There’s Still No Such Thing as a Free Education

2015 will be a landmark year in UK politics as the country goes to the polls again in what will in one way or another be one of the more interesting elections of recent times. The year also has a grander global significance in nothing less than measuring our progress as a species.  In the year 2000 the UN committed to the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). These set out eight targets which humanity hoped to achieve by 2015, including ambitious aspirations on cutting poverty, combating AIDS and other infectious diseases and improving the global environment.

The word ‘ambitious’ in the previous paragraph may have been a hint that, with just over a year to go, most of these MDGs have not been and will not be achieved. Improvements, and quite impressive ones, have been made. The consistently lessening number of women dying during child birth and the growing numbers of children surviving through infancy across the globe is truly heartening, even if it is frustrating we will fall short of what could have been achieved. On other goals, however, we have been even less successful. Ever rising carbon dioxide emissions and ever decreasing biodiversity across the planet make MDG targets on environmental matters look almost satirical.

Asides from the goal on poverty, the goal of ‘Education for All’ has perhaps been attracted the most media attention and the highest levels of global assent. Yes in some cases there are concerns about quality and accessibility, but largely the goal of getting all children into primary school has been embraced worldwide. More broadly, the idea of promoting more widespread and gender-equal access to education of increasing quality has been seen as a laudable and popular aspiration across much the developed and developing world.

And understandably so. That education leads to the development of society seems intuitive and the research supports this. It has been well documented that children who get even a basic education – literacy and numeracy in their native language – will earn more in later life regardless of their job. They will live a healthier life, as will their children. They and their children will also have wider employment options.

As with the other MDGs, there has been progress towards the education goals but there is no hope of reaching the target of ‘Education for All’ by 2015. Almost 60 million primary school age children -more than the entire population of England-remain almost out-of-school worldwide and progress has almost stalled. There’s every chance these children will never see inside of a classroom, and these are the younger and brothers and sisters of the 123 million 16 to 24 year olds with inadequate literacy and numeracy skills. Considering the above mentioned impact of education in terms of future income, health, family and employment, this amounts to a depressingly wide chasm of inequality of opportunity and living standards.

Such figures may be demoralising, but the reality is worse. For instance, there has been an 8% rise in primary school enrollments across developing countries since the millennium. The fact that in Ethiopia, however, official enrollment exceeds 100% is indicative of the hefty clump of salt with which we should take such statistics.

Incidentally, that figure is not the result of crafty political manipulation, but the legitimate consequence of over-age students enrolling in classes. Asides from the admirable enthusiasm of ordinary people for learning, one of the chief explanations for these increasingly high enrollment rates has been the similarly admirable decision by the governments of many developing countries to make primary education free.

Making primary education free, however, does not make school uniforms free. It does not make stationary and textbooks free. It does not substitute the lost income the child could raise from working.  It does not perform the duties the child would otherwise do at home. In short, it does not prevent families having to make significant sacrifices in order for their child to regularly attend school. Sacrifices they often simply can not make. In Dire Dawa, the city in Ethiopia where I spent three months volunteering this year, the enrollment rate of primary school aged children was near 100%, but almost 30% of those were adjudged by official reports to be effectively ‘out of school’ as they did not attend classes. Even these figures do not take into account those whose family can not afford to let them attend classes regularly. Particularly when trying to learn the basic concepts of numeracy and literacy, if a child is attending only one or two classes per week, they are inevitably going to struggle, regardless of their level of intelligence.

Education improves income in the long-term, but families have to pay for the essentials immediately. There are other issues, but in truth the utterly dominant reason people in developing countries do not have the same educational opportunities as those in developed nations remains a simple lack of money.

This is an unfashionable statement in the current climate, as the (disputed) economic recovery in the UK is heralded by some as a triumph of the ideals of austerity; of getting more for less. Even many within the international development sector have been stingingly critical of the idea increased aid from rich to poor countries can solve anything. There are reasonable arguments; aid done poorly often benefits businesses and already wealthy people in the donor country as much as businesses and poor people in the recipient country. Poorly structured aid can create a ‘dependency syndrome’ in which the recipient nation is not encouraged to develop its own economy. Bad aid can be politically focused on popular, eye-catching targets like disaster relief, and not on important but mundane projects like strengthening the civil service. And let’s not even start on the arguments about ‘corruption,’ that word that follows the phrase ‘international aid’ around like a bad smell. Certainly though there are plenty of arguments out there, valid or otherwise, which seek to convince people aid is bad; inevitably flawed at best and neo-colonialism at worst.

Education too though can be bad; schools can be poorly staffed, curriculums unsuitable and facilities inappropriate.  That is not an argument against education itself. Indeed, studies have shown even an education delivered by a ‘bad’ school still boosts life chances considerably compared with someone entirely uneducated. Similarly, the blunt, imperfect instruments of transferring resources from a wealthy to a less wealthy country (for the concept of development aid at base is nothing more complex) can do some good. And with a little tweaking, and some better targeting, it can do a lot of good.

When the Millennium Development Goals expire in 2015, they will be replaced by some similar initiative, the content of which is being developed as we speak within UN offices.  There are multiple different theories on how we can, if we can, make education for all a reality rather than a pious slogan. That’s hardly surprising. The slightly patronising appellation of ‘developing countries’ invokes the image of a small cluster of failing nations, but actually most of the world’s population live in ‘developing’ countries. Evidence gathered in India may be of little help developing Sudanese education policy.

With that forewarning, I will relate my unashamedly anecdotal experience of aid and education, and how I’d like to see things tweaked and targeted. As I mentioned, I spent three months of this year volunteering in Dire Dawa, Ethiopia with a sort of community association called Kebele Haya. This is a body into which community members pay a small subscription, which then looks out for the most vulnerable in that community. It does so in part by running informal, free outdoor classes for children unable to attend official schools, usually due to financial reasons. Part of my job was to teach these classes, which were wildly popular despite a total lack of facilities.

Unsurprisingly, it was recognised that these classes would be more effective in an actual school building with chairs, books and qualified teachers, rather than the likes of myself. To that end, another part of my job was to work up a proposal intended to secure funding for this project. There was a strong case for the school, which would focus precisely on getting those often excluded children from low-income backgrounds into formal classes on a regular basis, so writing the proposal itself was not especially difficult.

Submitting the proposal, however, was considerably more challenging. Except the United States the UK Department for International Development (DFID) gives more aid to Ethiopia than any other nation. For an organisation such as Kebele Haya to directly apply for that money, however, seems all but impossible. The DFID website is written entirely in highly jargonised English which at a stroke prevented it of being of any use to the Kebele Haya management. Rather than simply submit a proposal, meanwhile, an organisation must submit their proposal as part of one of a number of time-and-cash-limited projects with very specific aims and criteria. Would their school project be eligible for funding under the ‘Education for Girls’ project I wondered? Certainly they educated girls, but not exclusively or specifically. I never did find an answer.

And I imagine if I as a native English speaker, who was on a DFID-funded programme (the International Citizen Service programme– highly recommend if your between 18-25 and have three months to spare), could not find out, it is going to be extremely difficult for community organisations like Kebele Haya to access these resources and use them for their intended purpose; providing education to those without it. Much more likely the money to deliver programmes will go to larger organisations less interested in and less knowledgeable about the specific challenges faced by disadvantaged people within particular communities when trying to obtain an education for their children.

Such locally-driven community associations are precisely the embodiment of all that could be positive in the ‘Big Society’ David Cameron used to talk about. Local people utilising their insight into local challenges and working vigorously and cooperatively to overcome these challenges for the benefit of all. Yet these are precisely the organisations with which UK international development policy (and the same is true of other many other nations) fails to engage. It is at the very least a colossal waste of the passion for education, local knowledge, useful contacts and unique skills active within these organisations. This reticence to work directly with such grassroots groups may be due to a fear of corruption, a preference for larger companies which can also benefit the donor, or some other reason. Whatever the cause of this reluctance, however, it is likely goes some way to explaining why progress in ensuring education for all has been so much slower than we had once dared to hoped.