Universal Primary Education: Enduring Challenges and What They Say About “Doing Development” in Low-Capacity Contexts.

Despite the promise of inclusion that the introduction of Universal Primary Education entailed, it begot numerous challenges.

The introduction of Universal Primary School Education (UPE) across Africa beginning in the late 1990s, sparked off optimism that the huge divide between those who could afford to pay for their children to attend elementary school and those who could not, and whose children were therefore forced to stay out of school, would end. UPE was to open the way for all children of school-going age in any country to attend school. However, despite the promise of inclusion that the introduction of UPE entailed, and despite the spirited attempts by donors and governments to plug existing gaps in infrastructure and personnel, it begot numerous challenges. In some countries, these challenges have proved extremely difficult to address or overcome. In the process, they have begotten secondary challenges that, in many cases, raise questions about the very idea of education and the future of whole education systems.

Undeniable benefits of UPE

In the language of activists advocating for equity of opportunity in education, the introduction of UPE amounted to realizing the long-held dream of “no child left behind”. One immediate effect of these developments was the exponential growth in enrolment. In every country where UPE was introduced, enrolment rose by several million pupils. The numbers testified to the exclusion so many children had hitherto suffered.

The number of girls in school rose dramatically.  In poor families which previously could not afford to send all their children to school, boys had taken precedence. Girls would remain behind to help with household chores as they waited to be married off or to go find unskilled or semi-skilled work in towns. For the girl child, UPE opened up a large window that would allow for escape from lives of exploitation, drudgery and toil. This, at least, was the theory or expectation. Of course, hitherto there had been families which could not send even their sons to school. In that case, both boys and girls were equally excluded. Such boys added to the number of young people whose life trajectories led to unskilled and semi-skilled occupations. For these ones, too, UPE promised an opening through which they could aspire to lives that were radically different from those of their parents and, in some cases, older siblings and relatives.

Donors, bilateral and multi-lateral, were quick to grab the opportunities offered by the introduction of UPE for playing a role in the ‘democratisation’, finally, of formal education. They channelled vast amounts of money into financing the education sectors of aid-recipient countries. The money helped with expanding physical facilities, recruiting more teachers and, in some cases, even paying or enhancing their salaries and allowances. One reason for this was that, for some years, donors had been campaigning for education to be made inclusive. If it had taken so long to happen, it was because, despite talking about wanting to do it, aid-recipient governments had never gone on to implement the idea. When eventually they moved towards implementation, the move constituted a meeting of minds, not only on the imperative to leave no child behind, but also on its likely dividends.

Persistent infrastructure gaps

In some countries, even prior to the introduction of UPE there simply wasn’t enough infrastructure. Rural, particularly remote regions, were usually the worst hit. Large numbers of children studied under tree shade or in severely dilapidated school buildings. Some schools, built with temporary materials via the collective efforts of local parents, lacked housing for teachers, and even sanitary facilities. Combined efforts between donors and governments, in many cases supported by NGOs, went a long way to rectify the situation through classroom, sanitary facilities, and teacher-housing construction initiatives. Previously, some children walked long distances to reach school. This had discouraged many, leading to high drop-out rates, particularly in families where it was imperative that they help their parents with some household or domestic work before going to school. Unable to combine walking long distances to school with these tasks, large numbers of children would drop out. This was easiest in homes where the acquisition of practical skills – such as farming, herding, charcoal burning and others – was seen as preferable to going to school “to learn English” and then, thereafter, struggle to find a job. With the introduction of UPE and the heavy donor and NGO involvement, schools were built in communities where hitherto there had been none. This, too, boosted enrolment numbers and ensured that children no longer dropped out of school because of the long distances between home and school and related complications.

More than two decades down the road, however, efforts to solve the problem of inadequate infrastructure have left glaring gaps in many countries. It was always certain that efforts by donors and NGOs could only go so far. In the end, responsibility for sorting out these challenges definitively falls on governments. However, perhaps as a result of choices in prioritisation, perhaps the outcome of the inability to marshal the required resources through domestic revenue mobilisation or borrowing, governments have not provided all the required infrastructure. As a result, schools in rural areas remain without the necessary classrooms, sanitary facilities, and teacher accommodation. Lack of classroom space leads to children studying in overcrowded conditions, in open spaces, or under tree shade sometimes. These conditions compromise both the teaching experience for teachers and the quality of teaching they provide and, by extension, the learning experience and acquisition of knowledge and skills for pupils. This is compounded by a lack of educational materials such as textbooks and laboratory equipment. In many instances schools do not even have laboratories. Hence the poor learning outcomes as shown by research showing that children leave schools barely able to read or do simple arithmetic after 7 years of primary schooling. Governments that have approached with sustained dedication the construction of classrooms to curb overcrowding and laboratories to improve learning outcomes are fairly few.

The issue of teacher recruitment and retention

The exponential rise in the numbers of children going to school was always bound to cause strain on other resources besides physical infrastructure. Human resources got overstretched, as the number of pupils outstripped that of teachers. Two major challenges arose. One was lack of trained teachers. No amount of crash programming in training was going to grow the numbers as quickly as was necessary. Consequently, schools struggled to manage this crisis. The other was the inability by governments, given financial constraints and related freezes on recruitment into the public service, to recruit new teachers, even when they were available. As a consequence, schools in which the numbers of learners far outstrip those of teachers were unable to teach effectively. This has also been a factor in the poor learning outcomes registered by children in UPE schools. To make it worse, poor working conditions, including lack of housing, have tended to push many teachers out of the teaching profession, further undermining efforts to build robust educational systems.

Pupil welfare at school

One of the most debated and challenging problems that ensued from the introduction of UPE was the issue of feeding the large numbers of learners while at school, in a context where parents had been told that UPE meant “free education”, which large numbers of especially poor parents interpreted as “cost-free education”. The importance of learners not going hungry at school has been emphasised enough. It happened that, with ever larger numbers of learners attending school, feeding them became a real problem for schools that could charge neither tuition fees nor any other fees, since education was “free”. In the end, schools simply could not feed learners. And in rural contexts where food preservation techniques are not adequate for packed meals, and where even the type of food available does not always lend itself to packing as “take-away” meals, parents could not feed learners while at school either. Besides affecting learning outcomes, this forced many children out of school, thereby undermining the very essence of “education for all”.

These are not the only challenges that governments and schools have faced in implementing Universal Primary Education across the continent. However, they are among the major ones. They point to the complexity of policy implementation in contexts that suffer from not only a lack of financial resources, but also human resource capacity as well as overall state capacity for getting things done. It goes to show that good intentions or aspirations are one thing. Realising them in practice is another. It raises questions about building capacity for policy implementation in low-capacity environments. There seems to be a need for balance between getting the technical or ideas aspect of policy making right and aligning them with the specific local context in which implementation is to take place. This, history shows, is the most challenging aspect of doing development. How can it be addressed?

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