Parents in the driver’s seat: A new research agenda for primary education in Africa

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By: Milou Vanmulken

We have reached an era where the need for Universal Primary Education is widely acknowledged by global actors. As part of this consensus, UNICEF and the World Bank launched the Fee Abolition Initiative in 2006 and Universal Primary Education took root in international organisations, became a child right, and became part and parcel of the UN Sustainable Development Goals. One decade down the line, however, running functional and accessible educational systems in African nations still appears to be a challenge. With this in mind, it is crucial to reconsider the current approach. Global institutions need to look beyond the existing trade-off between sustainability, quality and accessibility. As indicated in my previous blog on education funding models, this piece covers the pros and cons of universal primary education and propose next steps to start working on a sustainable strategy for African countries to harmonise quality and access.

The right to education embodies all human beings’ entitlement to primary education, regardless of their position in society. It is based on the idea that the circumstances of a child at birth should not shape its opportunities in life. In other words, poverty or the need for domestic labor should not be the reason for children to miss school. Governments are meant to create this equal playing field through social policy. This idea is hard to counter on moral grounds, especially because widespread evidence shows positive effects of free education on improved access to education. A comparative study of seven African countries by Talan, Rosenblum, and Tinker (2015) concludes that fees form a barrier to access. School fees cause a 17 percentage point decline in enrollment and a 5 percentage point reduction in primary completion rates. User fees and tuition exclude children born in poor families from primary education.

Despite this evidence and the moral appeal of universal primary education, its implementation has suffered from difficulties. A rather quick adoption of free primary education in many countries ignored the need for more teachers, classrooms, and books to accommodate a surge in pupils. This explosive increase in enrollment compromised the quality of education. Teachers in Malawi, Uganda, Kenya, and Somalia have had difficulties coping with the large numbers of assignments to correct, and the availability of textbooks have run short (Ogola, 2010). In Kenya, the government addressed problems such as exceptionally high pupil-teacher ratios and overcrowded classrooms by hiring uneducated teachers (De Souza & Wainaina, 2009).

Quality is still lagging behind and African countries are losing out on opportunities to educate a new cohort of future leaders. Without fees, according to the World Bank’s service delivery model, parents and communities hold limited ‘client’ power to have a direct influence on the services extended to their children. Opponents of free education argue that fees allow parents to ‘exit’, meaning that they can withdraw funding or enroll their children in a different school if, for example, teacher presence does not meet the expected standards. All in all, with the abolishment of fees, negative effects on quality may have been aggravated because parents lost tools to hold schools and teachers accountable.

Yet, evidence supporting this claim remains scarce and efforts to strengthen accountability by means of user fees has not been exempted from critique. The World Bank encountered widespread criticism for shifting the responsibility for education from governments onto communities and families. Yet, the increased popularity of low-cost private schools in Africa cannot be ignored. This trend suggests that parents are prepared to pay low fees for better quality. Similarly, while governments experienced financial difficulties to sustain free primary education, informal fees systems developed naturally in local communities. Examples of this are Harambee in Kenya and Ujamaa in Tanzania. Even without these support systems, parents still need to pay for lunch, uniforms, and other small expenditures. This meant an informal re-introduction of fees in many places, which stigmatised parents who were unable to contribute but may have also had a positive effect on factors like teacher attendance.

What can we learn from this short retrospective analysis? While supporting the right to education, as research institutes, we should not deny that fees may have an accountability function. This in turn needs to be investigated in the context of African countries. Understanding better the function of different types of fees at different types of schools can inspire and inform policies, programmes, and investments in pursuit of better primary education. In order to protect accessibility, these efforts need to be complemented with research into the capacity of government to run voucher systems and the potential effectiveness of such programmes to compensate poor families’ education expenses. All in all, while the right to education has been argued to erode parents’ influence over their children’s futures, solutions as a result of the research agenda proposed puts parents and experts in the drivers-seat while the government provides fuel.

This is the second blog in a series concerning educational structures across Africa, offering recommendations and a roadmap for governments to develop techniques for systemic educational improvements.

Milou Vanmulken is a research intern at NIAS. She is also a post-graduate student in Development Management at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE).