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Enhancing Quality Education as an Equalizer in the Modern World

Walter Odondi

Program Officer Whole Youth Development

Zizi Afrique Foundation

Education is a very critical aspect of people’s lives throughout the world. Education refers to a socially organized and regulated systematic and continuous process through which knowledge and experiences are transferred from an individual or group (known as teacher) to another individual or group (known as learner) [1]. It may also be referred to as the development that a person receives so as to empower him or her to make the most informed decision in any circumstance that he or she faces [2]. Equity in education refers to the primary variations or relative differences in educational resources, processes and outcomes to learners [3]; or the policies and practices that enable the provision of access by every student to an education focused on meaningful learning [4].

The Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) identified a number of steps involved in the realization of equity in education [5]. The first is fairness, which basically means making sure that personal and social circumstances – for example gender, socio-economic status or ethnic origin – should not be an obstacle to achieving educational potential. The second is inclusion, in other words ensuring a basic minimum standard of education for all – for example that everyone should be able to read, write and do simple arithmetic. The two dimensions are closely intertwined: tackling school failure helps to overcome the effects of social deprivation which often causes school failure. The basic structure of education systems affects equity. Traditionally, education systems have sorted students according to attainment. Evidence from studies of secondary and primary schools suggests that such sorting can increase inequalities and inequities, particularly if it takes place early in the education process. Early sorting can also weaken results overall.  Clearly, education systems need to provide strong education for all, giving priority to early childhood provision and basic schooling. Public provision of education can foster equity if it counterbalances poor home circumstances at the outset of children’s lives. But it may increase inequity if it offers a common resource that is primarily claimed by those least in need of it. There is strong evidence that early childhood education and care, alongside public policy measures to improve the lives of young children, is the highest equity priority. If fees for early childhood education and care are applied at all, they should be moderate and remitted for those too poor to pay.   Teaching quality is also an issue. Disadvantaged schools have the greatest need of experienced teachers, but in many countries the “difficult” schools can only attract the less experienced teachers. There should be incentives for more experienced teachers to work in these schools so as to foster equity.

A study by Samarakoon et al. established that half of the estimated 57 million children in Sub-Saharan Africa remain out of school and have been the primary concern in the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 4 “to ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all” [6]. Whilst the relative more affluent global northern countries are able to attain SDG 4, the resource deficiencies in the Global South make the attainment of this goal to be insurmountable, especially given the growing donor fatigue to plug the huge funding gap of US$ 148 billion [7]. Despite the increased calls to action for more education aid to be pumped into the least developed countries (LDCs), there is no guarantee that these calls will be heeded to, since the majority of donor countries have turned their attention to more pressing matters back home, such as tax reforms, energy, infrastructure, and emerging issues such as global warming and climate change [8]. Sustainable education especially quality education has been considered as renewable resources to be geared towards the acquisition of key competences of 21st century including sustainable life style, work and habitant. According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) is education that allows every human being to acquire the knowledge, skills, attitudes and values necessary to shape a sustainable future [9]. It requires participatory teaching and learning methods that motivate and empower learners to change their behaviour and take action for sustainable development. ESD consequently promotes competencies like critical thinking, imagining future scenarios and making decisions in a collaborative way [10].

Education is also linked to empowerment, particularly for girls. Women with higher education are much more likely than uneducated women to be able to make their own choices in life concerning their spouse, number of children, working outside the home and making important household decisions. For instance, women in India who had at least a secondary education were 30 percentage points more likely to have a say in choosing their husband than their peers with less education [11]. In Africa, the percentage of female respondents with a favourable view of genital mutilation/cutting declines with education. In Mauritania, for example, 79 per cent of unschooled women aged 15–49 viewed female genital mutilation/cutting favourably in 2007, but only 41 per cent of those with lower secondary education and 21 per cent of women with tertiary education did [12]. For low-income countries, primary education forms the bedrock of development and the foundation for further income growth. However, as income levels increase, the importance of higher levels of education also increases. For countries with full or nearly universal primary completion, lower secondary education becomes the level where the highest returns can be reaped. In addition, the importance of upper secondary and technical and vocational education and training is heightened as today’s rapidly growing economies depend on the creation, acquisition, distribution and use of knowledge, and this requires an educated and skilled population. There is a need for carefully balanced, contextualized investment in the different levels of education [13]. Investing in education overall has important economic and human development returns. However, questions remain, particularly when there are resource constraints: How to balance investment at the various levels of education to achieve the highest economic and human development returns? Are the returns higher for primary, secondary or tertiary education? [13].

Even prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the world was already grappling with a learning crisis. Millions of children and young people were not on track to develop the relevant skills they need to learn effectively, transition smoothly into getting a job or starting a business, or otherwise contribute to their communities. Inequities (including those associated with poverty, gender, disability, migration status, ethno-linguistic status, and other socioeconomic conditions) that have long kept millions of children from accessing equitable and inclusive quality education further intensified and became exposed by the pandemic. Millions more children missed out on services that are often provided through schools, such as school meals, immunization, mental health and psychosocial support, and protection from violence [14].  In 2019, the World Bank introduced the concept of ‘Learning Poverty’ – the inability to read and understand a simple text by the age of 10. It had estimated that 48 per cent of children worldwide and 87 per cent of children in sub-Saharan Africa are ‘learning poor’ in these terms. While some of these children have never been to school or were taken out of school early, for others the poor quality of learning outcomes needs more explanation [15]. The disruption in learning caused by the COVID-19 pandemic – in which over 1 billion students globally stopped going to school at some point – has only exacerbated the global learning crisis. In sub-Saharan Africa, with an overall learning poverty rate of 87 per cent, unless improvement accelerates dramatically from pre-COVID patterns, the region will fall well short of eliminating learning poverty by 2030. At the current rate of improvement, in 2030 about 43 per cent of children globally will still be learning-poor [15].

Without swift, well-coordinated remedial action, the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on education in Africa will mean that targets for reducing learning poverty will not be met, and progress towards targets could be significantly delayed by more than two decades. Should this projection become reality, the consequences for children and society will be devastating, with long-term negative effects on children’s life outcomes, including their learning, health (physical and mental), nutrition and socioeconomic development [15]. For the most marginalized vulnerable children, there is an increased risk of being left even further behind, especially in conflict-affected countries where half of all out-of-school children live. The World Bank estimated that loss of learning will cost this cohort of students nearly US$10 trillion in earnings, equivalent to 10 per cent of global GDP. In sub-Saharan Africa lifetime learning loss was estimated to be US$300 million, or 7 per cent of GDP in 2019 [15]. Africa’s current primary school enrolment rate is above 80% on average, with the continent recording some of the biggest increases in elementary school enrolment globally in the last few decades, according to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), which is tasked with coordinating international cooperation in education, science, culture and communication. More children in Africa are going to school than ever before. Yet despite the successes in primary school enrolment, inequalities and inefficiencies remain in this critical sector. According to the African Union (AU), the recent expansion in enrolments “masks huge disparities and system dysfunctionalities and inefficiencies” in education subsectors such as preprimary, technical, vocational and informal education, which are severely underdeveloped. It is widely accepted that most of Africa’s education and training programs suffer from low-quality teaching and learning, as well as inequalities and exclusion at all levels. Even with a substantial increase in the number of children with access to basic education, a large number still remain out of school [16].

Kenya’s Vision 2030 has prioritized the attainment of equitable education through the increased emphasis on the linkage between education and the labour market and the need to create entrepreneurial skills and competencies. It articulates the development of a middle-income country where all citizens will embrace entrepreneurship, engage in lifelong learning, solve complex problems, assume more responsibility and have quantitative, reasoning and expository skills. Clearly, ensuring quality and equity in access to secondary school education are vital in Kenya’s development endeavours. However, there is uneven distribution of secondary schools in the country inequitable distribution of teachers, teaching and learning resources between the National, County and District categories of secondary schools, with the National schools receiving the highest priority, followed by the County ones. Due to this, the trend in the performance in national examinations in these schools is better than most district schools [17]. Despite the best efforts by the government and various stakeholders to provide students from public primary schools with good and quality education, there is a  wide gap between educational outcomes for students from poor backgrounds and those from relatively well to do backgrounds, especially those attending private schools. Consequently, the majority of the students getting places in the top secondary schools are those from private schools hence creating disparity in access to top performing secondary schools [18]. Low transition rates of students especially girls has been a great restriction to Kenya in achieving gender equity especially in education development. The result of the low transition rates has led to the decline in the proportion of the females enrolled in schools higher up in the Kenyan education structure and significantly in the tertiary institutions such as universities and middle level colleges. Studies done on this aspect indicate that female students’ enrolment in public universities is at thirty per cent of the total enrolment and this has also led to the under-representation of female students in technological, scientific and mathematical professional programs. Consequently, this leads to the aforementioned professions being bloated by males thus greatly impeding the achievement of gender equity in education [19].  

The initiatives of the past decade, such as the Kenya Education Sector Support Programme (KESSP) and Vision 2030, have moved education to the forefront of national priorities. Increasing attention is being paid to improving educational quality, retaining those aspects of the existing system that have functioned well, while also recognizing that all policies have consequences, both intended and unintended. The national examination system at the end of grades 8 and 12 has served to maintain a reasonably high level of quality in student learning outcomes while simultaneously serving as a gatekeeper for and limiting transition to subsequent levels of education. Hence, in the service of maintaining quality, access (and potentially equity) may be sacrificed [20]. It is much easier to identify areas for improvements that might increase quality than it is to implement strategies to address them. The challenge of improving education quality leading to the social and economic benefits so needed in developing countries is complex. It requires systematic planning, political commitment, financial resources, and stakeholder involvement at both the national and local community levels. Kenya has admirably demonstrated the capacity to assess its educational system and formulate plans for reform that address both individual and national development needs. The continuing challenge is to find effective and sustainable avenues for implementing these plans in the future [20].  Economic inequality is growing. The kind of education system a country has will have a major impact on its capacity to respond. Access to good-quality education for individual children offers a pathway to liberation from poverty and illness, towards the fulfilment of basic rights. It can transform lives and bring children out of the shadows of poverty and marginalization. For societies, it acts as a leveller and an agent for greater equality. Yet, the only road to this is through reform of public education systems focused on quality and equality [21]. This must be achieved through the necessary policy approaches identified in this report. Approaches that focus on privatization, competition and a false sense of ‘choice’ will lead to greater inequality in and through education. This is a dangerous path, not least as today’s young people face a radically and rapidly changing world. What’s more, it will do little to deliver on the SDG promise of ensuring an equitable and good-quality education for all by 2030, which requires a radical shift in current policies and spending in the vast majority of poor countries. For instance, India, currently home to nearly 40 million out-of-school children at secondary level, is only forecast to meet the target for universal access to secondary school in 2085. In Mozambique, it will take a predicted 500 years. Some countries will only deliver for their wealthier citizens: in Nicaragua, Armenia, Cameroon, Guatemala, Zambia and Chad, learning for the poorest children (whether they are in school or not) is actually decreasing, while for the wealthiest it is improving. This is leading to predicted inequality-widening patterns by 2030. It is a negative and potentially dangerous vision [21].


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