If we are to “ensure inclusive and quality education for all and promote lifelong learning” by 2030, a commitment globally adopted as Goal 4 of the UN Sustainable Development Goals, we need to recognize the role of non-formal education and promote political resources and investment that advance non-formal education programs, according to Katarina Tomasevski, the Special Rapporteur for the Right to Education, in her report to the 35th session of the Human Rights Council. With nearly 263 million children of primary and secondary school age out of school and approximately 775 million adults, two-thirds being women, lacking minimum literacy skills, it is crucial that we create the systemic environment that allows for ways to fill education gaps and build bridges to the formal education system. It is also significant that non-formal education is being promoted in a high-level report to the Human Rights Council, opening potential for growth and innovation in this sector worldwide.
Non-formal education systems play an important role in providing the right to education to the world’s most vulnerable populations and creating opportunities throughout their lives. According to the report, “Realizing the Right to Education Through Non-Formal Education,” non-formal education encompasses any institutionalized, organized learning outside of the formal system that is traditionally understood as organized and delivered by the state and government run. Non-formal education programs can be “characterized by their variety, flexibility, and ability to respond quickly to new educational needs of children and adults,” according to the report. In addition, they often exist due to partnerships with local communities, civil society, or other diverse actors that are working to address the specific learning needs and local requirements for learners.
If the environment allows for the development and implementation of non-formal programs, there is great potential for education innovation of relevant, quality non-formal programs that address specific learning needs of vulnerable populations. The Special Rapporteur points out, “Depending on their design, non-formal education [programs] can be particularly helpful for the protection of local cultures and languages, as well as minority religions and traditional knowledge.” To illustrate the potential of non-formal programs to address the education gaps and challenges, the report considers examples that include community schools that serve as an interim step until governments have the capacity to provide formal schools to all learners; adult literacy programs; facilitating learning opportunities for children with disabilities; and approaches that are sensitive to the psychosocial needs of children affected by conflict.
A recent article published by the Association for Childhood Education International in Childhood Education: Innovations, called “Driving Change in Detroit: Libraries Innovating in Step with Community,” showcases a community-driven, non-formal education program that provides learning opportunities to high-needs communities such as Detroit. In partnership with the non-government organization Libraries Without Borders (LWB), local Detroit organizations and institutions worked to fill the gaps left by cuts to public services. Through an innovative collaboration process, LWB and community members provided afterschool academic support, supplemental learning opportunities, and community workshops catered to local interest.
It is worth noting that there is often disagreement among educators on the importance of non-formal education programs and whether they take away from investment in improving the formal system. In defining non-formal education, the Special Rapporteur points out that the distinction between non-formal and formal education is often fluid. Indeed, non-formal programs can serve to bridge entry into the formal system from early childhood programs to “second chance” education for youth and adults. The report emphasizes that governments are ultimately responsible for guaranteeing the right to education which includes both improving the formal system and strengthening the environment for a robust, quality non-formal system to better meet the needs of underserved learners.
Report of the Special Rapporteur on the right to education: realizing the right to education through non-formal education (PDF of full report)
Driving Change in Detroit: Libraries Innovating in Step with Community. Childhood Education Innovation
UN Sustainable Development Goals (UN website)
Association for Childhood Education International Innovation Exchange (ACEI program page)