With free primary education now offered in a number of African countries, have standards of education dropped?
According to UNESCO, the average number of children per teacher in Malawi is 63.
When free primary education was introduced during the 1990s, the number of students doubled.
However UNESCO says that funding per pupil fell significantly, suggesting a decline in the quality of education provided.
Is it enough for a child just to be in school? Who is benefiting from increased access to schooling? What support do teachers have? Is it possible to teach 63 children successfully?
This debate is now closed. Read a selection of your comments below.
When we talk of quality, I believe it depends on what is delivered to students! In this case, regardless of the fact that free education is being adopted by many parts of the world, the quality of what is delivered to students in schools should not be compromised. What needs to be resolved is the availability of facilities, qualified teachers and the commitment from students.
R Hillary, London U.K
The best legacy that a parent and a society can bestow onto their offspring is a good education. All else fades away when we consider that the intrinsic value of education is embodied in the saying that, "give a man a fish and he will eat for one day; teach him how to fish and he'll eat for a lifetime."
Kuria Githiora, Michigan, USA/Kenya
There is nothing like free education. How can you call it free education when we are buying note books, text books for our children even paying for part time teaching because of the laxity of the teachers. I see no free eduation.
Enock Magolah, Blantyre, Malawi
I think schools, especially those in remote areas, which I believe are the majority, should be run by an empowered local government, which should apply a self-reliance programme. The schools should encourage vocational skills, including agriculture and crafts, that will help generate money and at the same time make the school more beneficial to the community.
Donn, Eldoret, Kenya
It is absolutely impossible for 63 kids to understand what a teacher is talking about. You do not even have a chance to ask questions. Only a few of these students will go to secondary schools. I think it is unfair. The government has money and they should get more teachers so at least they can split the classes up.
Fred Sundqvist, Piteň, Sweden
I am very much in favour of the idea of free primary education in Africa. Combined funding from donors and governments could make the system work perfectly. In fact this will help introduce the poorest Africans to the world of literacy which will in turn help them understand the value of life.
Moibah Nyengbeh, Kissidougou, Guinea
Free education has failed to deliver because African governments don't see the importance of having an educated population. The western regional government led by chief Awolowo in the sixties showed that it is possible to have free quality education in Africa. The government doesn't want to guarantee free education for fear of an educated population who would no doubt start asking some hard questions.
Thomas Ayeni, Lagos, Nigeria
Better a little than nothing at all. The education standards have been dropping dramatically in most of public schools in Mozambique and other African countries. So far, there's no miracle that can help address this new reality. Only by training more teachers we can ease the ratio of teachers to students which remains far from ideal. The quality of university trainees is, nowadays, deplorable so what will happen by the time these children start fighting for their degree?
Leonel Muchano, Maputo, Mozambique
Free primary education should be encouraged in all parts of Africa, where parents and guardians can't afford to pay for school fees. This will help to reduce poverty in the long run, more especially since education is a long-term investment. More teachers need to be trained. Let us all put the education of our young ones as a priority. Otherwise our future generation will be greatly affected.
Gady Mwamba Museka, Lusaka, Zambia
Even before free education was introduced there were challenges but it's also logical that they will increase with the introduction of free education. If the leaders are really willing to implement the system of free education, with time the situation will improve. But let's not be cheated that free education is the cause of problems such as the chaos in countries like mine, DR Congo, where there is no system of free education. Teachers have not been paid since 1990 and the quality of education has therefore been very bad. Let all the children be given equal opportunity of studies and the one who really knows why he or she is going to school will take things seriously, despite the number of pupils in the class.
Kapinga Ntumba, Harare, Zimbabwe
I always ask myself how many times do I spend 10 shillings on something not very important? So what if 20 million Kenyans each put 10 shillings into a pool, and we do this every other month, what can't we do? Fellow Africans lets wake up and take it on our own hands. If any country wants to develop then education should be accorded the highest priority.
Linus Muiruri, Kahawa, Kenya
What is the alternative? Cut the number of students attending school so that the quality can increase?
Raymond Mauya Minneapolis, USA
I agree standards of education have dropped. In Uganda schools are overcrowded and that means only a few benefit from the system. It is also to monitor the performance of the pupils. Teachers get low salaries which does not help either and the schools themselves lack the proper facilities to run well. The growing number of private schools that provide quality education has put free education off the rails a little.
Abbey Mugerwa, Ugandan in London UK
Free education is noble cause. I got free education till grade 10 in West Bengal in India. My school was decent and we had around 40 students in one class. At least half of them are earning good living now and some of them are even in very good positions in the government and private firms. Had we not been given this opportunity most of us would of have been on or around the poverty level in India.
Nirupam, Dayton, Ohio
It is wrong in the first place to call it "free education" because you do not expect quality from something you are imagining is free, and after all someone (local or foreign tax payer) has to pay for it. Because it is labelled free, attitude is wrong and governments do not make adequate resources available. African states should not start programs based on perpetual donor dependence, which is the case with the so called "free education programs". If programs were based on own resources, with donor funds being a catalyst, planning and implementation would be realistic.
W. Mkandawire, London, UK
Bigger classes do not necessarily mean less quality. What is needed is the commitment of governments to invest in education. Does anyone really want to send half of the kids home? Would you give a loaf of bread to half of the children and let the others starve, instead of sharing the bread?
Dominique Bediako, Uganda
It would be wonderful to introduce universal free primary education and not have problems! The next step is to set up quality indicators and enforce them. I am very glad that so many kids can now gain an education. It is a major step forward even though it does not seem right now.
Ali Ahmed, USA
The biggest lie of this century is that free education solves the problem of illiteracy in Africa. What's on offer in Africa is free sub-standard education, which makes an already bad situation worse, because, from my personal experience as an employer, re-educating educated illiterates costs much more time and money.
Tony Izuogu, Nigeria
Free education is here to remain and instead of dwelling on its negative aspects, people should find ways of strengthening the free education system.
James Muiruri, Sheffield, UK
Free education has succeeded in producing more primary school graduates who cannot read and write confidently. Teachers are overworking without any motivation.
Hankie Uluko, Malawi
If education means only going to school, then many of the African countries have benefited from free primary education. The Universal Primary Education or UPE as it is referred to in Uganda, has played a significant role in educating children mainly for those who cannot afford school fees to take their children to private schools. A Primary One teacher can have a class of more than 100 pupils to teach. Of course theoretical skills have been imparted and parents are proud of that. This paradise continues up to Primary Seven, only a few lucky ones join secondary school while others drop out and join the business world of fishing or hawking.
Prossy Nannyombi, Entebbe, Uganda
Usually, a more accurate term is "tuition free", since families still often must pay other costs of schooling including registration, equipment, uniforms, school supplies, transportation, and so on. In fact, a survey funded by USAID in Malawi in 2002 found that households spent, on average, the equivalent of $10 per student to send a child to a public primary school. In Uganda, in 2001, a similar survey found that families paid $16 per year. While these sums seem inconsequential to families in developed countries, they are burdensome to many families in less wealthy countries. Just looking at the monetary costs of schooling, it is never free.
Kristi Fair, USA
Next year I will be flying out to Malawi to teach in a primary school for three months. It seems a very daunting task, especially now knowing the statistics of children per teacher. I hope I will be able to make a difference and I urge anyone with the ability to go and make an impact on these children's lives.
Anonymous, Rugby, England
First, let's work towards ensuring that every child on the continent has access to free primary education. We still have a long way to go before this goal is met. Once we have achieved that, we can work on making sure that standards are upheld. As it is, there is no point discussing standards when less than 50% of children of school going age are currently able to exercise their right to an education. Better something than nothing.
Education nowadays is on a decline because of the focus we place on passing exams rather than studying to acquire knowledge. At times I feel examinations are not the ideal form of assessing a person's knowledge. Students are forced to memorise notes in order to pass.
Israel Ambe Ayongwa, Bamenda, Cameroon
It is not good enough for a child just to be in school. In most instances, children come to school ready to learn but with different cultural, educational, and environmental experiences to draw from. To promote learning for all children, educators need to provide a school environment that acknowledges children's backgrounds and helps them to settle comfortably into the next instructional level. It would be possible to teach as many students as you can, but it would not be beneficially to students.
Bashi Nuur, London, UK
We should define what is free rather than simply calling it free education. It is never free because there are so many other related costs the parents have to pay for.
Sabwa Mcdonald, Migori, Kenya
In Uganda a high pupil to teacher ratio has definitely compromised the quality of education. Children learn by rote and are not taught to reason things out and grasp ideas. And education is not really free. There's the uniform fees and building fund contribution, among others. Pupils leave school having helped build a magnificent library, a smart uniform and piles of exercise books, but whether they are educated or intelligent, that is questionable.
Susan Nangwale, Mbale, Uganda
Over-enrolment has the effect of increasing a teacher's load and thus directly bears on the quality of education offered. But the prime question for most Africans is which is the better evil? Absolute ignorance of the masses with a tiny well-educated elite or basic education of majority that may not be in the Ivy League range? I think that free widespread basic primary education should not be sacrificed for limited high quality education that would nurture elitism. After all primary education is about learning to read and write, not becoming professionals, and yet quality education as the world knows today developed on the back of papyrus.
Moses Ndiritu, Kenya
In some schools in Kenya, a teacher handles some 70 students in a class! The government failed also to increase physical facilities in the schools. Due to the high enrolment in primary schools, nothing is being done to expand facilities in secondary schools. Our governments should get priorities right.
Rebecca Matunda, Nyamira, Kenya
I feel it is wrong to criticise the noble idea of free primary education for all if you are not offering a practical alternative. Maybe we have become a generation that expects quick fixes. Of course more work needs to be done, instead of wasting time debating on how the system is a bust, why not get down to business and tackle the challenges facing the cause?? The Africans participating in this debate would not be in this position if they failed to get some education. We spend too much time tearing each other down, it's time to do more constructive work and bring up well-educated Africans.
Peninnah Wanjeri, Boston, USA
Everyone should have a right to education but the type of education one receives should be more important than just being in school uniform. A teacher cannot fairly and adequately assess and monitor the progress of even 40 students. A teacher does not only teach students to pass exams but also moulds them and helps them to become better people in society. We need quality and standard assurance if we want to ensure meaningful development in Africa not quantity or mass education.
Besenty Gomez, Kitty Village, The Gambia
The introduction of free education in 1994 in Malawi was not a bad idea per se. Only problem, awful planning. Temporary teachers were hurriedly trained and the system could not cope with a terrifying surge in the number of pupils. Admittedly the quality of education in Malawi has crashed and can even be felt in university corridors.
Pacharo Kayira, Malawian studying in Lund, Sweden
The primary purpose of education should not be to teach you how to earn your daily bread, but how to make every mouthful sweeter. Sweeter here will refer to the quality of education which, unfortunately, has seen a decline in recent times. Because of free and cheap education, it is common that students and pupils pass through schools but these schools do not pass through them. In my opinion education must be paid for, in fact heavily paid for, so that it is not abused but truly valued. Besides education is not received, it is achieved
Rene Morfaw, Southern Cameroonian in Belgium
Anything that is free is never respected. Free primary school means, teachers are free to do what they like, parents are free not to send their children to school everyday, children are free to work hard to achieve. With free primary education class sizes are as long as the eye can see and therefore no supervision, no effective work and poor results at best. To sum up what so called free education mean: NO SCHOOL.
Henry Williams, California/Sierra Leone
Since Morocco won its independence in 1956, the quality of the education has been declining due to the poor training of Moroccan teachers. Morocco also 'spreads' its teachers across the country so that both teachers and pupils can meet the different 'faces' of Morocco. But in practice this policy creates a lot of misunderstandings between the teachers who are from another region and the local pupils who have their own language and customs.
Moussa Aynan, Nador, Morocco
I think the major problem is not necessarily the increase in school enrolment but poor management of education ministries in most African countries. How can primary schools function properly when monies that should be in the hands of head teachers at the start of school terms are received towards the end of the term? How can educational standards increase when teachers not only receive low salaries but are paid after two months? How can standards be maintained when schools are being built without adequate equipment in place for effective teaching and learning? Until most African governments put considerable effort in ensuring a better atmosphere for learning, school education will remain sub-standard.
Sigismond Wilson, Sierra Leonean in USA
If UNESCO is monitoring this, and they do not know the answer to this question, then they appear to be missing a critical indicator of the success of education. I would suggest they test the abilities of 1000 random kids in Malawi of primary leaving age. That will tell us if more kids in school, with a lower investment per child is delivering a better outcome, than half the children at a higher funding per child.
African education, by in large, is a total waste of time to the great majority of pupils that pass through it. Worse, children sent to schools miss on the chance of acquiring traditional education that equips African chidren with the vital skills of working and living in rural Africa. At the end of a stint at modren schools, African children are succesful neither in modren education nor in traditional one. Many don't even get to master their native languages as a lot of their is spent struggling to master a foreign language that is not even used in the dialy lives of most Africans. What a waste!