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Every kind of education, whether in the school or out of school, has some degree of formality and some degree of informality. Degrees of formality of lack of it in time, space, methods and materials, etc., parameters to define a particular system of education, can be analysis and conclusions reached about the characteristics of the system. However, the labels 'Formal', and 'Non-formal' education are good analytical tools and need to be clarified to avoid confusion.

Formal education is marked by three important characteristics.

(i) Formal education expects all children irrespective of their educational and social background to reach an educational goal in a single time scale. Whether a child comes from the forests of Bastar or from the metropolis of New Delhi he is expected to attain a certain level of education within the same specified time.

(ii) Formal education works on the basis of a rigid syllabus and prescribed textbooks. The syllabus is standardised for the mass of average students and the textbook rules the class room. More emphasis is given on teaching than on learning. The teaching often is that of the textbook than of the content subject.

(iii) Formal education works towards a degree. It decides the degree on the basis of a terminal examination which marks pass/fail. The examination is neither an index of intelligence, ability, achievement nor motivation. Whether acknowledge or not, the entire formal education is job oriented and vocational, though it is only oriented towards white collar jobs.

Non-formal education must break away from these constraints if it has to serve its purpose.

(i) It must build into the system a flexibility which will permit the learners to move at their own pace. It should be able to cater to the specialised needs of groups of learners.

(ii) Its syllabus must be flexible and need based. Need can be seen from the angle of both the consumer as well as the planner. The felt needs of the consumer as well as the planner. The felt needs of the consumer and the needs of the community observed by qualified social scientists constitute the expressed needs of a community. The syllabus of non-formal education must be based on these expressed needs. Since these change with the changing social dynamics, mere textbooks will not be able to meet the demand of such a system.

(iii) Obtaining a Diploma or a Degree should be incidental to non-formal education. Non-formal education need not be a replica of the formal education and cater to the populist degree mania. It should offer courses in further education which are not degree oriented but leisure time education either to improve the quality of life or to provide specific skills to people who wish to improve their vocational standards. It should offer courses for operatives, apprentices, midwives and intending craftsmen; it should give courses on planned parenthood, horticulture, plant diseases and inflation.

The above list is illustrative and not exhaustive. From this it need not be construed that non-formal education is a stream of socio-economically handicapped. In fact, a linguist wishing to learn logic or cybernetics, an economist wanting to learn statistics or a physicist wishing to learn philosophy or music can take advantage of non-formal education. The emphasis, however, should be on those who have no access to education rather than on those who had some education but no access to higher education. The reason for this is to avoid the danger of the privileged having best of both the worlds of formal and non-formal education.

The formal education being elitist, by way of concession to the common man, puts a little work experience in education. This again is lip service as the managers of education have failed to evolve a strategy to give credit to the child who is engaged in productive activities out of school. They insist on his being engaged in some work experience activities which are by and large irrelevant to his/her life style at home. Non-formal education on the other hand must be work-centered education. It must weave educational programmes around work.

It must, however, be seen that educational components in non-formal education is not watered down as work experience has been watered down in formal education.

At this stage it is necessary to clarify the confusion existing between what is known as correspondence courses and continuing education on the one hand and non-formal education on the other. In India all Institutes of Correspondence Courses and Continuing Education are engaged in extending the scope and accessibility of formal education. They are engaged in imparting degrees to those who for a variety of reasons could not reach the portals of university. This, no matter how important an institution, is anything but non-formal education.

Those seriously thinking about continuing education have to make up their mind as to whether primary interest is education or certification with or without instruction. If it is the former, then certain amount of flexibility can also be built into this system. Courses could be designed and offered to those who are academically ready for it without insisting on a degree or diploma as necessary qualification for entrance.

While because of the requirements of degrees and strata, formal education has to insist on levels of entry behaviour, non-formal education has to be prepared to take the given and plan for their further education. Therefore, the curriculum of the non-formal education has to be flexible, need based, motivating and motivated.

As the main purpose of non-formal education is to convey a host of multifaceted information of immediate relevance to the common man, induce critical thinking and generate group interaction among them with a view to establishing an egalitarian society, it poses a major problem in communication. This problem can be viewed from several angles out of which two need special attention.

(i) In a country like India which has 400 million illiterates constituting 50 per cent of the world population and about 400 languages with dialects, styles, registers and such other variations, languages is a major barrier of communication. Unless a clear strategy is adopted to reconcile the problems arising out of language use in local, regional and national levels on the one hand and informal and formal spoken and written on the other, this problem cannot be easily solved. The need for instant communication and long term planning for standardisation and integration must be kept in view while preparing non-formal education material.

(ii) In a country with as many diverse culture groups, with divers socio-economic and regional variations as we have, no matter how beneficial is irrigation, there is no point in talking about it to people who are engaged in dry farming. Similarly, no useful purpose would be served by talking about growing cash crops to a group which is predominantly a hunting and food gathering community and which rightly consider such activity as a means of exploitation by the urban communities. Thus it will be clear that communication may break if the content is irrelevant and incidental to the lives of people. Educators working in the area of non-formal education have to have a deep acquaintance with the profile of their audience and their strategies must be able to be adapted to the needs of the consumers.

There is more to adult language learning than merely learning a language in the conventional sense. It is not merely building up of emergency vocabulary and controlled communication through graded and guided structures to meet the immediate day to day needs nor is it the study of the history of language and literature concerned. It is no merely learning a device to express emotions and sentiments and to control behaviour. It is all these and yet something more. It involves (a) creating an objective need in the learner for using the language for complex intellectual operations; (b) creating the ability in him to articulate the intellectual process in the company of his fellow professionals and (c) creating the ability in him to comprehend the present, interpret the past and project the future through the use of language. Thus the learner must acquire competence to make appropriate responses in the varied social settings he is called upon to participate, fight the poverty of conceptual experience and test the relevance of any education he may have received through formal institutions. The learner must acquire the ability to question, to interpret, to hypothesise, and to express himself clearly. It is in this sense that language learning is a necessary condition of both academic success and success in life.

The importance of language use in non-formal education can be viewed from the angle of drop out, stagnation and wastage in the formal school system. The lack of understanding of the difficulties created by the difference in the home language/ language of early childhood experience and the school language and consequently due to lack of any suitable strategy to transfer them to the school language, children particularly from the socio-economically backward communities fail; drop out of school and become a burden on the society. Non-formal education has a major responsibility for this category of learners.

Importance of language can be viewed from yet a different angle in the non-formal education. Communication here is not restricted to that of a reader to a writer or face to face interaction between a teacher and his class room. In other words as other than the printing press, the radio, the television and the film have to be pressed into service, the place of language in communication becomes more complex. In any case, health, nutrition and family planning or civic responsibility, the major problem is to involve the learner. This involvement can be ensured only if the educator can establish rapport with the groups (not merely understand and be understood) and make himself a member of the group.

The methods and materials in the formal system are standardised and uniform. Since the planning is from the top the problems on the ground are seldom visible to the planner. Although almost 90 per cent of communication is verbal and the community is multilingual, even then the formal school is resistant to the preparation of material in languages of the learners or exploit their language for educational purpose. The non-formal educator has to be eclectic in approach and instead of the educator dishing out his own experience and knowledge draw the experience of the group out and build the material around it.

In teaching, reading and writing, the principles of patterned perception and contrastive observation can be used profitably in grouping letters. Vocabulary build up using the cumulative groups of letters can go on simultaneously. If the lead question approach is used to involve the learners in group in 'eraction, then some of the replies could be used as literary captions. All these newer approaches are experiment to facilitate communication at different levels. In short, whether it is teaching numeracy or environment, providing supplementary information on sanitation, family planning or improved agriculture, unless the role of educator as communicator is appreciated, non-formal education is bound to degenerate. The pressure of the elitist education either to exploit it to its advantage or brand it as a separate stream for the handicapped already has created a good deal of confusion. Without proper appreciation of its role it might also wither because of the apathy of the consumer for whom it is designed and implemented by outsiders.

Non-formal education can grow with planning from the bottom. Integrated rural development and integrated education for the masses of people is almost sine qua non. Use of the language of the people to communicate, motivate and involve them is a key concept in this process. As these approaches challenge the existing attitudes, values and institutional framework, these are considered subversive by the vested interest. However, the success of non-formal education depends on the clarity of purpose and resolve for action by those responsible for it.