Sometimes, we pay the highest price for the things we get for free. Einstein said this, and it captures the nature of Free Primary Education (FPE) as a policy introduced in the 90s to improve enrollment in primary schools in many African countries. Because there is no such thing as a free lunch, the price Nigerians pay is quality.
Primary education is the foundation of education. As a result, there are numerous initiatives to support it. These actions, typically partnerships between governments and International Development Associations (IDAs), have concentrated on ‘quantitative educational expansion’ (QEE), i.e. building more schools, lowering the costs of schooling, supplying instructional materials, etc.
Granted that free education has been useful, the quality of education suffers. The current format of FPE disregards the fact that good education is built on good teaching, by overlooking the importance of quality teaching and concentrating instead on the quantity; ostensibly to cater for the huge volume of students enrolled.
Teaching is no more noble
Recently, some governments have started focusing on quality. An embarrassing example is currently playing out in Kaduna where 21,780 out of 33,00 teachers failed a ‘primary four test’ administered to assess their competence by the State government. A more glaring embarrassment occurred in 2013 when former Governor Oshiomhole of Edo State was on camera with a teacher who could not read her certificate. Meanwhile, other state governments such as Akwa-Ibom are adopting original versions of teacher quality certification such as the one-teacher-one-subject policy.
However, teachers require not only training but also supervision and support. In most cases, free primary education is announced with teacher development plans only detailed afterwards; such as the situation in Kaduna. Besides, teaching conditions and welfare packages are poor. As fewer qualified candidates apply for teaching roles, unqualified people fill up the ranks. This has the ultimate goal of eroding the reputation of teaching as a noble profession.
Most teachers enter the profession because they see no viable alternative. In 2016, Professor Banku-Obi, the Deputy Vice-Chancellor at the University of Calabar criticised President Buhari’s decision to absorb 500,000 unemployed graduates into the teaching profession to help curb unemployment. She explained that asides these graduates being untrained teachers, employing them would just be a means of earning a living because they have no passion for teaching.
All that being said, government officials, teachers, and students are not the only stakeholders in this project. International Donor Agencies (IDA’s) are vital, as they cover the cost of 'free' education and whoever pays the piper, determines its tune.
All that glitters is not gold
IDA’s such as the World Bank, IMF and UNESCO are major donors to free education. So governments have learnt to satisfy IDA preferences in their educational visions.
It is striking how similar the educational development plans of most sub-Saharan African countries become once they are streamlined to fit free education templates set by IDA’s. For example, Kenya, Malawi, Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia all announced their free education policies with untrained teachers which coincidentally fits in with the dominant narrative of quantity over quality.
The benefits of these policies are easily identifiable. For instance, the political credit that goes with announcing education policies is likely to attract more external finance due to the preoccupation of donor agencies with achieving free education. Some schools that have benefited from IDA templates are Yahaya Hamza primary school in Zaria funded by Airtel and UBE primary schools in the suburbs of Kaduna which received ₦30M from Global Partnership for Education.
Admittedly, the international templates are usually pretty good considering the resources employed in drafting them. To most countries, adopting these models has the advantage of attracting financial support. But, these education templates have the same defects. Micro challenges that are unique to countries such as the format of exams, teacher training, textbooks, school health and community participation are usually weak and constantly replicated.
At the end of the day, overly concentrating on templates to the detriment of individual differences in countries appears like a money grab on the part of the host countries and insincerity on the part of the IDAs. In fact, a paper by K. Bircher and K. Michaelowa of the universities of Yale and Zurich respectively outlines that governments are pressurised by IDA’s to reduce teacher salaries and requirements for access to the teaching profession and to accept high Pupil Teacher Ratio’s (PTR) in order to be able to enrol more students. This could mean that IDA’s are more interested in achieving targets at the expense of educational quality.
This is not to undermine the value of free education, it will remain important. However, in reality, we can see that though the actions of IDAs may glitter, their real intentions may not always be gold.