Fundación Escuela Nueva
Year founded: 1987
Geographic reach: Global; headquarters in Colombia
Annual budget: $1.8 million (2016 revenue)
Number of employees: 25 (2016)
Fundación Escuela Nueva (FEN), a Colombian non-governmental organization, promotes and implements Escuela Nueva, an educational model that transforms conventional schools by putting children at the centre of the learning process and placing teachers in the new role of facilitator. The model, meaning “New School”, was originally co-developed in the 1970s to improve the quality of rural, multigrade (one room) public primary schools in Colombia. Rigorous evaluation has shown that the model improves children’s performance, with considerably higher achievement on tests given for mathematics, language, socio-civic behaviour and self-esteem.1 In the 1980s, Escuela Nueva was adopted as a national policy in Colombia, eventually reaching 20,000 schools and nearly two-thirds of all rural school children. Since then, the model has been replicated by education ministries in 18 countries, reaching an estimated 5 million children worldwide. FEN has also adapted the model to other contexts, including urban schools (Escuela Activa Urbana) and teaching for out-of-school children and youth.
Vicky Colbert and two co-founders created the Escuela Nueva model in Colombia in the mid-1970s, with the aim of improving the quality and relevance of education in resource-limited rural schools. The model, designed to change classroom dynamics, put teachers in the role of facilitators who assisted children to “learn to learn” at their own pace. The Escuela Nueva model was implemented throughout Colombia in the 1970s and 1980s as a national policy for all of the country’s rural schools. In 1989, the World Bank called the Escuela Nueva model one of the three most outstanding reforms in the developing world that had affected national policy. By 1998, Colombia’s rural schools were outperforming urban schools, except for those in megacities.
However, the Colombian government introduced a decentralization policy that proved detrimental to the Escuela Nueva roll-out. As the responsibility for education transitioned to subnational departments and municipalities, it became challenging to control the quality of the model and further support its use in schools. In 1987, Colbert left her position as Vice-Minister of Education and set up FEN as an independent, non-profit organization to preserve and promote the model. Since then, FEN has provided technical assistance to governments, non-profit organizations and development institutions to influence the roll-out and quality of the model in Colombia and worldwide.
How FEN works
FEN works in a number of different ways to promote, preserve and adapt the Escuela Nueva model (Figure 1) for the Colombian context and beyond. Over the years, its activities have grown to include the following:
- Technical assistance: FEN’s primary role is to provide technical assistance and support to governments and partners seeking to implement the Escuela Nueva model. Importantly, technical assistance is delivered as a package, including the development and distribution of learning guides, the provision of teacher training, and ongoing evaluation and support.
- Community connections: FEN also works to build a learning community around the partners delivering the Escuela Nueva model, so they can continue to learn from one another and support the model’s continued roll-out and adaptation. FEN’s flagship community-building event is a global congress that brings together practitioners and policy-makers from around the world every three years to learn and promote the model.
- Research and evaluation: FEN also promotes the evaluation of the Escuela Nueva model through partnerships with academic and research institutions. More recently, it has undertaken to develop standardized assessments and metrics for understanding how the Escuela Nueva model is being used globally and what impact it is having.
Figure 1: Escuela Nueva Model: Impacting the Entire System
Source: Colbert, V. Escuela Nueva: Quality and Equity for Education for All, Presentation, 29 September 2016
When Colbert initially designed the Escuela Nueva model with her two co-founders, they went to great lengths to ensure the model itself was technically, politically and financially feasible for government adoption. From a technical perspective, they designed turnkey learning guides for teachers, ensuring that rural teachers were not required to create additional lesson plans or materials.
They also designed teacher training to mimic the style of child-centred learning so that teachers were trained by doing, ultimately learning the model by experiencing it. Politically, Colbert and her team worked to build consensus on the model’s elements and, in particular, communicated closely with the teachers’ unions to overcome perceptions that the model was endorsing the understaffing of schools. Finally, the model was designed financially to be as cost-effective as possible, with reusable materials and small capital requirements for implementation.
The Escuela Nueva model is far from rigid. Through teacher training and “micro-centres” set up to enable continuous peer support, teachers become the agents of change in schools, embracing the concept of facilitating rather than directing children’s learning. Furthermore, students become democratically involved in running the schools, electing student governments with active roles in creating the schools’ community and ethos. Finally, parents and community members become intrinsically linked to the school by participating in formal and informal learning activities, as well as by providing voluntary services to the school.
Beyond the model, FEN represents Colbert’s philosophy of working through governments to create systemic change. In 1987, recognizing the challenges of implementing and sustaining the Escuela Nueva model within a decentralizing government, Colbert chose to set up FEN as an independent non-profit organization to serve Colombia and other countries that were implementing Escuela Nueva. Colbert believed that creating such an organization to maintain the model’s integrity would help to preserve its impact and continue the process of learning and improving the model and adapting it to new contexts and populations.
Escuela Nueva and FEN together represent the idea that innovations are far more resilient and sustainable if they respond to the diversity and complexity of the communities in which they operate. Colbert believes that public services, such as education, can be delivered far more effectively if the actors involved – in this case children, teachers and parents – embrace common values and principles, but are then given the flexibility to contextualize them for their communities’ needs. Governments can also better sustain innovations if they work in partnership with civil society organizations that represent community interests.
Systemic models should codify values and principles, but maintain flexibility.
The Escuela Nueva model has survived in Colombia for more than 40 years, maintaining the core principles developed in the mid-1970s. Colbert and her two co-developers worked with rural teachers to ensure the model could be easily and cost-effectively implemented within the government’s limited resources. She also worked for over a decade from within the Ministry of Education to gain political support to roll out Escuela Nueva as a national policy. Importantly, the Escuela Nueva model builds on the concept of social participation, ensuring that the key stakeholders – teachers, children and parents – are actively involved in implementing the model in their school, with a large degree of flexibility and adaptation for each school’s context.
Non-profit organizations have a role to play in sustaining public-sector innovations.
As the custodian of the Escuela Nueva model, FEN preserves the quality of implementation while promoting the model’s use around the world. Through her work as Vice-Minister, Colbert came to believe that governments, while providing access to system-wide scale, are not able to sustain innovation because of constantly changing priorities and turnover. Therefore, she believes that non-profit organizations can act as a partner to government to sustain innovative models, working alongside communities and funders as adviser and promoter.
Questions for social entrepreneurs
- What are the core values and principles of your model, product or service? Do the clients and/or communities with whom you work embrace and promote these values and principles?
- How can you create flexibility in your model so that it maintains the core values and principles, but responds to your community’s complex and diverse needs?
- If you work or intend to work through government, how can you ensure that your model is designed technically, politically and financially for government adoption?
“Innovations in public institutions are more likely to be sustained if they are grounded on key stakeholders, and non-state actors are involved. This means that the innovation is owned by those who need to change and that the private and civil society sectors support the quality, the evolution and the sustainability of the innovation.”2
Vicky Colbert, Founder and Executive Director, Fundación Escuela Nueva