Non-formal education

Non-formal education refers to education that occurs outside the formal school system. Non-formal education is often used interchangeably with terms such as community education, adult education, lifelong education and second-chance education. It refers to a wide range of educational initiatives in the community, ranging from home-based learning to government schemes and community initiatives. It includes accredited courses run by well-established institutions as well as locally based operations with little funding.

As non-formal education is diverse, this element has many aspects in common with other elements, particularly Lifelong learning. For the purposes of these guidelines, this element focuses on non-formal education for children and young people outside the regular school system. However,  personnel need to be aware that non-formal education reinforces marginalization and stigmatization, so if possible it should not be offered as the only educational option for children with disabilities. Inclusion in a regular school should be prioritized as every child's right.

While non-formal education is often considered a second-best option to formal education, it should be noted that it can provide higher-quality education than that available in formal schools. Non-formal education can be preparatory, supplementary or an excellent alternative (where necessary) to formal schooling for all children.

Facilitating fun and flexible learning environments




People with disabilities develop knowledge and skills, which help to improve their quality of life.



Desirable outcomes

  • People with disabilities participate in non-formal education programmes and learn literacy, numeracy and other skills which contribute to better living conditions.
  • Non-formal education programmes include people with disabilities and consider their needs during programme planning.
  • People with disabilities, family members, disabled people's organizations and parents' associations are involved in decision-making and implementing non-formal education programmes.
  • Home-based learning is available either as a supplement to formal schooling, or in preparation for formal schooling, or as an alternative to formal schooling.
  • Social cohesion is strengthened as students with disabilities and non-disabled students interact together and develop friendships.
  • Non-formal education expresses the core principles that should be at the heart of all good education. Non-formal education is all of the following.




to the learner's life and the needs of society, and will be so in the future. Mechanisms for involving children, parents and local communities as well as educators in deciding the content of what is taught will ensure that non-formal education is relevant to the needs of communities and draws on local resources and personnel.




to the level of the learner's development, with new content and experiences being introduced when the learner is ready. Teaching is learner-centred and student-directed.




in what is taught and how it is taught, and to the needs of the different learners, e.g. adults and children who work, who live on the street, who are sick, who are in prison, who have a disability or who are victims of conflict or emergency, and flexible to traditional/indigenous learning styles.




in that learners are active participants in their learning, and that they and their families and communities are involved in running the non-formal education programme.




of children from harm, and protective of their rights to survival and development. Places of non-formal education should be healthy and safe, and provide proper nutrition, sanitation and protection from harm.




of all children regardless of background or ability, respecting and utilizing the differences between them as a resource for teaching and learning. Non-formal education often targets marginalized groups, e.g. nomadic communities, girls, people with disabilities, school dropouts and working children. For students with disabilities and other marginalized groups, non-formal education is very helpful, responding to and fitting their needs.




 non-formal education programmes have the potential to be of exceptionally high quality, because they can respond more easily to the needs of individuals and specific groups in the community.



Ensure the curriculum is practical and relevant

Lacking the rigid constraints of formal schools, non-formal education curricula often have greater flexibility and can be easily adapted to suit the needs of individuals. programmes can help ensure that non-formal education:

  • prioritizes basic literacy and numeracy;
  • is oriented to practical skills, life skills and personal development;
  • is effective in teaching decision-making skills;
  • focuses on vocational skills, income-generating activities and job creation;
  • empowers students, instilling confidence and a sense of ownership in programmes and projects –  programmes can ensure that disabled people's organizations are involved in promoting the empowerment of students with disabilities;
  • promotes effective communication between students with disabilities and their families, peers and the community, e.g. through basic sign language, Braille, speaking clearly.


Example of inclusion of a child with severe or multiple impairments, even when the child is based at home

Example of exclusion from society of a child with severe or multiple impairments who is based at home

  •  programme supports family and child from birth
  • Volunteers and other children help teach the child activities of daily living in his/her own home
  • Child is taken out and involved in local activities, religious and social events
  • Teacher visits family and develops appropriate learning goals together with  personnel and family
  • Child attends playgroup at appropriate age
  • District education team includes this child in its planning, provision and resource allocation
  • Parent is active member of local parent/disabled people's group, and is able to plan/lobby for the child's future
  • Family is stigmatized when the child is born
  • Older sister drops out of school to care for the child
  • Neighbours and other children avoid visiting and fear the child
  • Child is kept indoors lying down and gradually becomes more and more dependent and atrophied
  • Family spends money on seeking cures that do not work
  • Father is ashamed, blames mother and leaves
  • Mother becomes increasingly overworked and does not know how to help the child
  • Mother begins to neglect/abuse the child who is now an additional burden
  • Siblings cannot get married or get jobs due to stigma


Sustain specific learning groups

Sometimes there is a specific learning need (such as learning sign language or Braille) that requires students to come together in their own groups to study.  personnel can provide assistance in developing and sustaining these groups, and can link students with disabilities with disabled people's organizations, which can be a useful resource to facilitate their learning.

Sign language users find the instructional language in formal learning environments difficult. Many deaf people identify themselves as a linguistic minority rather than as people with disabilities. In low-income countries, the experiences of international nongovernmental organizations have revealed that deaf learners are rarely taught sign language in their native tongue, but are often taught in a foreign (oral) language. Non-formal education programmes that teach sign language can be an important support for deaf people and their families, particularly when deaf adults are recruited as teachers.  programmes can ensure that:

  • the rights and views of deaf learners are respected;
  • these special provisions do not increase social exclusion and isolation from the family and community, but rather enable children to participate in family and community life.

programmes can help to facilitate links by:

  • inviting leaders from both the formal and non-formal education sectors to join the  programme in developing inclusive strategies;
  • strengthening formal schooling by providing training for parents and teachers in making schools inclusive, and maintaining strong home–school links;
  • assisting with transitions from non-formal education programmes to formal education;
  • developing complementary non-formal education programmes to help students with disabilities succeed in formal schooling;
  • facilitating transitions to further education, sustainable livelihood and courses offered by the non-formal sector;
  • encouraging the sharing of buildings and facilities, e.g. non-formal education programmes can use school buildings out of hours;
  • encouraging staff from both non-formal education and formal programmes to share their services and experiences.


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