While the elimination of school fees is critical in helping achieve the right to education for all, addressing the challenges it poses is key to success.
When the Kenyan government announced it would stop charging fees for primary school education — just days before the beginning of the 2003 school year — the result was pandemonium.
Teachers, headmasters and parents scrambled to find desks, pencils and books for over a million extra students.
Encouragingly, UNICEF, the UN children’s agency, reports that the abolition of school fees has had the intended effect of vastly increasing access to education.
The number of primary students in Kenya has increased by nearly 2 million. The dropout rate has fallen. The share of students completing primary school jumped from 62.8 percent in 2002, the last year fees were charged, to 76.2 percent two years later as fewer poor children were forced out for nonpayment.
The story was different in the Southern African country of Malawi. There abolishing school fees proved less successful, the researchers found. Malawi eliminated its school fees in 1994.
But plans to provide on-the-job training to newly hired and unqualified teachers failed to materialize. Instructional quality declined sharply as the pupil-teacher ratio climbed to 70 to 1.
The lack of facilities meant that many classes met under trees, and books and teaching materials arrived months late, if at all. Despite increases in the education budget, spending per student, already low, declined by about 25 percent and contributed to the decline in quality.
As a result nearly 300,000 students dropped out during the first year, and high dropout rates continue to this day.
In fact, despite many worries, the lifting of fees in Kenya has proved to be a giant step forward for access to education by millions of the country’s poor. Conversely the experience in Malawi has highlighted the many challenges in achieving such a lofty goal.
Over the last 15 years a number of other countries, including Burundi, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ghana, Rwanda, Ethiopia, Malawi and Mozambique, have also experienced explosive growth in primary school enrolment following the elimination of fees.
A few African countries, including Botswana, Cape Verde, Togo and Mauritius, could achieve universal primary enrolment by 2015, one of the targets in the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), adopted by world leaders in 2000 to reduce poverty and advance human well-being across the globe.
Planning and finance are crucial
Their experiences show that abolishing fees, by itself, is not enough. A study by the World Bank and UNICEF has found that innovative policies and educational reform following the abolition of fees could spell the difference between success and failure.
In Kenya, the researchers argued, the government did a number of things right — and did them quickly.
The first step was to mobilize support among parents, teachers and administrators. The second was to find the money.
The government released $6.8 million in emergency grants — $380 per primary school — to cover immediate needs like exercise books, pencils and other supplies. Overall, domestic spending on education increased from about $703 mn in school year of 2001/02 to $951 million in 2003/04, a third of the national budget.
Donors stepped up as well, with the World Bank, the Swedish government and others contributing $82 million in additional funding over the next two years.
The government then embarked on a major overhaul of the primary school financing system. Rather than channel funds through the Education Ministry, it chose instead to provide student grants directly to individual schools. The Education Ministry’s auditing department was expanded to provide greater oversight.
That did not mean that the end of school fees and the reforms that followed have solved all of Kenya’s education problems. As the UN report notes, the influx of students in 2003 triggered an exodus of wealthier students to private schools, worsening longstanding income disparities within the national education system.
Nor has the abolition of formal fees removed all the burdens from financially strapped families.
Yet, in Kenya, the challenges look much less insurmountable than in Malawi. The Southern African country had lifted some fees for Standards 1 and 2 and waived primary education fees for girls prior to 1994.
The decision to eliminate all fees coincided with the return of multiparty elections that year. The focus, the researchers found, was on increasing enrolment.
“Very little attention was paid to quality issues” the report notes, adding that “the adoption of universal primary education was triggered by political demands rather than by rational planning processes.”
Lack of planning and coordination made it impossible to mobilize public and political support in the short time between the decision to lift fees and the beginning of school.
Among Malawi’s external partners only UNICEF initially supported the fee abolition. When over a million new students showed up for class, the study reports, the government found itself struggling to cope “after the fact.”
Overall, reports the UN study, only about 20 percent of boys and girls successfully complete eight years of primary education in Malawi. This is largely a function of the country’s deep poverty, the researchers say, and the lack of resources, such as nutrition programmes, to help poor children remain in school.
Time to innovate and improve
In the end, say the experts, a dual lesson can be drawn from the Kenyan and Malawian experiences. The abolition of school fees is a precondition for getting large numbers of poor children into school, but it must be accompanied by strong public and political support, sound planning and reform, and increased financing.
After systems adjust to the surge in enrolment, they argue, resources must be directed at improving quality and meeting the needs of the very poor, those in distant rural areas and children with disabilities.
The analysts say that a particular focus should be girls, who face a range of obstacles to attending and staying in school, including cultural attitudes that devalue education for women. Improved sanitation and facilities and better safety and security conditions can make it easier to keep girls in school.
The author writes for United Nations Africa Renewal magazine.