Governments across Africa are scrambling to introduce free education. The abolition of school fees is largely owed to the Millennium Development Goals, which sets as one of the goals that every child should be able to complete an elementary education by 2015.
Word that education was free spread swiftly from child to child. Undeterred by poverty, million of children, many of them barefoot, clothed in rags and dizzy with hunger, streamed into schools across the continent.
The explosion in enrollments has put enormous pressure on over burdened, often ill-managed education systems. Children hurdle together on the concrete floor, rocks or out on loose dirt in the school often jostling for space. Their laps and the floor are their only desks.
Free education initiative has sent expectations soaring. But can we make it deliver for the millions of eager supplicants of knowledge? Can we make it deliver for a Kezia, a single mother who makes $0.7 a day breaking rocks but dares to believe that when her daughter in second grade finishes school and gets a job she will rest? Can we vindicate Johanna, a son of a crab trapper who quit his job as a herds’ boy, denying his family the needed income, to go to school?
Experts now worry that the drive to expand access has eclipsed the focus on learning outcomes. Cramming children into classes and thinking that is education is clearly not working. A school teacher in Kenya estimated that 100 of her 250 students would have to repeat the grade. In Malawi four out of ten of first graders repeat the year. Even Uganda, often held up as a model, also found that achievement fell as classes swelled with highly disadvantaged students.
Following the introduction of free primary education, enrollment has surged to 7.2 million in 2004 from 5.9 million in 2002. Kenya has an average ratio of one teacher for each 39 students. In the most crowded schools the ratio is one teacher to 111. Kenyan officials estimate that an additional 20,000 teachers need to be employed to address the teacher-student ratio.
The World Bank, the largest international donor supporting Kenya's education initiative, is pushing for teacher transfers as opposed to costly new hiring. Kenyan schools suffer from a severely unequal distribution of teachers. This will require not money but political will. Transferring large numbers of teachers to understaffed schools will mean taking on teachers' union, as well as communities and their political patrons who are beneficiaries of the inequitable teacher deployment.
There is a worrying gap in standardized test scores between private and public schools. Of the top 100 students in Kenya’s national standardized test for primary school leavers, only 17 % were from public schools. Conversely, 83% of the best students were from private schools and yet they comprised only 4 % of the primary student population. As long as a vast majority of children are trapped in dysfunctional, failing schools, free education we will not deliver for Kezia and Johanna.
What hangs in the balance is the future of a generation of African children and their parents desperately reaching out for education as the escape route from poverty.