Interview with Rebekka van Roemburg, First Secretary Education, Royal Netherlands Embassy”Yemen as a whole has made enormous progress in terms of expanding the access to basic education” [Archives:2004/797/Community]

December 9 2004

Q: The Netherlands government is currently supporting the education sector in Yemen quite considerably. Could you tell us when you started funding this sector?
A: We have been involved since the mid 90es. We co-funded the Basic Education Project with the World Bank from 1995 to 2000 (_ 8 mil) and we supported UNICEF's Girl's Education Project from '98 to '01 (_1.6 mil), but we were not directly involved so much in policy development. In Dakar, during the big conference on Education for All in 2000, the then Minister of Education Dr Al Shoaibi convinced the Dutch Minister for Development Co-operation to include the education sector fully into the RNE's programme. Since 2001 we have supported both the Public Works Programme and the Social Fund for Development quite considerably in their construction programmes. UNICEF receives support for their education programme which includes the Child Development Project as well as interventions at central level, e.g. in the area of curriculum development.

Q: What have the achievements been so far and what are your plans for the future?
A: Yemen as a whole has made enormous progress in terms of expanding the access to basic education. In 1970 only 25,000 children in North Yemen and about 115,000 in South Yemen attended school. In 2004 this figure has risen to some 4.5 million! But Yemen has still a very long way to go particularly in terms of getting girls, children in remote areas and children with special needs into school, making sure that all children complete their basic education and, most importantly, in improving the quality of education. A study that was recently undertaken by the Education Research and Development Centre to objectively measures learning achievements among students in grades 4 and 6, did not show good results. While we have made some modest contributions in the past to quality improvement measures, we want to stress this issue much more in the future. A good physical learning environment is important, but even the most beautiful classroom doesn't teach. It is what goes on inside the classroom (or under the tree, if there isn't a classroom yet) that really matters. Luckily, the Ministry of Education is also fully aware of the need to improve quality.

Q: How do you intend to do this?
A: As the ambassador explained to you, we are not keen to set up separate projects any more. We were very pleased when Yemen developed its Basic Education Development Strategy (BEDS) in 2002, because it provided a good framework within which to work. The international community recognised this as well and invited Yemen to put forward a medium-term proposal to the so-called Fast Track Initiative (FTI) for Education for All. This FTI aims to help countries that would otherwise not be able to achieve the Millennium Development Goal of universal primary completion by 2015. It suggests things that a country can do itself and based on different scenarios of reform, it calculates a financing gap to which the international community will then contribute. On the basis of Yemen's proposal it was awarded a grant in November 2003 ($ 10 mil), which as it happens is fully financed by the Dutch ministry in The Hague. This grant is currently being used to build schools in areas with very low (girls') enrolment and for the training of 14,000 teachers.
Starting during the preparation of the National Basic Education Conference in 2002, the donors in Yemen have been working hard on better co-ordinating their efforts. In the course of 2003 donors and government have been preparing a Partnership Declaration that commits all of us to work in a more coherent manner towards the objectives of BEDS. We are now working with the Ministry of Education and other Yemeni organisations as true partners and the Minister is showing real leadership. A first concrete result of this commitment is that three development partners have decided to join forces in supporting BEDS. The World Bank, United Kingdom and the Netherlands have pooled their funds in the Basic Education Development Project (BEDP).
This five year programme with a total value of $ 120 million (of which the Netherlands contributes $ 24 million) addresses all the critical issues in education reform and expansion and is intended to help pave the way for direct support to the education budget. It is meant to strengthen the capacity of the education sector to deliver quality education, including literacy. We are, through intensive co-ordination, trying to make sure that all our efforts are complementary and sustainable.

Q: What are some of the biggest challenges the basic education sector faces in your opinion?
A: There are many and I cannot go into all of them, but the three biggest ones in my view are efficiency, girls' education and quality. As far as efficiency is concerned, you should know that Yemen spends quite a big share of its budget on education (20% of which half goes to basic education). The sad thing is that the results are not what could be expected from this investment. There are many inefficiencies in the system, such as a very uneven distribution of teachers in comparison with the number of students (too many teachers in some places, too few in others), teachers with very small teaching loads getting full pay, underutilisation of existing facilities (only one shift) and many children dropping out prematurely. If children then revert to illiteracy, all the investment in their education is lost.
That brings us to quality. The perception of low quality and relevance is often a factor in families deciding to withdraw from education. They decide that it is not worth their time and money to let the children continue. There are many things that could and should be done: improving teachers' general and subject-specific teaching skills, better school management, more effective guidance and supervision of teachers and headmasters/mistresses, a balanced curriculum that is based on a clear understanding of what we want children to learn and how they can best learn it and a better system of diagnostic testing and examinations. We are pleased to see that several measures are already being taken by the Ministry of Education, but much more needs to be done.
Last but definitely not least is girls' education. Yemen has the biggest gender gap in the world. That means that the difference between girls' and boys' access to education is bigger than anywhere else. There are many reasons for this, both cultural and economical. I find it very encouraging when I go and visit places that I am often confronted with requests for a girls' school. In other words, the demand for girls' education appears to be increasing. To meet this demand is quite a challenge. It means creating school environments that are conducive to girls' education. Having a fathers and mothers council appears to help a great deal: they get girls into school and monitor their performance. Discussing the most appropriate utilisation of the school building (e.g. two shifts separating the older boys and girls) can encourage more girls. Having female teachers helps win over reluctant parents and offers a role model as well as a professional perspective for girls. Unfortunately, despite the positive results of training up female secondary school graduates from rural areas as teachers, this model is not applied very widely yet. We hope that this will change in the very near future.

Q: Having a population that is educated to grade 9 is not going to be enough to enhance Yemen's development. Why are you not involved so much in other parts of the education sector?
A: I couldn't agree with you more about the importance of a healthy total education system which produces high quality people in all fields of expertise, both practical and theoretical. My big wish for Yemen is that it would develop a sound comprehensive education strategy with good links between all the different stages and forms of education. It doesn't really help that the main responsibility for education is spread over three different Ministries (in addition to of course universities and other training institutes). Within its own mandate the Ministry of Education is already developing a secondary education strategy. Maybe, when the Ministry of Education embarks on its institutional reform process in the beginning of next year, these issues of how its mandate relates to that of other ministries and local government will be tackled and this may be a beginning of devising an overall education strategy. We are definitely interested in supporting other parts of the education system, once such a comprehensive strategy is in place. And if it is needed we are happy to offer assistance in building such a strategy.
I would like to stress, though, that we do already support other parts of the education sector. With funds from BEDP the Ministry will go beyond the formal education system and also support literacy. This is extremely important because even if Yemen is very successful in expanding formal education, for quite some time to come not all Yemeni children will be reached. Complementary forms of non-formal education can really help in reaching these groups of people. There is much that can be learned from other countries in this respect.
We also provide quite substantial support to higher education, through the NPT programme managed by NUFFIC. We have prepared a write-up of this project for your readers which can be found elsewhere in this issue.