Leaving no child behind in Madagascar

UNICEF Madagascar is looking forward to hosting the next group of IWitnesses, who will get to see how our Soft Toys for Education campaign helps children get a quality education. Interim Education Chief Matthias Lansard’s enthusiasm and passion for his work are clear as he describes initiatives to bring children who are out of school back into the classroom.

Clarita, Fania, Faniry, Judith and Patrick (Andampy Public Primary school) and Matthias Lansard (UNICEF Madagascar). Photographer: Lalaina, Ministry of National Education
Clarita, Fania, Faniry, Judith and Patrick (Andampy Public Primary school) and Matthias Lansard (UNICEF Madagascar). Photographer: Lalaina, Ministry of National Education

Have you ever heard of Madagascar’s National School Games Tournament? When I arrived in Diego—the regional capital of Diana, in the north of the country—I knew it was going to be a moving experience. The tournament, which takes place annually before the new academic year starts in October, brings together more than 2,000 children from hundreds of primary schools across the 22 regions—but this year, for the first time ever, children affected by disabilities joined.

Nearly 130 children with visual, hearing, mental and physical impairments took part. This was a unique opportunity for children to demonstrate their potential and, through their participation, to change perceptions towards disability, make people realise that every child counts and that the right to education is for ALL children, with no exception whatsoever.

Offering a more inclusive environment for children affected by disabilities is just one of the many challenges UNICEF addresses with the Ministry of Education and their partners, thanks to donors like the IKEA Foundation. The many passionate education specialists, teachers and children I’ve met in Diego have stressed the different issues we have to work on to achieve access to quality education for every child in Madagascar.

Just before the tournament, Mr. Jeannot Aimé Rakotonandrasana, the head of the Inclusive Education Department at the Ministry of National Education, launched a workshop with all Directors of Regional Education Authorities to help them plan interventions for out-of-school children. He said, “We have about 1.5 million children of primary-school age who are out of school, and more than half of all children who start primary school do not even complete the full primary cycle. Our system is weak, our budget is tight, but we can’t leave our children behind anymore.”

Mr. Jeannot Aimé Rakotonandrasana (Ministry of National Education). Photographer: Matthias Lansard, UNICEF Madagascar
Mr. Jeannot Aimé Rakotonandrasana (Ministry of National Education). Photographer: Matthias Lansard, UNICEF Madagascar

With about 90% of the Malagasy population living on less than U.S. $2 a day, and while an increasing number of primary teachers have been recruited and paid by communities to compensate for the lack of civil servant teachers over the past decade, many parents simply cannot afford to pay for sending their children to school.

As the Interim Chief of Education at UNICEF Madagascar, I have supported the Ministry of Education to experiment with catch-up programmes for out-of-school children through ordinary schools since 2013, with the support of the IKEA Foundation and other partners. It has been a revolution!

For the first time, the Ministry has been assuming direct responsibility for reaching out to out-of-school children. This has given us the opportunity to change the lives of out-of-school children. We started a pilot initiative with the Ministry in one district in 2013, and it has been so encouraging that it is now promoted as a national initiative to be implemented across all 22 regions of Madagascar.

So far, more than 45,000 children who had never been to school or who had dropped out have been participating in catch-up classes and supported to stay in school, enabling them to benefit from the same opportunities as other kids. The initiative is still growing, and I was proud and happy to see some children finally participating with their peers in the National School Games Tournament after their first year of school.

Another challenge is to improve the quality of education in Madagascar. As Mr. Jeannot put it during the workshop, “We have to address a double challenge of bringing children back to school and of improving the quality of education, as there is no point to encourage children to come to school if there is nothing for them to learn in the classroom that is relevant to them.”

This is why, with the support of our partners, we have also helped the Ministry train more than 15,000 community teachers (i.e. 20% of them) over the past two years. In Madagascar, most educators in primary schools are community teachers; they often have no qualifications and had not received any training before this undertaking.

Clarita, Faniry, Fania, Judith and Patrick (Andampy Public Primary school) and Ms. Vanova (community teacher, Andampy Public Primary school). Photographer: Matthias Lansard, UNICEF Madagascar
Clarita, Faniry, Fania, Judith and Patrick (Andampy Public Primary school) and Ms. Vanova (community teacher, Andampy Public Primary school). Photographer: Matthias Lansard, UNICEF Madagascar

Ms. Vanova, 28 years old, is one of the community teachers I met at the National School Games Tournament. She was participating for the first time, with four girls and two boys from her primary school, coming all the way from the east coast, in the Analanjirofo region. She told me her journey as a teacher. “When I first started teaching in 2006, I had no clue of how I was supposed to teach. I received some guidance from another teacher who had already some experience in the school where I was teaching.

“The training I received last year was the first of its kind and completely changed my life. I now have more confidence, and I know how I am supposed to teach and interact with pupils. I can now identify children who have learning difficulties and adjust my approach accordingly. I also apply new techniques like group work and exploratory methods with children, rather than just relying on ‘talk and chalk’. I can see the benefit this has brought for the children: they learn better, in their own way and at their own pace; they support each other and are much happier.”

Mr. Jeannot Aimé Rakotonandrasana (Ministry of National Education) and Clarita, Faniry, Fania and Judith (Andampy Public Primary school). Photographer: Matthias Lansard, UNICEF Madagascar
Mr. Jeannot Aimé Rakotonandrasana (Ministry of National Education) and Clarita, Faniry, Fania and Judith (Andampy Public Primary school). Photographer: Matthias Lansard, UNICEF Madagascar

The stories of the children I met at the National Sport Games Tournaments also reflect the multiple issues that need to be addressed to achieve quality education for all children in Madagascar. One of the pupils who came with Ms. Vanova, 12-year-old Clarita, told me: “My parents could not send me to school when I was six, as it was too expensive for them. When we heard that the school was offering catch-up classes for children like me two years ago, I decided to enrol and I am so happy to be learning now as well, together with my friends at school.”

Her classmate, nine-year-old Fania, is physically impaired and studying in grade 4. She joyfully added: “I am participating in the National School Games—my parents are so proud of me!”

And her friend Judith, 11, added, “I did not want to play with Fania at first, but our teacher sat me next to her in class and that’s how we’ve learned to discover each other. She is a great friend now. She is so good in mathematics that she helps me with my homework!”

Children with disabilities are traditionally hidden by their parents or, according to many people, do not ‘deserve’ to go to school. Latest data available indeed suggests that less than 1 in 10 children affected by disabilities has access to primary education in Madagascar, most of the time only through specialised or private institutions. This is changing. With the Ministry of Education, UNICEF promotes and develops inclusive environments within schools and through schools, where all children—irrespective of their condition—can learn together, can learn from each other, and are supported to achieve their full potential.

Torball game with boys competing here, including visually impaired. Photographer: Matthias Lansard, UNICEF Madagascar
Torball game with boys competing here, including visually impaired. Photographer: Matthias Lansard, UNICEF Madagascar

During the tournament, children with disabilities participated with their peers in various competitions. All children played new games like torball, where visually impaired children perform very well. It’s an eye opener for everyone and a strong message that Madagascar is now committed to catch up on its promise to reach every child.

When I see these children interacting together and the positive reactions from the audience, it gives me the energy to work even harder and the feeling that Madagascar’s commitment to provide an inclusive and quality education to all Malagasy children is now starting to become a dream come true, although a lot of support is still needed.

Torball game at the 2015 National School Games Tournament, with a girl with visual impairments competing here. Photographer: Matthias Lansard, UNICEF Madagascar
Torball game at the 2015 National School Games Tournament, with a girl with visual impairments competing here. Photographer: Matthias Lansard, UNICEF Madagascar

The changes I have seen in Diego are only possible because we have partners and donors supporting our efforts, including the significant contributions mobilised by the IKEA Foundation to support our programme through IKEA’s Soft Toys for Education campaign. These are the partnerships that provide us with the necessary support in our daily work and help us deliver better results for children in Madagascar.