An education model called Escuela Nueva has revolutionised life for some seven million children and earned the 2017 Yidan Prize for its Colombian founder, Vicky Colbert. On the eve of this year’s Yidan Prize Summit, she talks about taking her school of the future to the world

"Over the past 40 years, Vicky Colbert has developed and successfully delivered, across 16 countries in three continents, an innovative learner-centred approach to rural schools that equips students from the most resource-constrained regions with 21st-century skills.” So said Dorothy K Gordon, head of the judging panel for the Yidan Prize for Education Development, which was bestowed on Colbert at the award’s inaugural ceremony in 2017. 

Of the prize, Colombia-born Colbert says, “It was a tremendous surprise, but also has really tangible financial support for the projects we are moving forward on.”

Colbert was lucky enough to enjoy a good education herself, which is not true of many in Colombia, a nation plagued by great social inequity. Colbert grew up understanding the importance of a good education, as her mother was an educator who founded teacher colleges in Colombia. Colbert went on to obtain a master’s in the sociology of education at Stanford University before returning to Colombia to embark on what would become a “life project.”

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“As a sociologist, one always wants to reduce inequity and drive social change,” says Colbert, speaking over the phone recently from Colombia. “And I learned that quality basic education is crucial for self-sufficiency, sustainable development, peace, democracy. Education is at the heart of everything. It’s the way to improve lives and provide people with economic opportunities. My professional commitment from the outset was to do something about it. I decided to contribute to the lives of the most underserved children in Colombia and to help reduce inequality.”

Colbert set about creating an educational model that could be used to improve the quality and relevance of basic education.

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“There were so many problems that we had to rethink everything,” she says. Colombia’s rural schools in particular were suffering from high drop-out and repetition rates; incomplete schooling; low student learning achievement; ineffective and costly teacher training; emphasis on memorisation over comprehension; lack of adequate materials; low teacher morale; teacher-centric methods; irrelevant curriculums; low self-esteem of children; and weak relationships between school communities and parents.

But these difficulties presented opportunity for Colbert to rethink everything, and to plan systemically from the outset.

Escuela Nueva, which means new school in Spanish, was born. “What we introduced was really nothing new in the philosophy of education,” says Colbert. It focused on good-quality education but it shifted away from teacher-centric pedagogy to a more child-centric classroom. Rural schools are often multi-grade and this approach meant that because not all children learn at the same pace, a more personalised education can be provided.

There was also emphasis on interaction between the children, to allow for the building of knowledge together rather than simply its transmission. Learning was active and taking place through dialogue and interaction; it was cooperative. And students were being encouraged to think for themselves and to understand, not just memorise, while developing interpersonal skills.

This child-centric programme was initiated in 1975, and the NGO Fundación Escuela Nueva was set up in 1987 to preserve the quality and integrity of the model and to enable its replication. The next step was to influence national policy in order to reach more schools.

Experience dictated that to have impact and coverage it was essential to work with governments. It took a long time, but eventually Escuela Nueva was reaching more than 24,000 schools in Colombia.

In 1989, the World Bank declared Escuela Nueva as one of three innovations that had had an impact on public policy on a national scale. As a result, representatives from many countries flocked to Colombia to learn more. Coming from a sociology background, Colbert ensured there was also empirical evidence.

Students learning under Escuela Nueva’s model have been shown to achieve higher academic scores than their peers in more traditional schools. Not only that, but the educational approach also has a positive impact on social and emotional aspects of a child, such as self-esteem, cooperative learning and peaceful social interaction.

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The strength of Escuela Nueva has been the ease with which it can be replicated, its scalability and its cost effectiveness, all of which have made it adaptable around the world. Vietnam, for example, has implemented the system throughout the country. Colbert believes the model is applicable anywhere in the world, as long as it has the backing of relevant parties, including the government.

She estimates that with such help they have been able to reach seven million children. The programme’s adaptability doesn’t only apply to developing countries. Fundación Escuela Nueva recently started working with two London schools. At a glance, they were seemingly far removed from Colombia’s rural multi-grade classrooms, yet the education model was appropriate because of its ability to handle diversity and different learning rhythms.

Demand is likely to keep growing, with Spain and China the latest nations to express interest. “We are talking about things that everybody is saying that we need for the future,” says Colbert. “We ended up promoting 21st-century skills—learning to learn; learning to take the initiative; learning to lead processes; learning to criticise and accept criticism; and, most important of all, learning to work in a team.”

It’s not only the children who have a lot to learn from Escuela Nueva.

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