What you need to know:
- Will Covid-19 trigger a debate about the nature of public education and how decisions around it are reached?
- The bigger question, however, is about the manner in which public policy decisions regarding education have been made.
- The decision to keep schools closed, even as the pandemic seems manageable, has been made in an arbitrary manner, exposing the elitist attitude that pervades high-level decision-making processes.
As Covid-19 digs its heels ever deeper into the order of life in Africa, we have become all too aware of the many ways in which the pandemic is testing everything that's familiar to us, and causing people to look everywhere for ways to cope.
One of the most important policy challenges the pandemic has posed globally is in education, whether to re-open schools or to consider this school year a lost one. In East Africa, estimates are that the closure of educational institutions affects over 90 percent of primary and secondary school students.
The numbers might be higher in countries where attempts at virtual learning or radio education have been thwarted by financial challenges and the digital divide, which has meant that some schools have continued their lessons online, but only for the privileged few, while the rest are sitting at home doing nothing and without any clarity about the future.
Communities, families, parents and school children all across East Africa are making noise about the closedown of educational institutions due to coronavirus, as some countries in the region have chosen to keep the schools shut until next year. Worries abound about what becomes of children who have to stay home, unable to socialise with their peers or professionally guided by people trained for that purpose.
The concerns are especially pressing in terms of behavioural development, mental health and ability to progress toward successful completion of school.
Their parents, on the other hand, are concerned about balancing childcare and work, especially in the case of less fortunate families whose breadwinners neither have the opportunity to work from home nor the option of staying home during lockdowns, as their daily meals can only be attained through daily toil.
Heart-wrenching stories have emerged from all corners of this region about teenage pregnancies, especially in poor areas of major towns, as the school that provided a measure of safety is no longer there to shield children against predatory older men.
Female students from one-parent households have been particularly vulnerable, as poverty combines with lack of school to create an environment where young girls may be lured by predators who offer to buy them materials things that they badly need in exchange for sex.
A Kenyan friend of mine who has spent a lot of time thinking about this told me that “girls can find themselves forced to provide sex just so they can get money for sanitary pads.”
Also, as parents continue to work during school closedowns, leaving teenagers unsupervised at home, this leaves fertile ground for peer pressure over sex.
School closures and what will happen going forward regarding the pressing need to resume school while trying to contain the global pandemic, are certainly being debated all over the region, most particularly around the issue of academic calendars and the wisdom of scrapping the whole academic year, as is the case in Kenya, for example.
These types of decisions have created a confusing mix of school year suspension with permitting virtual learning to carry on in private or faith-based institutions. This has left many people wondering what is the point in having children spend long hours learning online only for them to end up repeating the year and have to go through the same material all over again next year. What about the universities, which will not have students coming into their first year?
The bigger question, however, is about the manner in which public policy decisions regarding education have been made. The decision to keep schools closed, even as the pandemic seems manageable, has been made in an arbitrary manner, exposing the elitist attitude that pervades high-level decision-making processes.
How much has Covid-19 exposed the rot within public institutions and the way public decisions are made? Will this virus force us to think of ways to clean up these institutions? Where would the momentum to reform come from this time around? Is it going to come from hard lessons the institutions are learning under the pandemic, or will there be a need for the public to protest and demand these reforms?
For example, if governments had been transparent and people-centred at the outset, such important decisions as the shutting of schools would have been debated, not just within the government, but also among professional educators and with the communities and families.
This would have allowed the resumption of schools to occupy as much space in the thinking as the closure occupied a space in public health measures. Yes, under the pressure of the public health emergency, closing schools immediately was an important precaution. But extending these closures into the future without clear plans appear draconian. It looks as though the ministers woke up one morning and decreed indefinite closures, a far cry from responsible public policy making that citizens expect.
Just as the pandemic has uncovered the frailties in the health system, corruption in the flow of public goods and services and the ghastly class system that quietly undergirds the social order in many East African countries, education is yet one more area of public service where mediocrity, nonchalance, class hierarchy and theft of public resources have connived to rob Africans of the opportunity to produce quality human capital necessary for the continent’s progress.
For example, long before Covid-19 prompted school closures all over the world, education in East Africa was already crumbling under the weight of corruption in some countries, measly educational budgets in others, massive enrollment that produced very little by way of quality in others. Some countries have reported mass cheating and inflated high school or Advance Level marks that have guaranteed positions in universities but little else.
In South Sudan, most professionally trained teachers have long felt dehumanised by neglect of their profession and many of them vacated teaching in favour of better-paying NGO jobs. In their place, we have “primary 8” or “senior 4” leavers becoming teachers for the same class they graduated from.
In Tanzania, we will never forget that inhumane decision President John Magufuli made a couple of years ago to ban teenage girls from resuming schooling when they get pregnant. In Uganda the hullabaloo the government makes about free public education is pierced through by the proliferation of private schools, as many parents have lost trust in public schools.
The foundation of the educational system was already steadily eroding under a system that claims being open to all but either extorts money from parents or has failed to provide quality or both.
Because of this, Covid-19 only just pushed down a system that had been denied the necessary resources, well-thought out policies and was only surviving through families who have to pay for much of it despite the promise of universal education.
Will Covid-19 trigger a debate about the nature of public education and how decisions around it are reached?