How can we promote fairness in access to education beyond 2015?

As the UN Secretary General launches his Education First initiative and as the new World Inequality Database on Education (WIDE) goes live, Will Paxton from Save the Children – drawing on new research from Rwanda – asks what the implications of a focus on equity might be for how schools are funded.  Should more developing nations include “fairness premiums” in their funding systems?

Will Paxton, Save the Children

Will Paxton recently started as Head of Education Policy and Advocacy at Save the Children, UK. He worked for IPAR-Rwanda last year and remains a Research Associate at the Institute.

Debates about what will replace the current education Millenium Development Goals (MDGs) and Education for All (EFA) framework in 2015 are gathering pace.  There is widespread agreement that focusing on quality and learning outcomes should come out of the shadows and into the limelight.  While the devil will be in the detail, few can credibly argue against a decisive shift to considering what schools are teaching their pupils.

But what of a second key goal – equity, or equality of opportunity?  Here too there is a growing momentum. Earlier this week the UN Secretary General launched a five year Education First initiative which has concerns about inequality at its heart, arguing that unless “we act swiftly, educational disparities will become an event greater source of division – both within and between countries”.  On the same day the EFA Global Monitoring Report team launched a new on-line tool which will allow users to get under the skin of the headline school access figures.  The World Inequality Database on Education (WIDE) allows anyone to assess the patterns of different educational inequalities in over fifty countries.

This week also saw the publication, by a Rwanda based independent research institute called the Institute for Policy Analysis and Research (IPAR), of some important research on school funding.  The findings are stark and have direct implications for debates about equality of opportunity.  They also reinforce the recommendation in the 2009 EFA Global Monitoring Report to scale up financing with a commitment to equity.

IPAR surveyed schools in two contrasting Rwandan districts, one relatively better off urban area – in Kigali – and one poorer rural area.  It totalled up the funding that schools in these two areas were receiving from all different sources. This included government, but also – crucially – private contributions from parents.  Including these private contributions is important because while nine years of basic education is free in Rwanda, as previous EFA Global Monitoring Reports have shown, happens in many other countries, parents still boost school budgets by making their own contributions.

IPAR found that Kigali parents topped-up school budgets far more generously than their poorer counterparts – their average contribution was ten times higher.  This meant that the total funding head teachers had for each pupil in their school (excluding teachers’ salaries, which are paid direct by the government) was approximately three times greater in the urban area.  The chart below shows the recent trends in both total per-pupil funding and also the parental contributions in the urban and rural area assessed.

The research also found that Kigali schools were mostly using the extra cash to pay higher salaries and attract better teachers. Given the evidence on the importance of teacher quality it would not be surprising if this in turn contributes to unequal outcomes.

Indeed WIDE gives us a sense of how significant the equality of opportunity challenge is in Rwanda.  Using 2010 data, a 17-22 year old young woman from the lowest income group and living in a rural area had an average of 3.7 years of education; in contrast a young man from the best off group and schooled in Kigali had over seven years.

Looking at this figure below, for example, you can see the extent to which Kigali fares better than most other regions in Rwanda, no matter which indicator you look at. For example, only 6% of the capital’s 17-22 year olds have less than 2 years of schooling, compared with a 12% national average and 15% in the West region. The average 17-22 year old in Kigali has 6.68 years in school – over a year more than the national average of 5.10 years.

Overall, as the following figure shows, young women from the poorest households living in rural areas of the country are most likely to live in education poverty –45% of them have fewer than four years in school.

So what does all this mean for policy makers? Any strategy for achieving greater equality of opportunity will have many strands – a key question about the post-2015 goals will be how to incentivise more equal outcomes. It is critical for any successful policy to intervene early, when inequalities first set in. And of course free basic education is every child’s right, so any attempts to turn pupils away based on their ability to pay demands rigorous policing.  But this IPAR work also raises the question of how government funding systems can best support greater equality of opportunity? Save the Children Norway will be starting work on this question in the near future, but drawing on the IPAR report some initial conclusions are clear.

First there is real value in transparency and accountability in school budgets: it is vital to know whether funding is reaching the poor and most marginalised.  Then in terms of how money is allocated, at a minimum poorer areas should not be penalised and underlying inequalities exacerbated. Some countries do not even pass this test: Kevin Watkins, former director of the EFA Global Monitoring Report, now with the Brookings Institute, has written about Kenya where the Arid and Semi-Arid areas receive less government funding per-pupil than other parts of the country.  The Rwandan system is better. It is essentially “flat” – in other words all pupils receive the same amount through a capitation grant.

However, ambitions should be higher. To genuinely help achieve equality of opportunity the Rwandan funding system should target more funding at pupils with the most need, such as those living in poorer areas. IPAR recommend the introduction of an additional payment to schools in areas which have a higher proportion of people living in poverty (based on a categorisation which is part of a traditional Rwandan approach called Ubudehe).  In other countries the specific policy response will be different, but many will face the same challenge of developing simple, easy to administer systems of targeted school funding – in other words creating “fairness premiums”.  It is an issue which, if we are serious about delivering both quality and equity will demand greater focus in the coming years.

This entry was posted in Africa, Developing countries, Equality, Equity, Marginalization, Millennium Development Goals. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to How can we promote fairness in access to education beyond 2015?

  1. Anne-Gret Friedrich-Cuntz says:

    This article reminds me of the difference between private and public schools in the United Staes. Private schools are often able to offer smaller size classes which in return results into a better learning environment for those students. I agree that funding should be distributed more evenly, so that those schools with higher proportion of poverty will receive better funding.


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