Case Study: Fundación Escuela Nueva- Volvamos a la Gente

September 24, 2018

Escuela Nueva is a 30-year-old Colombian education NGO. Vicky Colbert, co-author of Escuela Nueva, one of the longest running bottom up innovations of the developing world that has been sustained, initiated it to reach the isolated, rural multigrade schools in Colombia in order to guarantee the universalization of primary education and improve its quality. Colbert started it thru the government as the first national coordinator of Escuela Nueva and impacted national policy reaching more than 20,000 schools at the end of the 1980s. However, since innovations are vulnerable to political and administrative changes, Colbert, with the original team of Escuela Nueva and several ex-Ministers of Education, created Fundación Escuela Nueva- Volvamos a la Gente, a Colombian NGO, to ensure the quality of the model in its implementation at the national level and to continue innovating it and adapting it to new contexts and populations such as urban marginal and displaced children. Colbert knew from the outset, that if she wanted to change education at the national level, she would have to influence national policy, which forced her to build on what already existed and think in a systemic way. She needed to create strategies to enable replication and scalability. Three key elements were necessary to impact national policy: strong visual images to influence attitudinal change in teachers, empirical evidence, and feasibility—technically, politically, and financially.

Escuela Nueva tested its innovative model in the most isolated schools, and then teachers started to become the actors of change. As more teachers gained interest in this approach, Escuela Nueva started expanding. For real scale and impact at the national level, Colbert began speaking with the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank. In 1989 the World Bank recognized Escuela Nueva as one of the three most important innovations worldwide that had impacted national policy, and provided a loan to universalize primary education. Afterwards, representatives from other countries came to Colombia to learn from Escuela Nueva, and it has been adapted to many countries such as Guatemala, Brazil, Mexico, Zambia, Vietnam, among others. Fundación Escuela Nueva has worked with many governments and thru them more than 5 million children have been reached.

Colbert explains, “The essence of what we do is transform the learning paradigm from teacher-centered education to child-centered participation.” By making small changes in the classroom, Escuela Nueva has increased the quality, efficiency, and sustainability of education. A recent impact evaluation of the Colombian Escuela Nueva in Vietnam, done by the World Bank, has demonstrated significant and important results. Yet Colbert still struggles to receive multiyear grants to further the long-term vision of the organization. The majority of the projects funded are short-term, which is not strategic for shifting the education system. “Yes, we can improve the quality of education in countries, but more of the same is not enough. We need a paradigm shift, from teacher-centered to child-centered education. Not new in the philosophy of education but new to the most disadvantaged and vulnerable schools and children. You need to work with governments, because their responsibility is education and to reach impact and coverage, but you need the participation of civil society for quality and sustainability. You need a partner on the ground.”

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