evaluation and Learning Team, before taking on the role of Country Director in Sierra Leone. On return to the UK, Ed became an International Trustee for Restless Development whilst completing a Masters in Development Policy and Management. He re-joined Restless Development’s leadership team as International Director of Programmes in 2012.