The case for Free Primary Education

The case for Free Primary Education

ROMA – THE beginning of the last decade saw the introduction of free primary education (FPE) in Lesotho.
As a result, the number of out-of-school children fell by half between 1999 and 2011.
“But the question of how much of this drop was caused by FPE, uncontaminated by improving educational tastes, remained largely unknown,” says Dr Ramaele Moshoeshoe, a lecturer in the Department of Economics at the National University of Lesotho (NUL).
After a lengthy study, his results are out.

As expected, enrolment (which we shall, for the last time, call school attendance) increased.
However, attainment, which might have implications for quality, decreased during the period of study.
The last two decades saw developing countries take steps to live the idea of free primary education.
Countries like Uganda, and Malawi started some time before Lesotho.

These countries were sometimes used as models for Lesotho to follow, “look, if they have done it, you can do it,” Lesotho used to be persuaded by international bodies.
The thinking was clear.

If you want to make primary education easy to access, it should be free.
If it is free, then it will be more complete, you will squeeze in as many learners as possible, sometimes by the force of law if necessary (compulsory).
To achieve that, clear steps were necessary.
“It meant no fees,” he says.

“It meant governments, not parents, had to take over the costs of stationery and textbooks. It meant primary schools, which could now lose revenue, had to be subsidized, hence the so-called capitation grant (which stands at M20 per child now) as the money given to schools. And it meant building more schools to welcome the expected influx of pupils.”
Well, you have already guessed it right.

Such massive social experiment might bring mixed results.
“One observation,” he found out, “has been that in countries like Kenya and Uganda, as the number of learners increased, quality of education declined.
The result has been a flight from public to private schools in those countries which had a sizeable portion of private schools.”

Some of these African countries might have not helped in the way they implemented the free primary education.
They chose what Moshoeshoe called a “Big Bang” option.

It was like all of a sudden, boom!
The whole primary education was free.
As you can imagine, such abrupt changes brought a shock to the system.

The situation worsens if you flood the school system with learners without equivalent resources which most African countries certainly don’t have.
Of course, some countries learned lessons from the mistakes of others.
Malawi, for instance, introduced free primary education gradually for the first three years (one grade each year) and then, boom! The whole grades from 4 to 7 were covered in one stroke in the fourth year.

Having observed the predecessors, Lesotho approached the whole thing more carefully, making a grade free, one at a time, each year, down to grate 7, giving itself time to build more schools to accommodate more learners, probably narrowing shocks in the process.
Which begs the question, what was the effect of this experiment after all?

Dr Moshoeshoe examined the impact of FPE on both enrolment, (a number of 6 to 12 year olds in school divided by the number of 6 to 12 years olds in the population).
“We choose 6 to 12 year olds because these are the ages learners are expected to be in primary school in Lesotho from grade 1 to grade 7 respectively,” he said.
Using a scientific method, he compared enrolment before the free primary education was introduction (1999 and back) and after it was introduced (2000 to 2002).
The results were as interesting as they were expected.

The enrolment had increased by a whopping 44 percent.
He used another measure, which comes in many names such as relative grade attainment, school progression and age adjusted educational attainment.
In this case, a completed grade is divided by the age of a learner minus the school entry age (which is 6 in Lesotho).
Let’s try to grasp this one.

Imagine a learner who just completed a second grade (and is now in a third grade).
She has 2 as a number of competed grades.
Her age is 8.
The expected school age is 6.
Then 2 divided by (8-6 =2) is 1.
She is at 100%.

That means the student is progressing well.
She is at the right grade compared to her age.
But suppose a student has completed grade 2.
Her age is 9.
School age is 6.
Then 2 divided by (9-6=3) is 0.66.
She is at 66%.

That means she has lost 33% of her grades with respect to her age.
Comparing before and after pictures of attainment, Dr Moshoeshoe found that relative grade attainment dropped by 0.15 after introduction of FPE.
Before being alarmed, consider two possibilities.

It could be that learners were indeed failing more (which is bad) or it could be that more people of higher age, e.g. a 15 year old who could not start school because he had no money, could now start going to school due to FPE (which is good).

Own Correspondent

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