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Free basic education the way forward, UN official says

There is a need to lighten the burden of keeping children in school in Africa's southern and eastern region, where an estimated 20 million children are currently deprived of education, a United Nations official said on Wednesday. The regional director of the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF), Per Engeback, said 30 percent of education spending in sub-Saharan Africa was being spent on fees. He was speaking in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, during a conference on the abolition of school fees in southern and eastern African countries. One goal of the three-day conference is to produce a framework to give more children access to free, quality basic education. Participants are drawn from Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, Mozambique and Tanzania, as well as these countries' development partners. "The conference aims at harnessing the experiences and skills on abolition of fees from the southern and eastern African countries that have already implemented the Universal Primary Education Policy [UPE]," Engeback said. However, abolishing school fees alone was not enough, he said. The initiative required a more holistic approach to address specific sociocultural factors affecting access to education, such as early marriage and female genital mutilation (FGM). In his remarks to open the conference, Kenya's education minister, Noah Wekesa, said there was need for solutions to the challenges posed by the introduction of free primary education. When his country introduced free primary schooling in January 2003, the number of children enrolled in school increased from 5.9 million to 6.9 million by the end of that year. However, the measure presented many challenges - such as teacher shortages, an inadequate number of classrooms and poor sanitation - that were eroding the gains that had been made. The situation was improving, he said, with the government providing instruction materials for the schools and recruiting more teachers. The conference identified poverty as the main cause of children quitting or missing school. In Kenya, for example, 56 percent of the population lives below the poverty line and about 31 percent of children do not attend school. Participants said incentives were needed to convince more children to enrol and remain in school instead of engaging in income-generating activities. Among the initiatives already in place to help retain pupils in schools is the provision of meals through school feeding programmes by the UN World Food Programme and allowing children to take home food rations at the end of the day. The programme also helps offset other education related costs. Currently, 7.6 million children are enrolled in Kenyan primary schools, representing a 28 percent increase in a three-year span. Uganda, which implemented the free primary school programme in 2003, has also recorded an increase in enrolment from 3 million to 7.7 million, while Tanzania recorded a 30 percent increment over a similar period. Burundi, which is the latest addition among countries providing free basic education, has at least 500,000 children enrolled in school since the initiative began in October 2005. The initiative to abolish school fees is a step towards the achievement, by 2015, of the UN Millennium Development Goal (MDG) of free education for all.

This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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