Bedouin glad to get the hump
From strapping a whiteboard on the back of a camel to teaching children how to sell waste materials, a stream of innovative methods are being introduced to coach the world's poorest in how to read and write.
Delegates at the Unesco literacy conference in Qatar last week were told of the need to reach the 100 million out-of-school children and 71 million illiterate adults still denied access to basics such as books and writing paper.
Laura Bush, the US First Lady, opened the international summit. She said:
"Education improves opportunities, strengthens communities, and helps parents to protect their children's health."
While funding has improved since Unesco, the UN's education wing, launched its literacy decade in 2003, persuading children to give up profitable daylight hours to memorise the alphabet and master their signatures has proved difficult. Drop-out rates for literacy schemes are up to 60 per cent in some areas.
Dr Abdelwahid Yousif, a Sudanese academic and adviser to the Qatar government, told The TES: "They are voting with their feet. They are saying that what is being offered is not worth their while."
But a smattering of highly localised initiatives seem to have succeeded where others failed.
"The trick is to get them to learn by accident," Dr Laila Iskander, of Egypt, said. "You need to be teaching them something useful first."
Dr Iskander works with the dump-dwellers of urban Cairo, thousands of families who live and work on the city's mountainous tips, cleaning, recycling and selling trash in order to feed their families and livestock.
Dr Iskander's project has expanded to cover more than 600 children. It coaches them to run rag and bottle recycling shops, where literacy is taught alongside the more immediately useful art of how to make money.
While collecting rags to weave profitable rugs in return for wages, girls are instructed in how to compose spreadsheets, write price lists and sign their names.
"Learning how to hold scissors to cut the rags is surprisingly good preparation for learning how to hold a pencil in class," Dr Iskander said.
The Qatar Foundation, a charity set up by the Emir of Qatar, has also developed a novel project for teaching literacy to nomadic Bedouin tribes, who move with the seasons making traditional schooling impracticable.
"We have devised a new whiteboard that you can strap on to a camel, meaning the school can follow the children," said a foundation spokeswoman.
There are plans to expand the project to Sudan and Mali.