CENTRAL ASIA: Support promises life-long learning

Putting Central Asia's vocational schools at the centre of life- long learning - taking them beyond traditional roles and into a innovative and more expansive future - is at the heart of a new European Training Foundation programme.

The programme was launched at a two-day School Development in Central Asia event earlier this month. It was held at the European Union tertiary vocational education support body, Turin's Arsenale della Pace, that houses Sermig - a social and educational training centre located in the now tranquil surrounds of a 19th century military munitions factory and storage facility.

The occasion brought together more than 40 school leaders, government officials and social partners from the region and experts from other countries with experience of training system transitions.

Billed as a participatory workshop, discussion and brainstorming exercise that offered ideas - not blueprints - for school development, the event was a first step in enabling ETF partners in Central Asia to take stock of their existing experiences and perceptions of school development and begin creating instruments for effective change during a three year project that will roll out between now and 2011.

Peter Greenwood, ETF Head of Operation department, said the launch event came at a propitious moment for the foundation as it marked its 15th anniversary on 9 May and demonstrated the organisation's continuing evolution along the path of "mutual learning".

The foundation was established to support economic and social development in EU partner countries through working with networks of vocational training schools. Its work is a powerful instrument for helping encourage a greater breadth of vision - and more active role in society - for training institutions that have in the past often been neglected by policy-makers or suffered from too narrow an identity or role in national higher and further education plans.

Greenwood focused on the importance of the role vocational training schools in Central Asia could play in adapting and changing as their societies and economies continued to experience massive transformation during the current global crisis.

"The economic and financial crisis represents a huge challenge for all countries that intensifies the pressure on education and training systems to reflect the sort of skills and competencies to help economies and societies back to strength in the future," he said.

It was a message that was reinforced by speakers from other countries that shared Communist pasts with the former Soviet republics of Central Asia. Professor Andras Benedek, of Budapest Technical University, has more than 30 years experience in the Hungarian system of vocational education and training that bridges the Communist and post-Communist eras.

Benedek - a trained engineer who spent three years studying in Moscow in Soviet times - said reforms begun in the mid 1980s had laid the groundwork for a mixed network of 7,000 public and private vocational schools in Hungary. Funded through 1.5% turnover taxes on Hungarian companies, vocational schools had taken advantage of pre EU accession projects for further change.

But economic growth and social changes in the past 10 years had led to a decline in numbers of students entering vocational schools. Enrolments in three-year apprenticeships had dropped from 50% in 1989 to just 15% today with dire consequences for the labour market, he said.

"Ironically although most young people now opt for higher education it is those with good technical qualifications who have no difficulty finding jobs."

Experience of vocational school stakeholders in three Central Asia countries - Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan - that participated in a two-year ETF-backed 'Skills Development for Poverty Reduction' pilot project that concluded last year, demonstrates just how expansive a vision can be created for schools, particularly those in rural areas with little or no other adult education facilities.

"Tajik colleagues wanted to explore what skills were needed to reduce poverty and what they had to do to adapt their work to this end," Eduarda Castel-Branco, a key expert and now ETF country manager for Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan recalled: "It demanded the transformation of traditionally closed vocational schools to open places for all education users without walls."

The results of the project - the subject of a new ETF film The Kyrgyz Ice-Cream Seller - Training for Change in Central Asia - amply demonstrate that school development for life-long learning is within the reach of those prepared to grasp the opportunity.

Stakeholders in Kazakhstan recognised adult training as the key activity for schools and wrote this into the central concepts of school charters; in Kyrgyzstan schools in the project were transformed into the focal pointer for trainers and new ideas that took education and training to rural farmers where they lived and worked; in Tajikistan - which struggled to find strong support from central authorities for the project - schools began to see themselves as focal points for the 'trainers of people.'

As Aisulu Daldybayeva, a chief expert of the Kazakh Education Ministry's department of technical and professional education, noted during the session on the skills development project: "Poverty begins where there is no access to education and training."

Kyrgyz participant, Temirkul Tilemshev, former head of Kochkor's School No 15, said a lesson of the project had been "don't give fish to the people; give them the tools and skills to catch their own fish".

Experiences of school development and change from Estonia, Portugal and Serbia gave delegates a chance to understand that despite the unique challenges they faced in each of their countries there was no need to entirely re-invent the wheel.

The programme included visits to two training schools housed at the Arsenale dello Pace, including the Steiner school, one of three in Italy that teaches cinematic arts alongside graphic design and advertising, and a closing conference tour of banking group Unicredit's innovative management training centre in Turin.

At a final brain-storming session designed to flesh out common concepts on school development shared by groups of the three key stakeholders in vocational schools - staff, policy- makers and social partners - the engagement of participants was evident in heated but good natured exchanges.

"Give schools the freedom to be creative," Tuyun Karimov of Tajikistan's National School of Tourism to the policy-makers. "Check us by all means, but allow us to work freely." A cacophony of voices from the policy-makers agreed - provided schools accepted full accountability for their work.

Amangeldy Davletaliev, Vice-president of the Kyrgyz Chamber of Commerce and Industry, representing social partners, urged school staff to have "business spirit and initiative" and policy- makers to provide the "framework and rules" within which school development could take place.

But above all Davletaliev cautioned that schools must provide graduates qualified for the labour market - and in a fast-changing world where many of the key jobs that needed in five years do not yet exist, flexibility and responsiveness were ever present essentials.

* The conference strayed from traditional 'talk and chalk' presentations when Naples and Netherlands-based consultants Mindmeeting introduced an unusual method for building consensus.

Drawing freestyle lines and squiggles across large sheets of white paper with colourful marker pens may not strike one as a normal activity for an EU international conference, but the 'learning from each other' workshop was a key activity at the Turin event. The afternoon art session although light-hearted had a serious aim: defining an ideal school through using art and free association to create convergence of ideas between a diverse group of people.

"The world is changing very rapidly and this means that schools have to change as well, the way we teach, the way we learn," Mike Van der Vijver of Mindmeeting told participants. "This requires creative work together."

Through working in small groups and progressively refining drawings from individual to group concepts of what an ideal school looked like, the conference delegates were - with the help of Mindmeeting artist Juliette Reneirse - able to create a unified artistic representation of the ideal school as a place of life-long- learning with elements of heart, soul and financial stability.

Editor's note: Our correspondent Nick Holdsworth turned his talents to filmmaking after he was commissioned to write and direct a short documentary about an innovative European Union-backed poverty reduction training project in Central Asia. The European Training Foundation scheme is having a profound effect in a region of immense geopolitical importance.

Holdsworth produced a 15 minute documentary The Kyrgyz Ice-Cream Seller - Training for Change in Central Asia. For those who may wonder, the dulcet tones of the narrator are those of the director himself - drafted in at the last moment to do the voice over when the film was in post-production early March in London's Soho district.