Foreign Policy Blogs

Education Is A Right That Must Be Fulfilled Urgently

 

Disruptors are becoming ever more prevalent as bold solutions are offered for global problems. In health, transport, and agriculture big ideas are at the centre of fierce debates about reform and innovation; nowhere is this more evident than in education.

In developing countries, quality education for the poor is rare:  263 million children are out of school and 330 million children are in school but not learning. 69 million more teachers are needed. With many calling for more funding to meet demand, it is only now that the global community is unifying around ‘outcomes’ rather than ‘access’ as a benchmark for success and calling for innovationto help solve the learning crisis.

Sadly, at the moment nearly 600 million children are being failed; enabling those 600 million to go to a school where they actually learn is a mammoth global task and underpins Sustainable Development Goal 4 (SDG4). Re-building weak public school systems; putting in place capacity building programs; re-invigorating teacher training programs and enabling governments to generate enough financing to fund all this will take many years, if not decades.

Providing high quality schooling for all children clearly requires innovation, partnership and collaboration from all sectors that have the expertise and commitment to contribute. Yet many anti-reformists vehemently argue that SDG4 should not be pursued in partnership with the private sector. Their justification for this is often ostensibly rooted in Article 26 of the UN’s Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). The 1948 UDHR ‘strives to promote these rights and freedoms and secure universal and effective recognition’; but 70 years on; 600 million children are proof that the approach taken to fulfilling Article 26’s goals so far, has failed. Section one of the Article has five clear components a) Everyone has the right to education b) Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages and c) Elementary education shall be compulsory d) Technical and professional education shall be made generally available and e) higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit.

Many educators, including Bridge, believe that a strong free public school system delivering real learning for each and every child is the ideal. However, we must be pragmatic as well as idealistic if we accept the fundamental urgency of the learning crisis.If we believe that a) education is a right then we must strive to help fulfill that right urgently. If c) education must be compulsory, then we must urgently build and develop enough schools, classrooms and teachers for 600 million children to be served. If these rights, outlined in Article 26, cannot be urgently met by existing public systems then they must be met using other models. Otherwise, parents must wait until all governments build the will, the resources, and the capacity to provide the poor the education their children deserve. This is an unacceptable position and offers families no hope. Therefore, the ability to compromise on clause b, in the short term, is essential; a failure to do so will perpetuate the cycle of educational death for another generation of children. Clause b is often arbitrarily proclaimed by status quo defenders as most essential: education must be free. They argue, compulsory education for all (clauses a and c) must be delivered by existing public sector frameworks without any social impact investment; returns based financing or public private partnership models. According to them, governments must deliver the holy grail of strong, regenerated and reinvigorated public schools from within a failing system. Despite good intentions, this has been unachievable for the last 70 years.  This argument locates them firmly in the realm of the ideologues who place theory above the immediate needs of children.

It is only through embracing new, innovative, scalable and sustainable models that clause b will ever be achievable. The clear alternative to private sector assistance is that hundreds of millions of children remain uneducated for the years or decades it may take for all governments to reform and develop a strong primary education system. It is the verhement resistance to this logic which leads education reformers to talk about an ideological divide.

This ideological divide is increasingly visible through coordinated public attacks on the private sector and its innovations. Often driven by those that have no constituency in the communities or the countries benefiting from private sector interventions; by those that have neither experienced first hand the innovations they critique nor reviewed the materials they condemn. Perhaps, more importantly by those that do not offer any practical solutions to ensure that the 600 million can urgently learn.

Against this backdrop there are millions of parents who are choosing schools like Bridge. In Kenya alone, there are two million children alone attending ‘informal schools’. These parents are from communities living in extreme poverty, often in slums. These parents are choosing not to send their child to the nearby public school, for which they often pay, because their public school is failing; only 51% of Kenyan parents rated the quality of free to attend schools in Kenya as good.Children are not learning; teachers are struggling and parents are frustrated that their children are being failed. A parent with school aged children cannot wait for the rebuilding of public school systems; capacity building programs; re-invigorated teacher training programs. They have to send their child to school today. They choose schools where they can be intimately involved:  chairing regional and national PTAs; sitting on school boards; attending workshops. They are invested in their child’s education in every sense, as are their communities, and their children thrive. They are the living embodiment of Article 26’s section three: ‘Parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children.’

At the heart of parental choice is a parents’ desire for good teachers and  an environment that supports their child’s learning. However, teachers in developing countries face considerable challenges; they themselves struggle with literacy and numeracy; they often do not have materials with which to teach let alone good materials; they have overcrowded classrooms; often they are not paid on time, if at all; in remote communities with poor infrastructure there is no support or guidance and teacher absenteeism levels are extraordinarily high. This is the plight of many teachers and because of this, it is unfathomable that activists who claim to support teachers would seek to protect the status quo. They seek to protect labor and agitate against a focus on teacher performance. Whereas , teachers themselves are actively seeking environments where they have access to professional development opportunities and can practice their chosen profession with pride.

Nearly all primary schools in sub-Saharan Africa are failing their pupils. Solutions that utilize a wide range of partners is essential and using Article 26 to undermine these partnerships is nonsensical.

Joanna Hindley is the Vice President of Bridge International Academics.