By Manos Antoninis, Director of the Global Education Monitoring Report, UNESCO

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. Many teachers are not sufficiently prepared, classrooms are overcrowded, infrastructure is crumbling and learning is suffering. Standards are slipping where they could easily be applied, which is putting our global education goal at risk.

UNesco21FFFEven though the number of children not in school has stagnated between 2008 and 2015, this doesn’t mean that the number going to school is stagnating too. Richer countries may have achieved universal primary education some while ago, but a rapid growth is occurring in poorer countries. 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 flocking to schools in sub-Saharan Africa in seven years looking to be educated. Is it any wonder that standards are slipping?

Depending on what side of the fence you sit, the diversification of education providers, which has mushroomed often in the form of low-fee private schools to meet this challenge, can be a blessing or a curse. Many of these schools sprouted in densely populated slums, where governments did not wish to set foot. They attract families aspiring to improve the education of their children. But oftentimes these schools do not live 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 43% of countries, which 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 their work. 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.

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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 in the capital city of Nigeria, Lagos, for example, only 26% of private schools were approved by the Ministry of Education. In Kenya and Uganda, private schools were operating without qualified teachers and with inadequate infrastructure before regulations were put in place and courts shut them down.  In Indonesia, 97% of children attend private pre-schools, only 8% of which are accredited.

One particularly worrying example is the private tutoring practice, an industry expected to be worth $227 billion by 2022. However, often private tutoring centres are unregulated. A rare example of standards on this practice is Hong Kong, which produces an online list of registered tutoring centres and also prosecutes those centres that are not registered.

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In addition, there is informal private tutoring. Many teachers are giving private tutorials after hours to the same children they teach in the day. They may do that to supplement meagre salaries. But this practice widens the gap between poor and rich students and puts into question the quality of education provided in schools. Codes of conduct may exist but these are rarely followed through.

Corruption, of course, distorts government resource allocation decisions. Yet in half of countries with data in sub-Saharan Africa, for instance, at least three in five people believe that their education system is corrupt or extremely corrupt.  Clear rules and regulations, codes of ethics for public officials, and a commitment to transparency can play important roles in preventing fraud. However, these must be accompanied by stronger management capacity, adequate monitoring, including strong and independent audits, open information systems, and an open environment for media scrutiny. In Uganda, for instance, a media campaign ran by the government to reduce corruption meant that, the closer a school was to a media outlet, the more likely it was to receive funds. Finally, when corruption is uncovered, the role of the police and courts is crucial in following up and enforcing the law.

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.