Countries seeking a breakthrough in universal basic education by abolishing school fees will soon have a detailed blueprint based on the experience of African states that have already taken that step, thanks to a new United Nations-backed initiative.
“School fees are keeping children out of the classroom, and many of these are the most vulnerable children in our societies,” UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) Education Chief Cream Wright told high-level education officials currently meeting in Nairobi, Kenya.
The School Fee Abolition Initiative, sponsored by UNICEF, the World Bank, the United States Agency for International development (USAID) and other partners, aims to help countries develop education systems that are inclusive, equitable and sustainable.
At the Nairobi meeting, education officials from Kenya, Malawi, Mozambique, Tanzania, Ethiopia and Ghana are sharing their experiences in abolishing fees with colleagues from Burundi and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), which have recently agreed to take that step. Haiti is also participating as are experts from development agencies, donors, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and academics.
“Fees consume nearly a quarter of a poor family’s income in Sub-Saharan Africa, paying not only for tuition, but also indirect fees such as PTA and community contributions, textbook fees, compulsory uniforms and other charges,” Mr. Wright said.
“The increasing numbers of orphans and vulnerable children, including those affected by HIV/AIDS or trapped in domestic labour, makes it imperative to abolish fees.”
But ending school fees is no magic wand, and experience shows that the surge in enrolment after abolition brings immense challenges to the entire learning infrastructure, from the physical building, to the class size and materials, to the hygiene facilities (if they exist at all) and to the teachers.
With more than 115 million primary school aged children out of school, progress towards the UN Millennium Development Goal of universal access to a complete quality primary education by 2015 has stalled, Mr. Wright said.
“We need to accelerate and significantly scale up progress on education with bold policy measures,” he declared. “We need to move from words to deeds, from promises to results. The promises of school fee abolition should no longer elude so many countries that are willing to embark on such a bold initiative.”