A few days ago, I was struck by a BBC Headline: 'In school, but learning nothing'. The article covers a Factsheet recently published by the UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS) on the state of education around the world. It found that six out of ten children and teenagers in the world are failing to reach basic levels of proficiency in learning and that two thirds of young people who are not learning are actually in school:
"Of the 387 million primary-age children unable to read proficiently, 262 million are in classrooms. There are also about 137 million adolescents of lower secondary age who are in classrooms, but unable to meet minimum proficiency levels in reading." (source)
Sub-Saharan Africa faces particular challenges:
"Despite years of steady growth in enrolment rates, the education situation in sub-Saharan Africa continues to threaten the future of entire generations. New UIS data show that 88% of all children and adolescents will not be able to read proficiently by the time they are of age to complete primary and lower secondary education." (source)
Education, the need for support and the role of the book
There are many factors which determine whether pupils will be able to learn in their classrooms. UIS particularly notes access to school, a failure to keep children in school and the poor quality of education in the classroom as common problems.
Although not referenced in this report, the availability of books - both textbooks and supplementary reading books - has also been shown to be an important factor. A 2004 World Bank study concluded that: "Textbooks and learning materials show the highest incidence of impact for improving primary school outcomes in many developing countries" (source). Yet a more recent study found that 18 of 19 countries in sub-Saharan Africa suffered from a severe shortage of books for most students (source).
Our charity, Book Aid International, works to ensure that everyone can access books that will enrich, improve and change their lives. We have a special focus on reaching individuals who face particular challenges when they seek to access books and read, including pupils in under-resourced schools.
Photo caption: A classroom in Freetown, Sierra Leone (Photo credit: Author's own)
The need for books and the difference those books can make is clearly and powerfully expressed by one of our partners, Chief Librarian of the Sierra Leone Library Board, Sallieu Turay:
"In Sierra Leone there is a book famine for many of our children. Few families have the means to purchase books to have at home. Even if they can afford to purchase books, there are few bookshops and those that do exist rarely have the relevant learning and reading materials needed. Many children do not have access to books at school either. They depend almost entirely on what the teacher says or writes on the blackboard for their learning. So there is a real need for books."
Children who are trying to learn only from what a teacher writes on a chalk board are unlikely to reach their full potential and teachers who do not have materials that make learning interesting will continue to struggle to engage their pupils.
Working toward a solution
The scale of the challenge is huge: "More than 617 million children and adolescents are not achieving minimum proficiency levels in reading and mathematics. This is the equivalent of three times the population of Brazil being unable to read." (source)
Improving the quality of education received by more than 600 million children will require the commitment of governments, NGOs and educators all working together in the long-term. For our part, we work closely with schools in more than a dozen countries to create and support school libraries full of brand new, age-appropriate reading and curriculum-support books.
When our team here at Book Aid International creates school libraries, we also provide training for teachers in how to integrate the books we provide into their lessons, a grant for the purchase of local books and link the teachers with librarians who can provide ongoing advice in how to engage children in reading and how to encourage children to develop a love of books and reading. While we do not provide textbooks, together the books, training and support we offer enriches classrooms, giving teachers new tools and pupils the opportunity to access books and read in their classrooms - often for the first time.
Photo caption: Science books provided by Book Aid International enrich the science class at a girls' boarding school in Kakuma Refugee Camp, Kenya. (Photo Credit: Author's own)
In 2016, we sent books to 2,368 schools and we hope to expand our work with schools moving forward. Our Inspiring Readers programme, for example, aims to bring books into the classrooms of 250,000 African school children by 2020.
Creating a vibrant learning environment
While books alone are not enough to dramatically change a child's educational outcomes, our most recent monitoring report suggests that the books and training we provide are enriching the learning environments of some of the world's most vulnerable pupils.
In Zambia, we carried out reading tests in schools which had taken part in our School Library in a Box project and compared them to the results of the same test when carried out in schools which where were not part of the project. All of the schools included were community-run, NGO-supported schools which receive little or no government support.
Photo caption: Reading together thanks to a school library in Chikonga Community School, Zambia (Photo credit: Author's own)
We found that more pupils at the schools which had been part of our project could read at an above average level than those at other schools. While these results were also influenced by other factors, including the quality of the teachers at each school, they do suggest that books can play a role in helping pupils improve their reading. (source)
The report also found that teachers' confidence had improved dramatically, with some finding creative ways to incorporate books into their lessons and to display their books. One teacher reported using a science book called The Human Body to teach biology while another used a book about volcanoes to teach a geography lesson. These examples show that the books are helping to enrich the teaching and learning taking place in these schools.
Our charity is small and the books we provide are just one of many tools in the fight to improve education, but we are very proud to be playing our part in improving children's chances of learning the skills they need to succeed in life.
You can find out more about Book Aid International's work in schools by visiting www.bookaid.org. The charity would like to thank players of People's Postcode Lottery for funding Inspiring Readers in Kenya and Uganda.