Flemish educators assist teachers in developing countries – and vice versa


Since the 1980s, the non-profit VVOB has been sending Flemish teachers to developing countries to help create educational programmes with real-life benefits for local students

Education for development

At any given time, educators across Flanders are travelling abroad – be it to Congo, Suriname or Vietnam – to provide assistance and advice to locals about best practices in education. But it’s not a one-way street. The Flemish education sector also profits from the experience gained by VVOB abroad.

Since the 1980s, the non-profit Flemish Association for Development Co-operation and Technical Assistance (VVOB) has been sending Flemish education advisors to developing countries to improve the quality of lessons in primary and secondary schools.

Thirty Flemish education experts are currently working on VVOB programmes in 10 countries in Africa, Asia and South America. They mainly provide expertise and training to the local teachers’ education departments, with a team of local staff and in co-operation with local education ministries, so that their advice can be integrated in a structural way in the education systems.

VVOB’s mission has remained fundamentally unchanged since the late politician Daniël Coens launched it in 1982: stimulating development by strengthening education. “In the 1980s, Coens was both minister of education and of development co-operation, so he fully understood the necessity of quality education in the development of a country,” explains VVOB director Bart Dewaele. “A good education is essential to ensure democratic participation, economic opportunities and  conflict management.”

A wealth of expertise

Throughout the years, VVOB’s methods have evolved. The number of projects, for instance, has been reduced significantly in favour of a more focused approach. Today, VVOB concentrates on three areas: developing quality pre-school education, improving lessons in primary education and optimising technical and professional studies in secondary education in order to expand job opportunities.

“Flanders is a global frontrunner in fun learning methods for pre-school pupils, with much attention paid to attitude, diversity and physical activities,” says Dewaele. “We also have a wealth of expertise concerning lessons on mathematics and problem-solving techniques in primary education and concerning the preparation of students in technical and professional education for the job market.”

Flanders is a global frontrunner in fun learning methods for pre-school pupils, with much attention paid to attitude, diversity and physical activities

- Bart Dewaele

VVOB co-operates closely with Flemish higher education institutions to assemble this expertise. In Flanders, schools and companies are increasingly joining forces to prepare students for the work floor, while the potential of this kind of collaboration is not yet well-known in many developing countries.

For example, VVOB set up a project in Ecuador in which companies send technical equipment and staff to schools, so students in technical and professional studies can be better trained for future jobs. Flemish steel wire manufacturer Bekaert works with educators to improve lessons on metal-working in Ecuador.

Equal opportunities

VVOB also concentrates its efforts on equal opportunities in education, which are often linked to gender issues. In Congo for example, the non-profit is trying to break down the stereotype that girls shouldn’t study for jobs in, among other sectors, construction and metal working. In Suriname, VVOB staff offer ideas on making lessons more appealing for teenage boys, who often drop out to get low-skilled jobs.

In general, the Flemish experts try to make the lessons more interactive. They suggest more practical tasks, varied assignments and group work.

“Ministries abroad are also often inspired by our policy of giving teachers a lot of responsibility regarding the progress of students,” says Dewaele (pictured above, left). Unlike students in many other regions, Flemish students in the final year of secondary school don’t have to pass standardised exams – created by the government – to get into higher education.

Flemish teachers have a lot of autonomy in how they help students achieve the eindtermen – the final requirements for pupils to graduate. “This way, teachers are often more committed,” says Dewaele.

VVOB, however, realises Flanders can also benefit from its experience abroad and so has set up the project Scholenbanden (School Links). Scholenbanden helps schools in Flanders and in developing countries to organise activities that focus on learning about each other, from each other and with each other.

A mutual exchange

Thirty Flemish schools have established such a partnership with a school in a developing country. The partnerships serve to enrich the knowledge of students but also of teachers and school heads.

“We can learn a lot, for example, from the way schools in Zimbabwe integrate children with disabilities into regular education, without many facilities. Among other methods, they let children assist each other,” explains Dewaele. “Many schools in developing countries are also better at involving parents in the running of schools, which helps to create a positive environment for youngsters at home.”

Many schools in developing countries are better at involving parents in the running of schools, which helps to create a positive environment for youngsters at home

- Bart Dewaele

School staff in developing countries are also often remarkably passionate and determined, says Veerle Cnudde, who has been working for VVOB for 17 years. “It takes a lot of courage to teach a class of, say, 50 students every day, in difficult circumstances and for a low wage,” she says.

Cnudde will start a new programme in Cambodia next year, following on having participated in a different programme there four years ago. She has also worked for VVOB in Chile and Zambia.

For the next five years, Cnudde will concentrate on improving maths education in primary schools. The programme has been launched at the request of the education ministry, she explains, “because Cambodian youngsters are scoring badly on mathematics tests compared to other countries in the region”. Her team provides advice to teaching educators at workshops and by developing new materials for them.

Real-life applications

“Most of the children in Cambodia go to school, but many of them can’t read or write at the end of primary school,” says Cnudde. “Teachers often have a lack of knowledge about the subject they are teaching, and they also tend to teach passively, by just reading the theory out loud in front of the classroom, for example.”

VVOB will try to help make the lessons in Cambodia more interactive, more rooted in practical aspects and more linked to the real lives of the students. “Instead of abstract assignments, you can link certain exercises to a common activity, like buying food at the market,” explains Cnudde. VVOB also strives to integrate group work and will help to provide materials that can make lessons more fun.

The organisation recently received the assistance of an influential Flemish ambassador: former European Council president Herman Van Rompuy. He will use his network to attract the interest of other EU member states and perhaps also additional funding. VVOB has in the past received EU support for certain projects and receives structural funding from both the Belgian and Flemish governments.

Photos courtesy VVOB