Dr. Dyer: “There is a dire need to improve the links between what our schools deliver and what the economy needs” [Archives:2007/1085/Business & Economy]

September 13 2007

Interviewed by Raidan Al-Saqqaf
[email protected]

Dr. Caroline Dyer is a developmental science professor at the University of Leeds in the UK. She has undertaken developmental research in many parts of the world including China, India and Yemen, where she worked with several developmental agencies and has researched child labour in the country. Yemen Times interviewed Dr. Dyer regarding some of the specific issues relating to child labour in Yemen.

In your research about child labour in Yemen, you argued that any intervention strategy that lacks an understanding of context is bound to fail. Can you elaborate on that?

Over several decades of educational interventions around the world, it's becoming more and more obvious that the 'one size fits all' approach to intervention doesn't really fit anyone.

One of the main problems is that what seems logical to a policy maker, or programme designer, or an international aid agency, doesn't necessarily match the logic and understandings of the people who will actually be implementing the innovation. This is a major barrier where change is designed and implemented in a 'top down' way – and furthermore lots of education change operates like this. Policy makers all too often see teachers as part of the problem, rather than agents of change who need to be consulted. They seem to forget that actually it's the teachers and not the policy makers who will be the ones who have to try and make the suggested policy changes work. This means that there can be a big gap between what policy expects and what teachers feel they can do about the problems policy is trying to address. This is one aspect of the question of context.

A second is that a country like Yemen is varied; there are local differences between the different geographical areas, and patterns of child labour also vary in the different areas.

If an intervention isn't informed about these two aspects of context, it's liable to make assumptions about what is wrong, what should be done about it, and what people on the ground are able to do. If a programme design isn't sufficiently in touch with these kinds of local realities, the likelihood of good intentions making any real difference is reduced. So educational innovation needs to have a good understanding of factors that are likely to shape its results, not make too many assumptions. In my article, my argument is that we need to take into account the levels of professional capacity of Yemeni teachers, and recognise that working children's educational needs are diverse, too. A programme that has all the right intentions about using schools to prevent child labour, but makes assumptions about teacher capacity and children's work, is more likely to fail than one that really tries to match programme intentions with individual and systemic capacity. And if there are problems there, instead of hoping it'll work out, one way forward is for a programme to include capacity improvement in order to better the fit between what needs to be done, and what is possible in local contexts.

To do the research needed to understand contexts takes time and it's expensive, but policy communities and aid agencies often want change to happen quickly, within budgets and timeframes that often lack sufficient flexibility. We have to aim for workable compromises.

From your understanding about Yemen's context, what role can education play in tackling poverty in the country?

How education really helps to tackle poverty isn't nearly as well understood as it appears. It's not a simple relationship. All too often, people associate formal education with employment in the formal sector. But of course the formal sector isn't capable of absorbing all school graduates. Probably, work in the informal economy is more likely for many people, and schooling might need to be orientated to recognise this. For example, part of the curriculum might be devoted to preparing children with relevant skills. The danger might be a reductionist view that has low aspirations for children of very poor families, so getting the balance right is important.

Underlying this argument is a concern that education can't impact very much on poverty if it's treated in isolation. Integrated development planning is really important – so the relationship between what school graduates do and the aspirations for growth of the wider economy informs the skills, knowledge and understandings children gain as part of their education. Yemen's a relatively young country that to me looks as if lots of entrepreneurial talent among its youthful population would be something the education system might usefully foster, for example.

But isn't there income for the family justifying children's work in Yemen given its widespread poverty and meager returns to education?

One can adopt two positions on this. One is the pragmatic position that is reflected in this question, which argues that poverty is here to stay so children's work must be tolerated because it's unrealistic to expect families to survive otherwise. Work is then analysed into different categories and attention is focused on getting children out of the 'worst' kinds. It's very difficult to think otherwise in Yemen where poverty is so prevalent; but actually it lets the government off the hook by excusing its failure to implement stated policy which says all children must be in school. The other position is the idealist one that starts from a position of child rights – and Yemen has signed up to the Convention on the Rights of the Child so this position has to be considered. According to this view, formal education is a basic child right and if work is getting in the way of achieving that right then it is work that has to stop. Underlying this position is the idea that policy failure in respect of child's rights can't be tolerated or excused. Thus the focus is getting all children into school and keeping them there. At first in a context of poverty this seems illogical and quite unrealistic; but in the end workplace and employer expectations change because children aren't available and everyone is focused on getting stated policy implemented.

I admit that I have always adopted a pragmatist stance but I have recently learned about the work of an NGO called the MV Foundation in southern India. This NGO has adopted the idealist stance and through the use of educational bridge courses it has got working children into mainstream schools and helped create a local world view that children are of an age to study, not work. Even the poorest of families appear to prefer education for their children if this can be made possible. This has really made me wonder whether being pragmatic isn't just colluding with exploitation.

How valid is the argument that working children – in Yemen – learn experiences that makes them more useful in the workplace compared to their peers who spend a few years at school?

This goes back to what I was saying earlier about the need to improve the links between what schools deliver and what the economy needs, as well as changing expectations that children are present in the workplace. Having children work appears to be driven by families' economic necessity; but if you talk to poor families and working children, they are often prepared to make huge compromises to get an education and they do see schooling as very important. If a few years of education do not provide any value added for children, then there's a problem with what that education is offering. The quality and relevance of that education has to be investigated as a matter of urgency. It is not correct to claim that working children are not interested in education; it is better to be honest in investigating why they don't enrol in schools, and why they don't necessarily stay there even if they do. Children who work can be stigmatised in schools for all sorts of reasons – because they may come late, be poorly prepared, are often absent, may be tired, are perhaps not sufficiently respectful to the teacher or disruptive if they're bored and thus it is the working child who is blamed, rather than a school that is not able to accommodate learners who are 'different'.

But if we take a rights stance, the argument becomes irrelevant because the children should not be in the workplace anyway.

What role should civil society and the government do in order to tackle the issue of working children in Yemen?

Civil society has an enormous role to play in working with the government to improve awareness of both legal frameworks, and people's rights. One of the problems in tackling child labour in Yemen is that it's so widespread that it's hard to see beyond this common acceptance that this is the way it has to be. I have heard teachers in Yemen speaking in the most defamatory way about working children with no apparent idea that such discrimination is entirely unacceptable.

The idea that working children are an inevitable part of Yemen's socio-economic context for the foreseeable future has become too accepted. The task for us all now is to try and interrupt this and to make education work far better as one of a range of strategies to address what is, after all, an infringement of children's rights.