More African children access school

It never used to be the case decades ago but lately, countries in Sub-Saharan Africa are sending more children to school and taking steps to improve education quality.

Nonetheless, a global partnership of donors and developing countries says the region still needs help from wealthy nations to achieve universal education by 2015.

Desmond Bermingham, the new head of the global compact on education, known as the Fast Track Initiative (FTI), says in a report that where there is political will and pulling together of resources, progress is possible.

“Our challenge is to help poor countries sustain the increases while improving quality and ensuring that all children complete their schooling,” he says.

Enrolment rates in Sub-Saharan Africa increased from 83 percent in 2000 to 95 percent in 2002, sending an additional 17 million students to school, says FTI. But only about 65 percent of primary school-aged children were enrolled in primary schools in 2004, according to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) Institute for Statistics.

And only 56 percent of children who go to primary school (grades one to five) complete it, says FTI, who fund a wide range of educational activities.

To be endorsed by FTI and eligible for financing, poor countries must have a “credible” plan to send more children to school and to raise the quality of education.

FTI endorsement encourages countries to take ownership of crafting national education plans, with budget accountability and a greater commitment of political and financial resources ‘ all with the aim of accelerating progress towards universal primary education.

The FTI partnership coordinates the efforts of donors and poor countries around the common goal of education and enables countries to make long-term education plans. It also attempts to attract and mobilise the resources to pay for schools, roads, teachers, textbooks and other improvements.

FTI has directly provided US$90 million to endorsed countries trying to send more children to school.

Estimates indicate that there are 20 million more children in Sub-Saharan African schools now than in the 1980s. And an assessment of FTI-endorsed countries finds that some have doubled school enrolments since 2000.

“Kenya, for instance, increased enrolment by a million almost overnight after abolishing school fees in 2003,” says Bermingham.

Ghana primary school enrolments increased by 14 percent after user fees were abolished in 2005.

In Niger, hiring 2 500 teachers per year led to a 61 percent increase in primary school enrolments between 1998 and 2003.

The initiative so far has endorsed the education plans of 20 countries including 12 African countries ‘ Burkina Faso, Djibouti, Ethiopia, The Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Kenya, Lesotho, Madagascar, Mauritania, Mozambique and Niger.

Another seven African countries expect endorsement over the next six months.

If FTI receives enough pledges, it could help up to 60 countries develop comprehensive plans for universal education benefiting over 70 million children, FTI says.

Madagascar provides a typical example of the operations of the Education for All Fast Track Initiative, which it financed in May 2005. But the country had already begun to revive an education system that declined during the 1980s and ’90s.

Education reforms began in earnest in 2002 with the election of a new government “highly committed to primary education”, says Sajitha Bashir, senior education economist in the World Bank’s Africa region.

Primary school enrolment rates surged to 98 percent when school user fees were abolished at the end of 2002. Enrolment currently stands at 3,6 million ‘ 89 percent of primary-aged children were enrolled in primary schools in 2004, according to the UNESCO Institute for Statistics.

The number of students completing primary school has climbed from 47 percent in 2004 to 60 percent in 2006.

With the help of funds from a seven-year World Bank project that ended in March 2005, the government provided grants to 90 percent of schools, distributed basic school kits to 3,4 million primary students in public and private schools, and teacher kits to over 47 000 teachers in 2003-04.

The government has used funds from other World Bank programmes and from other donors to construct 1 200 new classrooms, provide grants for community teachers, and train nearly 50 000 teachers.

Despite these efforts, 272 000 primary age children still do not go to school, 136 000 of them girls. And only 31 out of every 100 students go on to secondary school. In early 2005, the government began developing a long-term, comprehensive education strategy, with an eye on obtaining FTI financing to accelerate progress.

In the past year, the Catalytic Fund of the Fast Track Initiative has disbursed US$6 million of the first year grant of US$10 million to, among other things, support teacher salaries and local innovations for improving access to and quality of primary education.

July 2006
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