Dr Kishore Singh who is the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the right to education, recently expressed his concern that universal access to education is in danger of being inhibited because of current proposals being considered in a number of African nations. Government authorities in several of these countries have recently been considering the delegation of fundamental education services to the private sector, in what Dr Singh perceives to be an effort to reduce spending on education.
Dr Singh, who has a background in law, is well versed in the challenges of working towards the achievement of the rights of all children to receive an education, having held a post of responsibility for overseeing the right to education at UNESCO for many years. He has been involved in a number of campaigns in this area, and has been recognised for being outspoken on issues such as the eradication of corporal punishment, and violence towards children. His experience and knowledge is such that we should be prepared to listen attentively when he expresses his concern that children are in danger of being denied learning opportunities because of poor governance.
Whilst expressing his apprehensions about current developments in Africa, Dr Singh was also aware of similar moves elsewhere in the world. The actions identified by this United Nations expert as being of concern, include those of the Society of Unaided Private Schools of Rajasthan and the Independent Schools Federation of India, who have recently challenged India’s Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act, 2009 (RTE), by suggesting that it violates their autonomy and places a strain upon their resources. There is, of course, an element of genuine concern in such arguments. In countries that are challenged by difficult socio-economic circumstances, where making progress in the provision of education is always going to be accompanied by tensions. However, as Dr Singh states:
“Education is not a privilege of the rich and well-to-do; it is an inalienable right of every child. Provision of basic education free of costs is a core obligation of States.”
Why should Dr Kishore Singh be concerned? If the private sector is willing to provide education for children, shouldn’t the state be encouraged to support such an initiative? It is certainly true to say that there are many excellent private schools, some run by NGOs, others by charitable trusts and even some by wealthy philanthropists, which are doing excellent work in this field. I am sure that Dr Singh recognises this, but he is right to express his apprehensions.
In particular there are concerns that once the state abdicates responsibility for the education of its children, it loses control of the ability to ensure that the quality of schooling is high, and that the curriculum and other procedures are fit for purpose. Where things go wrong, if the state has no oversight and no available sanctions, there is little opportunity for redress. There must also be questions asked about the motivations of those who choose to develop private educational institutions. There are many instances where such schools have been run purely on business lines, with a focus upon making profit, and others where they have been seen as the means of promoting a doctrine which may not always be in the interests of the children or communities which they claim to support. In countries where private schooling sits comfortably alongside that provided by the state, there are well established elements of quality assurance and control, overseen by national governments, to which all schools must adhere. Where such procedures are ignored, this can lead to major injustices and the exclusion of significant elements of the population from schooling.
Where schools are managed in order to make a profit, they are usually dependent upon contributions from the wealthiest sections of society. The children of affluent families tend to be warmly welcomed by the management of these schools, those who come from more marginalised backgrounds less so. When these schools have endeavoured to provide for a proportion of children from poorer communities, or those who have been excluded because of disability or special educational needs, they have often been faced with opposition from those parents who believe that this will be to the detriment of their children. In talking about the importance of providing parental choice, the managers and owners of these establishments are almost invariably considering the right to choice of only a small and largely advantaged section of the population.
It may, of course, be the case that Dr Kishore Singh’s anxieties are ill-founded. It could be the case that a beneficent and selfless organisation takes responsibility for schooling in a state, and is prepared to accept the guidance of a democratically elected government with regards to how provision for all children can be achieved. Sadly, I think that in expressing his concerns, Dr Singh is right in suggesting that the forfeiting of responsibility for ensuring that all children have access to education is a measure of the lack of commitment to equity and inclusion on the part of some governments.
Ensuring that Education for All becomes a reality was never going to be easy. It will be made even harder if governments fail to accept that it is their responsibility to effect change that will benefit all children.