Small schools and the pursuit of happiness

How Mali and Guinea are working on opening small, 1-classroom rural schools to ensure all children’s right to education

Four children are outside the classroom in Mali, two sit on the window sill while the other two stand outside. Credit: GPE

November 2012, Lomé, Togo

It was one of those mid-workshop, wake-up-everyone type exercises. About 30 civil society representatives from across Africa, gathered to see how they might better support Education For All in their countries, were standing together listening to an enthusiastic representative from the Right to Education do a call and response activity.

The question was for each of us to cite a “universally-recognized” right. As I come from the USA, a country where these rights are generally not taught in schools, I realized suddenly, embarrassed, that I could only suppose what those rights might be, as opposed to rattling them off like the other members of the group.

Since I work in the Global Partnership for Education (GPE) Secretariat, I should know these rights! As I listened to the others, what they all said made sense to me. When my turn came, instead of trying to explain away my ignorance, I cheerfully announced, “The right to the pursuit of happiness!”

Pursuing the right to education: Do No Harm!

This made everyone laugh, and I suppose made some think about the concept. The “right” I cited comes from the United States Declaration of Independence from Great Britain in 1776, a document that we did indeed study in school.

The exercise ended with this mirth, and we settled into a good session on what the “Right to Education” is and what it means practically for all the countries struggling to provide a quality basic education to all children.

One of the key takeaways for me was that no matter how good our intentions in international development, we must be most attentive to any action or intervention which in some way infringes on another’s rights, especially those pertaining to education.

I look on it perhaps as a corollary to the International Network for Education in Emergency’s mandate to do no harm, since we are doing harm if we limit a child’s right to education.

As GPE remains committed and involved in supporting greater civil society involvement in the effort to reach Education For All, I see considerable upside potential for this “do no harm” corollary in the ongoing work with EFA coalitions at the country level.

September 1950, Kalona, Iowa, United States

Brush Number 8 Public School, Johnson County, Iowa, USA, circa 1952

Brush Number 8 Public School, Johnson County, Iowa, USA, circa 1952

Brush Number 8 Public School, Johnson County, Iowa, USA, circa 1952

The teenager stood in front of classroom of thirty children aged 5 to 15. It was her first day of work as a teacher employed by the school board (or parents’ association) of “Brush Number 8”.

Just fifteen months earlier she was in high school in the city. As she had never been a student in a rural school where all nine grades of the basic education cycle studied together in one classroom, she knew this was going to be a stretch.

She had some friends and a helpful cousin or two who were teaching that year in the same region, so she wasn’t completely without support.

But she was faced with a huge pedagogical challenge: throughout her own education, she had been in classrooms where one teacher had taught directly to a room full of children of roughly the same age; now she was supposed to keep groups of students from nine different grades moving forward through their lessons simultaneously.

Four lessons from teaching in a multigrade classroom

Sixty-five years later this woman would note that there were four comparative advantages that made success possible:

  1. For every textbook that was used in the nine grades, the teacher had the “teacher’s manual”, which provided among other things the correct answers to all of the exercises in the students’ books;
  2. While the parents were mostly farmers and not highly educated, they did want to make sure that the school was able to provide their children with the basics and so they were attentive to any concerns she might raise;
  3. The county pedagogical advisor who would visit her classroom twice that first year was much less interested in judging her work than he was in providing her with constructive criticism to help her to do even better;
  4. The students themselves were so familiar with, and so involved in, the proper functioning of a one-room school that a relatively large portion of the organization of any given school day was supported by, even co-managed by, the students. She noted in her reflections that the adolescent girls were generally the most helpful and adept at organizing and carrying out exercises with the younger students.

April-May 2016, Bamako, Mali, And Conakry, Guinea

I was glad to be able to attend both countries’ joint sector reviews, looking at the accomplishments in the education sector for 2015. In both cases, the countries have been proactive in addressing the challenge of access to schooling in rural areas.

During the 1960 – 2010 period, in both countries, the use of small schools where students of several grades work together in one classroom (multigrade learning) was largely a lost art.

Rather, children were asked to leave their own village on foot, cross mountains, forests, plains, rivers and roads to get to a “consolidator school” in another community several kilometers away.

Distance to school

The reasons for this imposed commute were both pedagogical and economic: having bigger schools meant that there would be fewer schools, meaning fewer construction sites, more amenities near the schools such as health centers, markets, and government services, easier access to the teachers for in-service training, more simple school inspection schedules, etc.

Perhaps more importantly, teachers would not need to manage learners of different grade levels simultaneously. And so the pedagogical art of one-room-school teaching progressively disappeared from the public school system as enrollment rates surged, and the existing one-room schools of the 1950s became the large established schools of today.

The art did survive to some extent however in the parallel religious education system in many countries where children generally received instruction in their own communities.

The big problem that the education ministries in both Mali and Guinea recognized was, quite simply, that the public school consolidation scheme did not work.

Indeed research showed that consolidator schools do not even come close to providing equal access to school for children walking in from surrounding villages.

Equitable access, especially for girls from small, rural communities

Further, the systemic discrimination disproportionately affects girls from low-income households in remote villages where, in many cultures, the girl’s domestic labor is highly valued; she simply does not have the time to commute!

It was as if the education system was intent on compounding a societal injustice, making the girl’s path to completing her basic education a much harder proposition than for boys, who are saddled with a lighter domestic work load than their sisters, or for children from wealthier families who may not be asked to do chores.

Indeed, the consolidator school was a plausible alternative only if considered in the absence of a commitment to Education For All, or, flash forward a few decades, at such a time when it would be possible to provide transportation for all children to get to school on time every morning.

From the moment a country shifts from “education for the masses” to Education For All, attention must be focused on reforming policies and practices that limit any child’s access to quality, basic education. . .  and their pursuit of happiness!

Both Mali and Guinea are now working on developing pedagogical approaches adapted to small rural schools. These activities are part of the overall education sector plans and are specifically supported by the GPE-funding that has been made available (US$41.7 million to Mali in 2013, and US$37.8 million to Guinea in 2014.)  It will be most interesting to follow developments.

It is an honor and a privilege for me to be (i) the GPE Secretariat’s Country Lead for both Mali and Guinea, (ii) the humbled participant at the Lomé workshop, and (iii) the son of the teacher from Brush Number 8.

Learn more on GPE in Mali and Guinea

Sub-Saharan Africa: Guinea, Mali


Douglas Lehman is a Senior Education Specialist at the Global Partnership for Education. He is the Country Lead for Chad, Republic of Congo, Côte d'Ivoire, Guinea and Mali.

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