A small, dusty, sparsely furnished building of mud bricks serves as a classroom for pupils at a primary school in Buterere, a town on the outskirts of Burundi's capital.
The room is packed with a sea of small bodies in khaki uniforms, some sprawling on the dirt floor trying to balance their notebooks and write at the same time. The lucky few who get desks are tightly squeezed together on the same bench, elbows touching as they scrawl notes while the teacher talks and writes on a chalkboard. The metal sheet that serves as a roof makes the room hot and stuffy.
It is not an unusual scene in the East African nation emerging from a 13-year civil war. Very little has changed since the country scrapped fees for primary school in September 2005 - except for the growing classrooms. The building of new facilities has been painfully slow.
According to the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF), school attendance surged from 59 per cent to 96.1 per cent between 2005 and 2011. The number of girls entering school for the first time was actually higher than the number of boys. Meanwhile, the average number of students per class is estimated at 83, the agency adds.
Children as old as 10 or 12 were enrolling for the first time, Concilie Nizigiyimana, a state inspector for schools in the rural province surrounding Bujumbura, the capital, told Africa Renewal. "Most of the families in the area couldn't afford to send their kids to school," she says. "So when school became free, we received a huge number of children. Some classes hold as many as 100 pupils for one teacher. And we often have to borrow desks and benches from the secondary school classrooms."
The government's "double shift" system eases the pressure on the classrooms, though it places a huge burden on teachers, who are forced to teach two sessions in one day. For the teachers, this system effectively crams two school days into one calendar day, as one US Agency for International Development report put it. Over time, it erodes the quality of education.
A poster child?
Yet the lack of teachers, the overfilled classrooms and the scarcity of textbooks and school supplies - none of that could stem the flow of new students.
Burundi could easily be the education poster child for the UN's Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). It has all the makings of an MDG success story: notable progress in a populous and extremely poor country with low literacy rates and a heavy dependence on foreign aid. The UN Human Development Report 2011 states that 56.4 per cent of Burundi's rural population and 66.5 per cent of its urban population are considered to be living in poverty. It often tops the list of least developed countries that have made remarkable education advances, along with Madagascar, Rwanda, São Tomé and Príncipe, Tanzania and Togo.
In sub-Saharan Africa overall, enrolment rates for children of primary school age increased from 58 per cent to 76 per cent between 1999 and 2010, according to the Millennium Development Goals Report 2012, prepared by the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs. Several countries in the region have also succeeded in reducing their relatively high out-of-school rates, even as their primary-school-age populations are growing. But like Burundi, many of these countries are facing major challenges.
Strong political backing
After Zimbabwe earlier, in September 1994 Malawi became one of the first African countries to embrace free and compulsory primary education for all grades, with Kenya and Lesotho following suit. As in Burundi, the elimination of school fees became a powerful electoral strategy.
Malawi pioneered what the World Bank describes as the "big bang approach." These countries aggressively enforced the policy of free education - hard and fast. Never mind that in most cases the initiative was poorly planned, lacked sufficient funds, was implemented slowly and fell short on quality. The public response was nevertheless huge.
These young democracies dug deep into their national treasuries, mobilizing funds and adjusting budgets to pay for the costly initiatives. This was in line with the 2000 Dakar Framework for Action - a reaffirmation of the 1990 World Declaration on Education for All, a pact to strengthen efforts towards improving education - which recognized the importance of backing political promises with financial commitments. Once domestic funds were released, international donors were convinced to lend their support as well.
According to the 2011 Education for All Global Monitoring Report of the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), countries in sub-Saharan Africa have posted an average annual increase of 4.6 per cent in their education budgets. In Burundi, the report notes, education spending doubled as a share of the gross national product between 1999 and 2008. Much of the increase was spent at the primary level. Ethiopia nearly doubled its education budget but also allotted a share to secondary education. Meanwhile, other heavy education spenders have been Rwanda, Mozambique, Senegal and Tanzania.
Closing the gender gap
Increasing the enrolment rate of girls to equal that of boys has been a priority for all of Africa, with 16 countries succeeding in achieving gender parity in primary education. Gambia, Guinea, Mauritania and Senegal have stood out, notes a recent assessment of the MDGs by the African Development Bank (AfDB).
The bank also seems to argue that gender parity in enrolment is likely to be achieved on the continent by 2015 if the current trend continues. Not so, says UNESCO, which points to sub-Saharan Africa as the region with the widest gender gap at the elementary level.
In many African societies, girls have long come last, since boys are generally accorded higher status. In the past, when parents decided whom to send to school, the choice for them was obvious. Removing the cost factor has made basic education possible for young girls as never before.
Yet convincing African leaders that investing in girls' education is good for the economy has not been easy, says Amina Az-Zubair, former assistant to the president of Nigeria, who was recently named UN special adviser on post-2015 development planning. Nevertheless, she said in a World Bank interview, "I think it has been shown over and over again that with girls' education, there is an impact on maternal mortality in the right direction. There is definitely a skill set of what we gain in the home in terms of continuing that education."
All in all, gender disparities in education across the globe and on the continent remain considerable. A tuition-free education does not necessarily erase the stereotypes or cultural barriers that hinder girls' access to school. Conditions in schools must also be made more welcoming and safe for girls. The UNESCO Institute for Statistics found that the absence of separate-sex toilets discouraged girls from attending school regularly and that they are more vulnerable to sexual abuse, exploitation and disease.
Not on track for 2015
So far, on most of the education targets, African countries continue to perform well. Net primary education enrolment has increased in most African countries, if not all. But sub-Saharan Africa is also home to 43 per cent of the world's out-of-school children.
With three years left before the 2015 deadline for meeting the MDG targets, prospects for achieving universal primary education are becoming more uncertain. Until the recent global economic turmoil, Africa registered strong economic growth, creating a positive environment for progress in education. But the economic difficulties among European and other donor nations - which have been helping to fund some of Africa's educational successes - could threaten recent gains. UNESCO reports that in 2008 the flow of aid to basic education in sub-Saharan Africa fell by around 6 per cent per primary-school-age child.
Eye on the prize
African governments have shown that providing free primary education in countries with limited resources is possible. But national economies need to become vibrant enough that international support is no longer necessary.
Moreover, getting more kids in school and keeping them there is linked with other key development goals such as ending hunger and combating HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases. African leaders are therefore worried by the possibility that the international community may slacken its support for the MDGs, comments Jomo Kwame Sundaram, UN assistant secretary-general for economic development. "Africa is concerned that the focus on MDGs may be lost. [African leaders] don't want the current effort to let up. They are understandably concerned that some other discussions are going to detract from the goals."
Mr. Sundaram was alluding to the recent UN Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro, which emphasized additional priorities. "The new thing," he said, "is environmental sustainability."
Meanwhile, most African countries are refusing to be deterred by new hurdles or the ticking clock. The introduction of free, compulsory primary school has been good for sub-Saharan Africa in more ways than one. It has mobilized considerable funds in state coffers, increased cooperation with donors and boosted public trust in governments.
Kenya is pulling out all stops to reach the finish line. It has introduced an Education Act that could bring in substantially more money for building schools. It is even mulling a tough bill to force parents to send their kids to school or risk prison. Such measures, Kenya's leaders hope, could help keep the promise to make primary education accessible to all.