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29.08.2005 Education

Editorial -Decentralising Education: Will The New Law Make It Work?

Statesman

THE Statesman is committed to drawing to the public's attention issues that policy makers are struggling with at the moment. Without attention to the devil in the details, the public's voice will not be heard in today's deliberations that will eventually manifest in tomorrow's laws.

The new Education Bill is meant to replace what we have on the books since 1962; the main justification for a major overhaul is to bring decentralisation into the education sector. Decentralisation and democratisation seem in principle like synonyms.

Yet many concerns surround the way public school funding will be managed, particularly how such a major transition in responsibility for implementation will be effected without sheer chaos taking over, to the detriment of another generation of school children.

Assuming everything is well managed thanks to the intensive management training programmes already on course, who will be entitled to government's scarce resources in the end? How will the constitutionally guaranteed Millennium Goal of free and compulsory access for all will be secured if privately run institutions are to be encouraged and supported in the same breath by law?

Autonomy of the District Assemblies is obviously a key plank in fulfilling the ideal of communities controlling their own public school systems.

But is it going to be feasible to both entitle and encourage District Assemblies to set their own agenda and priorities on the one hand, while on the other hand ensuring that quality education remains a top priority uniformly for the nation overall?

Will the law provide a means of adjudicating in a non-arbitrary, locally partisan way the competition between a District Education Officer seeking allocated funds to improve an educational facility, whilst other bidders in the same District Assembly are chasing funds to create an enabling environment to attract multi-national investors to build a hotel franchise, or a factory, or a cash crop agro-business?

If a national policy lays down a fixed formula for determining where monies shall go, won't this undermine the goal of district autonomy? If left each to their own devices, won't the variation in district level capacities to supply their own local endowment funds for education yield an ever growing increase in the gap between rich and poor regions of the country?

Will the new law allow central government to help severely deprived regions to 'catch up' or will we never heal the social inequities between the North and the South? What does this legacy mean for the future stability of the nation as a whole? The “right of individuals to open” new schools through private initiatives is again encouraged by the international donor community. Religious schools are viewed currently as a viable option to rehabilitating the broken bones of the public school system. But how is the limit to government support to which they are entitled going to be determined? Do we want to provide tax exemption to private institutions that are making a profit?

The need to identify the genuinely needy child remains the obligation of the District Education Officer, as does the need for personal integrity fall on his or her shoulders to ensure funds are not abused. We will still be confronted with the temptation to sweep the problem of poverty under an artificially low poverty line. In the case of a child's non-enrolled status being detected, the law in draft stipulates that the parent will be summoned to appear in front of social welfare authorities for potential reprimand, via penalty points which increase with each violation of the mandate that children go to school come what may.

Yet there seems no point in putting into legislation sanctions that cannot be realistically enforced. It only weakens the people's respect for the law as an agency capable of real and positive effects. Some parents can pay for their children to go to school and don't because they won't. Other parents can't pay for their children's school levies but would if they could. In either case, if you put the parent in jail for failing to pay cumulated penalties, the child will go without any parental care.

If a child is not in school in a deprived area who is the real offender? This needs to be sorted, and realistic instruments devised to provide for those children whose parents are genuinely at a loss, whilst at the same time discouraging parents for neglecting their duties of care.

“Free and compulsory” education is a constitutional warranty in a democracy connoting a debt of the state to each citizen. Should it be redefined when convenient as a personal moral responsibility of every parent to their child? Granted, framing this shifting of blame into law discourages parents from shirking their responsibilities to support children in their right to education. But then how does this presumption that parents can pay but choose not to differ from the more general euro-centric prejudice that treats poverty as symptomatic of a shortfall in moral character? And what will it mean for the welfare of the country overall?

Surely decentralisation should not become a translation exercise of the state's shrugging off its responsibilities to provide the modern basics of decent sanitary shelter, food security, health and education to as broad a majority as possible.

The responsibilities of government include measures to ensure its own security, as we pass into a different economic profile with its internal stresses and strains. The engine of sustainable economic growth is surely fair distribution of opportunity to strive for the fruits of economic growth and upward mobility. There is no more precious opportunity than that of a quality head start in education.

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