The hidden cost of Universal Primary Education

The hidden cost of Universal Primary Education

“The notion of universalizing primary education is rooted in the perceived centrality of education to promote… economic development” (Nungu, 2010).

 Early childhood is arguably the most rapid developmental stage in a person’s life and the most important building block for future success are laid within those first eight years of life. Thus, as the basics of learning are laid in these formative years, it stands to reason that  if a child is only entering formal schooling structures at age 6 then they will lack a number of the preliminary building blocks fundamental for numeracy and literacy and will most likely lack a sense of ease within the learning environment.

Unfortunately with the pursuit of Millennium Development Goal 2, with the target of “All countries should ensure that by 2015, children everywhere boys and girls alike will be able to complete a full course of primary schooling.” we may be robbing millions of children across the continent of the same opportunity.

In 2003, Kenya took a leap towards achieving this goal by making primary education free. According to the Ministry of Education with an enrolment rate of 86%, Kenya is well on track to achieve the Millennium Development Goal relating to basic education for all children by 2015.

Despite this, there have been a number of hidden costs and casualties along the way. One of the well explored side effects of this has been the lack of qualified teachers to handle the increased number of students enrolled and its effect on the quality of teaching and learning. However, an issue that hasn’t been explored as thoroughly is how much Early Childhood Education (ECE) suffered as a result of this push and how the quality of learning is directly affected by the lack of focus on this crucial element of education.

According to the Ounce of Prevention Fund, an NGO focused on helping children access high quality ECD facilities and resources, 25% of children who do not go to some kind of ECD centre are  more likely to drop out of primary school and 60% more likely to not make it to a tertiary institution of some sort. The likelihood that children with uneducated parents are going to an ECD centre are less likely especially if they cannot afford the fees , reasoning  that why pay now when they could wait until the child is 6 and receive free education. The cycle continues in perpetuity when those children drop out and are unable to find gainful employment and change their economic situations. When I think back on preschool, I remember brightly lit classrooms, a massive sand-filled playground and possibly the last time I remember enjoying school. It was play, play, play, with no real memories of any sort of learning but what I maybe don’t always realize is that those three years spent playing may be the reason I was able to go to University. Maybe the reason I was able get a degree at all was because I had a solid learning foundation that launched my schooling path.

In Kenya, in 2003, with the onset of free primary education there was an increase in enrollment from 4% to 10% in a very short space of time. However with little to no additional infrastructure or human resources ECD classrooms and teachers in public schools were allocated to Class 1 to be able to keep up with the demand. In addition to all of this, there is also a trend where donors like the US Agency for International Development (USAID) have pulled significant amounts of ECD funding in favour of primary and secondary school education and the importance of “play-school” has been diminished.

If we achieve the goal of universal (whatever that may mean) education, those entering the doors of a primary school begin the race on equal footing. They step in advantaged or disadvantaged based on the foundation that they have been given through their access to ECE, based on who their parents are and how much they know. Most students would walk in disadvantaged by a government that isn’t having the discussion about how important that foundation of ECE is. Even though they have the privilege of sitting in a classroom and receiving an education, we set them up to fail because we haven’t equipped them with the tools for success.

Nguhi Mwaura

Nguhi Mwaura is an Associate Consultant at Dalberg Global Development Advisors based in their Nairobi office. She has a BA and post-graduate diploma both from Rhodes University

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