All over the world, young children leave school, for a variety of reasons, but they are usually seen as voluntarily “dropping out” as if they wake up some day and decide never again to go to school. Singapore, of course, does not have a large problem of children dropping out of the system. But many of the countries in Southeast Asia do. If we take the indicator of the primary education completion rate, indicating the percentage of children who have stayed in the system versus those who have not, this rate is only 67% in Lao PDR, 72% in Cambodia, and 81% in Myanmar. Even in Indonesia, with a high completion rate of 95% — given its population size with almost 30,000,000 children in primary school — a 5% non-completion rate means that around 1,500,000 children “drop out” before the end of their primary education.
But it’s mostly the attitude of people associated with the Ministries of Education (MOE) and the schools they manage. I used to train middle-level MOE staff from around the world at an advanced training programme at the International Institute of Educational Planning (UNESCO) in Paris. Each year I asked them to list the reasons why children fail to enter school, drop-out of school, or fail their final examination. Invariably, the first 10 reasons proposed were similar to these:
- Children live too far from school.
- Children don’t speak the language used in the school.
- Families are too poor to keep their children in school.
- Children have developmental delays and therefore are slow learners.
- Children have disabilities and therefore cannot function in a school.
- Families don’t understand the importance of school for their children.
- Children are bored in school.
After these kinds of reasons were given, a trainee might give a reason of a different — e.g., teachers are often absent from the school or the curriculum does not suit the needs of the children and their families. But essentially — and I continue to see this whenever I discuss the issue with Ministry of Education officials — the blame for non-enrolment, dropping out, and ultimate failure was placed on families and their children rather than on the education system and the school. The very word “drop-out” reinforces this blame — the child (and his/her family) is the actor in dropping out and in failing.
We could, of course, reverse the language of the reasons for failure given above, and therefore:
- The school is too far from the children.
- The school does not use the language of the children.
- The school is too expensive for poor families to afford.
- The school is not responsive to children with delays
- The school is not accessible to (or welcoming of) children with disabilities.
- The school has not proved the importance of education to the children’s families.
- And school is boring!
So what are implications of this reversal of language? First of all, Ministries of Education — and their schools’ principals and teachers — should understand that they, at a minimum, must share the blame for school failure; the child is therefore the victim and not the protagonist in the process of leaving the school system. Secondly, the word “drop out” should be eliminated from the English language (and similar words in other languages) — or at least from the discourse found within education systems.
The more useful and accurate word, of course, is “push out”. Children, explicitly, as in the example above, or implicitly, through school and systems policies and actions, are slowly (and sometimes precipitously) pushed out of school. Many teachers prefer a homogeneous classroom — especially teachers in the higher grades of primary school where their reputation may rest on school-leaving results — where students are of the same age and economic class, speak the same language, and have roughly similar abilities (at least without disabilities). They therefore often do not or cannot respond to the “special needs” (broadly defined) of their students — those who are over-age, poor and often absent; those who don’t speak the school language well or have delays and disabilities, and the different learning styles and content interest of boys and girls.
In other words, “differences” and “diversity” in a classroom are seen as problems that need to be resolved, first by ignoring such differences and catering to “normal”, teachable students and then by gently (or not so gently) nudging/pushing children with such differences out of school — rather than being seen as opportunities for more inclusive and higher quality education. (Anecdotally, at one time a leading government primary school in Bangkok had a quote of 10% of every entering class were children with disabilities; this was seen as not only helpful to those children but also important for the development of the other 90%).
Changing this mindset of ministries and school staff ultimately requires a system which is much more inclusive (again, broadly defined) — analysing barriers to success in education to groups of children at the macro-level and individual children at the community level, identifying children not yet in school or on the cusp of being pushed out, adapting the system and the school to the individual needs of each child, and being not only child-centred (which the world now seems to accept) but also child-seeking — and child-retaining. Thus:
- Use multi-grade teaching to enable schools to run in rural and remote areas
- Promote mother tongue-based multi-lingual education (with literacy gained first in that mother tongue) at least from pre-school through the early grades of primary school
- Support families who are too poor to keep their children in school
- Identify early on children with developmental delays and more severe disabilities and develop adequate and individualized responses to them
- Try to show more clearly to families the potential importance of education to their children
- Develop a curriculum and a pedagogy more appropriate and attractive to children — and therefore less boring!
And ultimately, of course, develop an education system as a whole, which is more genuinely inclusive and more welcoming of children who are different.
Dr Sheldon Shaeffer is a former Director of UNESCO’s Asia and Pacific Regional Bureau for Education in Bangkok and a Fellow at The HEAD Foundation.
The HEAD Foundation Commentary is a platform to provide timely and, where appropriate, policy-relevant commentary of topical issues and contemporary developments. The views expressed by the authors are solely their own and do not reflect opinions of The HEAD Foundation.