No matter your job, you need standards to ensure that you are working to meet your objectives. Unfortunately, where education and schools are concerned, these standards sometimes do not exist. Or, more often, they are not enforced. Schools are decidedly sub-standard in some places, with those in sub-Saharan Africa facing particularly strong challenges. Many teachers are not sufficiently prepared in the region, classrooms are often overcrowded, infrastructure is crumbling and learning is suffering.
More than one in four young people cannot read in sub-Saharan Africa today, while by some other recent estimate nine in ten children do not acquire minimum reading skills. Standards are slipping where they could be applied, which is putting our global education goal at risk.
Even though the number of children not in school globally has stagnated between 2008 and 2015, this doesn’t mean that the number going to school is stagnating too. During the same period, 30 million more children enrolled in primary school in sub-Saharan Africa alone - that’s more than all the children enrolled in primary school in the United States. Is it any wonder that standards are slipping?
Depending on what side of the fence you sit, the diversification of education providers, often in the form of low-fee private schools, can be a blessing or a curse. Many of these schools sprouted in densely populated slums, including in Kibera, Kenya, where governments did not wish to set foot. They attracted families aspiring to improve the education of their children. But oftentimes these schools have not lived up to expectations.
What the newest Global Education Monitoring (GEM) Report, Accountability in education: meeting our commitments, shows us is that governments must establish standards and regulations that lay down the law for all education providers, public and private. If they do not, negative practices quickly take hold.
At present, governments may not have standards in place even for public schools. We found that there are no regulations on class sizes in primary school in 10 countries in sub-Saharan Africa, including Liberia, Sierra Leone, Mali and Togo. This is a major challenge for teachers and a big contributor to low learning outcomes. Less than half of low and middle income countries reviewed by the World Bank had established standards for early childhood education – and even fewer monitored and enforced those regulations.
When governments relinquish control of education to private providers, it is equally if not more important that standards be in place to regulate them. By 2021, it is expected that one in four primary school age pupils in sub-Saharan Africa will be in private schools, up from 13.5% in 2015. If these schools’ way of working does not meet the aspirations of our global education goal, SDG 4, it is highly unlikely we will achieve it.
The reality, we found, is that regulations are not being created or streamlined to adjust to the fast rate with which education systems are expanding. The very first step of accrediting schools in the first place is often cumbersome, prone to corruption, and therefore slow, leaving many operating without meeting even minimum safety and infrastructure standards. In 2010/11, for example, only 26% of private schools in Lagos had been approved by the Ministry of Education. In Kenya and Uganda, some private schools were operating without qualified teachers and with inadequate infrastructure before regulations were put in place and courts shut them down.
An education system is not the work of just one person or body. An education system of good quality is a shared responsibility between multiple actors, governments, teachers, schools, parents and the private sector. But governments need to set the example, and introduce clear regulations that lead towards the global education goal. They are the missing link for restoring trust in the education system.
By Dr. Manos Antoninis
Director, Global Education Monitoring Report, UNESCO