Simon Rawles/CAFOD



Where’s the School? Making Sense of Home to School Distance Issues within African Countries

An estimated 33 million primary school aged children (PSAC) in African countries are not enrolled in primary school. While improvements have occurred, African countries still exhibit high percentages of out-of-school (OOS) children among PSAC. For example, the Eastern and Southern regions of Africa consistently report roughly 20 percent of PSAC as OOS. In some countries, such as Ethiopia and Somalia, a 2014 report by UNICEF predicts these numbers surpass 40 percent of PSAC as OOS.

For decades, education reformers from inside and outside African countries have endeavored to reduce the constraints inhibiting PSAC from entering primary schools, aiming to boost enrollments.

OOS children are typically classified through two avenues by UNSECO. The first avenue is PSAC who were never officially enrolled in primary school for whatever reason and second, PSAC who were once officially enrolled in primary school, but then for whatever circumstance dropped out. Consequently, the two categories spark questions of what improvements can be made to ensure PSAC enroll in primary schools and what can be done to keep them enrolled until the end of primary education cycle?

Home to School Distance

A major component often left out of Western media’s coverage of education issues throughout African countries is the continued overlook of geographical proximity of the primary school within regards to PSAC.

In a hallmark 1991 study examining education in developing countries, the World Bank study argued for African countries “the single most important determinant of primary school enrollment is the proximity of a school to primary age children.” Home to school distance (HTSD), generates to issues education developers need to continue to address: 1) physical distance and 2) supply of primary schools, as factors constraining primary school access.

Primary schools exhibiting higher enrollments within African countries often have a catch pool of students living within close proximity, limiting the commuting distance. Consequently, within African countries, we witness a direct correlation between HTSD and enrollment. When the HTSD decreases, primary schools within African countries maintain higher enrollment, equaling fewer PSAC OOS. Thus, implementing educational policies to shorten the HTSD for PSAC still needs to be a priority for diminishing OOS rates.

The Consequences

On average in African countries, one in four PSAC live more than two kilometers away from school. This is a problematic theme across areas of Africa. Despite the high cost of implementing educational policies bringing primary schools closer to PSAC, the potential impact of being within close proximity to a primary school is vital for access and participation.

For example, in a study supported by the World Bank that collected household data from Benin, Burundi, Cote d’Ivoire, Congo, Ethiopia, Guinea, Mali, and Mauritania, when PSAC had access to primary schools more than five kilometers away, only 41 percent of PSAC in the area enrolled. However, when the distance to the nearest primary school was only one to two kilometers from a PSAC’s home, enrollment increased to 66 percent. Once HTSD was less than 300 meters, schools within the report averaged an enrollment of 73 percent.

In order to help decrease the number of OOS PSAC in African countries, educational reformers must look for ways to bring primary schools closer to the children’s homes. This will require targeting specific areas where HTSD majorly restricts primary school participation and debate implementing and such tactics as multi grade primary schools, when appropriate to relieve expenses.

Continuing with the previously mentioned World Bank study, it found children in rural regions of Africa were at a 43 percent higher risk than urban children for being/becoming OOS. In several countries, such as Kenya, Niger, Burundi, and Ethiopia, rural PSAC consisted of 90 percent or more of those OOS.

South Sudan encapsulates how HTSD acts as an increased risk for rural populations. In rural South Sudan, UNICEF discovered a number of heighten risks increased the further primary schools were away from a PSAC’s homes because of such factors as less parental monitoring, temptation of labor, and instances of human trafficking. Thus, this caused many African governments in order to decrease the HTSD to rapidly construct primary schools to increase supply.

Attempted Initiatives

By building fewer schools, countries can save money, but those schools will tend to have larger geographic catch pools, therefore increasing the HTSD and gambling the possibility of lower enrollments. In contrast, expanding the supply of schools with smaller catch pools through shorter HTSDs could potentially upturn PSAC enrollments determined in a 2009 World Bank study authored by Serge Theunynck.

In order to downturn costs when constructing more primary schools to increase supply and decrease HTSD, African governmental officials are designing primary schools that maximize what little economic means are available. Accordingly, multi grade primary schools, particularity in rural regions, are commonly seen as the answer for rising supply. In Sub-Saharan African countries alone through the increase supply of primary schools, now 73 percent of PSAC live within 2 kilometers of the nearest primary school.

However, it is important to note that while increasing the number of primary schools to reduce HTSD, automatic enrollment surges are not guaranteed. At times, cultural and social factors will persist.

For example, in rural regions of Ghana, even with an amplified supply of primary schools, curbing the HTSD for thousands of Ghanaian PSAC, Ghanaian parents still hesitate to let their children walk because of their belief their child must be older than primary age before walking lengthy distances alone. Furthermore, despite growing the number of primary schools and shortening HTSD, if a primary school still exists outside of the local community, families might still be hesitant to send PSAC.

In Chad, Guinea, and Niger, primary school enrollments dramatically dropped when PSAC had to attend school in a village other than their own, even if the village was within close proximity as found in a 2004 study published by the Education Development Center. This is particularly true concerning girls in rural regions of Africa, were the World Bank found their enrollment in primary school dramatically plummeted if the primary school resided outside of their home community.

Altogether, HTSD acts as a major barrier the further primary schools become from PSAC. While African countries have attempted to increase the supply of primary schools, their quality has been sacrificed in the process, ultimately restraining student participation and placing monetary burdens families forcing children to quit school. Although Western media highlights educational developmental initiatives throughout African countries, we cannot ignore this vital issue because often, HTSD is still at the root of many of the other issues at hand.