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Call for abolition of school fees

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©BBC
Ghana's Minister of Education, Science and Sports, Papa Owusu Ankomah, appeals to the G8 leaders to help poor countries abolish school fees.

Ghana's Minister of Education, Science and Sports, Papa Owusu Ankomah, appeals to the G8 leaders meeting in St Petersburg to help poor countries abolish school fees.

"Africa is accustomed to making global news headlines.

The world is no stranger to our struggles with disease, drought, poverty and civil war.

But a new and vastly important story is emerging, that may transform the future for Africa's children.

It is one of the most promising efforts the continent can undertake to change the typical tale of destitution and despair: the abolition of school fees.

School fees are widely recognised as one of the strongest barriers to achieving universal primary education and gender equality.

Yet an estimated 77 out of 94 poor countries, mostly in Africa, still charge some type of fee for basic education.

Fees consume nearly a quarter of a poor family's income in sub-Saharan Africa and pay not only for tuition but also indirect costs such as parent-teacher association contributions, textbooks, compulsory uniforms and other expenses.

'Cruelty'

Ghana abolished tuition fees 45 years ago, taking the critical first step towards making primary education accessible to all children.

But for decades, poverty-stricken parents grappled instead with school levies - charges for school-based extra-curricular activities imposed at the district level.

Many children from poor and rural communities, especially girls, could not afford to go to school.

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© BBC
Many displaced children get little if any schooling.

This is the cruelty of prohibitive school fees: the most vulnerable and marginalised children, who desperately need the better future that education can bring, are shut out and left behind.

Determined to get more children into school, the government of Ghana launched the Free Compulsory Basic Education Initiative in 1996.

The programme included a cost-sharing scheme to cover non-tuition fees, under which parents were expected to bear only limited expenses.

More importantly, no child was to be turned away from school for non-payment of fees.

But the initiative did not work.

Enrolment

The breakthrough came in 2004, when Ghana took a final leap of courage and abolished all school levies, first in the most deprived districts and nationwide by 2005.

To replace lost revenue and cover attendance costs per child, the government introduced capitation grants paid directly to the schools.

The results were immediate and stunning. Over two academic years, enrolment in public basic schools surged from 4.2 million to 5.4 million.

The gross enrolment ratio in primary schools reached an all-time high of 92.7%.

Children from some of the poorest families and most remote communities poured into school for their first opportunity to learn.

In one family, as soon as the news about the levies spread, a mother rushed out to bring home her 10-year-old daughter, whom she had reluctantly sent away to work and earn income for the family.

In one industrial area which employs a large number of apprentices in auto mechanical engineering between the ages of 11 and 20, schools suddenly became over-enrolled.

These trainees now go to school in the morning and learn their trade in the afternoon.

Enrolment has increased even more dramatically in other African countries that have taken the bold step to eliminate fees.

In Uganda, primary school enrolment grew from 2.5 million in 1997 to 6.5 million in 2000; in Kenya in 2003, it jumped from 5.9 million to 7.2 million; and in Tanzania, enrolment more than doubled from 1.4 million to 3 million.

Our collective experiences are living proof that abolishing school fees may be the single most important policy measure to dramatically transform school enrolment.

Extras

At the same time, we are very clear that abolishing fees is by no means a cure-all for the failings of the education system or a surefire way to guarantee children a quality basic education.

Ghana, like our African neighbours who have eliminated school fees, is wrestling with the challenges of highly overcrowded classrooms, severe teacher shortages, glitches in our new financing mechanism and other problems that threaten to compromise quality learning.

Even though tuition fees and levies have been lifted, basic education in Ghana is still not entirely free. Parents still pay for meals, transportation and uniforms.

Through the Education for All targets and Millennium Development Goals, Ghana has pledged with the rest of the world to uphold every child's right to education.

Yet in 2002, some 115 million primary-school-aged children worldwide were not in school because these promises have not been kept.

Over 45 million of these children are in sub-Saharan Africa.

Abolishing all school fees can dramatically reduce these numbers and help us honour our commitments to children.

And now there is support. Last year, UNICEF and the World Bank launched the School Fee Abolition Initiative to learn from countries that have already abolished fees and to provide needed guidance for others embarking on this path.

World leaders now gathering at the G8 heads of state summit can lend a very important helping hand.

They can pledge international financial support to countries that take vital, bold policy measures, like fee abolition, to make quality education available to all children.

Education is not a good deed we do for children. It is a human entitlement.

To deny children a place in school because their family is unable to pay school fees is unjust.

There are simply no more excuses. All school fees, everywhere, must be abolished."


 

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