This blog explains how one word – “free” –was one of the reasons it took so long for the adopted declaration from Incheon to appear online. It celebrates the official commitment in the Incheon Declaration to 12 years of free, publicly funded, equitable quality primary and secondary education.
It is good news to see that the Incheon declaration is now up online. Many will be celebrating paragraph six in particular that calls on governments to commit to 12 years of free, publicly funded equitable quality primary and secondary education. The draft at the outset and the printed version that was available at the WEF only called on governments to commit to 9 years free education, not 12 years. From all accounts, this would have been a major omission with regard to the equitable lifelong learning agenda set out in the SDGs.
The subtle differences between the meanings of ‘publicly funded’ and ‘free’ may be partly to blame for no-one noticing the omission. Publicly funded can mean government grants, for instance, that could cover anywhere from 1% to 100% of school expenses, with the remaining costs then picked up by households. ‘Free’, meanwhile, means free, and should entail households not paying either tuition fees or any costs directly associated with children attending school.
Once this important omission was noticed, many questioned whether not including the word ‘free’ in relation to 12 years of education conflicted with the vision embodied in the first target of the fourth Sustainable Development Goal: to “ensure that all girls and boys complete free, equitable and quality primary and secondary education leading to relevant and effective learning outcomes by 2030”. Assuming the interpretation of SDG 4.1 refers also to upper secondary education, was this the beginning of two separate agendas for education 2015-2030?
Is it possible that promising 12 years of free education was too ambitious? The GMR 2015, for example, showed that, at current trends, universal upper secondary education won’t be achieved before the end of the century.
Another opinion on calling for 12 years ‘free’ education is that it might produce inequitable results. Pauline Rose, previous director of the GMR, and now Professor of Education at Cambridge is concerned that committing to more than 9 years of free education “stands in the way of redistributing resources towards the marginalized. In some parts of the world almost no poor rural girl reaches upper secondary school; abolishing fees at this level will take resources away from those who are still struggling to enter and complete primary school, or are in schools of such poor quality they are hardly learning anything.”
NGOs, however, clearly stated their opinion on the matter in their own Forum Declaration, in which they called for “twelve years of free, publicly-funded formal quality education for all by 2030, nine of which should be compulsory”. Philippa Lei from The Malala Fund, which has been campaigning for 12 years of free secondary schooling reacted immediately when they noticed the omission: “Unless 12 years of primary and secondary education is provided for free, girls will still continue to drop out of education before completing secondary schooling. Imagine finishing eighth grade and being told that to continue school, you’ll have to pay. For a girl living in poverty who can’t afford school fees, it means her education is over.”
For Dankert Vedeler, Co-chair of the Incheon Drafting Group and Chair of the EFA Steering Committee, however, the omission was likely an “unintended mistake”. Mistake or not, the fear was that the Declaration had been officially adopted at a conference with over 1000 people –including 130 or so Ministers of Education– and that it might be too late to reopen debates of this nature. Thankfully, this afternoon we discover that the Declaration has changed and now reads as follows:
“Motivated by our significant achievements in expanding access to education over the last 15 years, we will ensure the provision of 12 years of free, publicly funded, equitable quality primary and secondary education, of which at least nine years are compulsory, leading to relevant learning outcomes.” [our emphasis]
The full vision of the SDG 4.1 target has been maintained, and the fear of two separate frameworks has been shelved. All’s well that ends well, and the celebratory mood that was the overwhelming takeaway from Incheon can be continued.
Many thanks for highlighting this issue. One clarification – I would very much hope that education could be free at all levels. But the reality at the moment is that we need to redistribute resources to those who need the available funds the most. In a country like Pakistan where around 40% of poor rural girls never even enter school, abolishing fees at upper secondary school will only take political attention away from the need to target those who are missing out. Otherwise in 15 years time we are likely to see a pattern of fast progress towards increasing access to upper secondary for those who are better off, which will then stall when it gets to trying to increase access to those who are harder to reach. And, for those who do gain access, quality could suffer.
We therefore need to think carefully about how to phase in an abolition of fees, as well as consider under what circumstances it is more advisable to provide targeted subsidies to the most marginalised.