Universal schooling creates its own problems in Africa
THERE CAN BE FEW better places to work than the top floor of offices just off Paris's famed Champs Elysee and a short walk from the Eiffel Tower.
Mark Bray, the former University of Hong Kong dean of education, is happy in his new environment - cycling through the streets of Paris to work, enjoying French cuisine and getting to grips with when to use 'tu' or 'vous' in conversation.
The Parisienne lifestyle may be new to Professor Bray, 54, who will be joined there by his wife, Ora Kwo, a colleague at HKU, at the end of this year. But his move in March has been a homecoming when the many strands that have made up his career in education came together in his new role as director of Unesco's International Institute for Educational Planning (IIEP).
His post is one of the most important in global education. For he and his team have the job of underpinning the United Nation's Education for All campaign - the ambitious goal set at the 2000 World Education Forum in Dakar, Senegal, that by 2015 every child in the world should have access to good quality primary education.
IIEP is a high level think tank providing the training to national governments' education bureaucrats and research to help make the UN's lofty goal achievable.
The institute is semi-autonomous but works closely with the Unesco secretariat and seven other institutes and centres under the international body's umbrella.
IIEP was set up in 1963. Professor Bray heads a team of about 120, based in Paris and a second office in Buenos Aires. The institute's work in recent years has included, for instance, helping both Afghanistan and the Palestinian Ministry of Education rebuild and develop their education systems.
Professor Bray's two decades in Hong Kong paved the way for this key job. At HKU he was heavily involved in education policy-making in both his academic research and consultancy; the latter including advising governments from Azerbaijan to Cambodia on how to build and fund their education systems. This work brought him into contact with IIEP, which published some of his research.
His experience fed his interest in comparative education - he is president of the World Council of Comparative Education Societies.
Managing the Faculty of Education, including its merger with the Department of Curriculum and Educational Studies, well prepared him for the administrative part of the job, he said in an interview from his new office.
His new post also reconnects him with his old passion for Africa where in 1973 his career started in opening a rural school in Nigeria followed by a move to teacher education and doctoral studies on primary schooling in that country.
African countries that are facing the greatest difficulty in achieving Education for All form much of IIEP's focus. On the first day in his new job Professor Bray flew to Gabon to meet all the ministers of education and permanent secretaries of sub-Saharan Africa, to discuss educational improvement.
China also remains close to his heart and one of his aims as director is to involve the country more closely in IIEP's work. It is expected to take up more of the institute's training opportunities, and materials will in future be translated into Chinese.
One of IIEP's immediate dilemmas, he said, was the current thrust towards abolishing primary school fees under way in many countries, from Kenya to China.
On the surface, this sounded a good thing as it was making education accessible to millions of children not in school, in line with the UN's Declaration of Human Rights. But it was also creating its own problems. Classrooms in many African countries were now swamped with children - up to 100 in a class - taught by teachers with minimal training and raising questions as to whether the education offered was worth having.
Kenya, for example, saw a huge surge in enrolement after abolishing fees in 2003, the third time it had tried to do so.
'Some say hooray, that this will help achieve the millennium goals. Others say it is a disaster as it is not a human right to develop bad education,' said Professor Bray, who went on to explain how IIEP helped such countries.
'As an institution we are involved in the policy analysis. We can say: 'This is more complicated than you think.' Our job is to support national governments. If they are going to abolish fees let's look at the affects on the supply of teachers, classrooms and drop-out rates.'
Professor Bray said countries must have the capacity to fund education, through efficient tax collection and distribution of resources, before they could abolish fees across the board. In the meantime, a more practical alternative would be for families to pay according to their means, with free schooling available for the poor.
While he welcomed the increase in foreign aid for education, and the fact that for the first time the Group of Eight developed nations had put education on their agenda at their meeting this summer in St Petersburg, the long-term solution had to be from local 'capacity building' - which IIEP supports - and revenue generation.
'In the short run there are things donors can do but you can't expect primary schools of places like the Congo to be funded indefinitely by foreign aid from the UK, Belgium or elsewhere,' he said. 'The solution is different for different countries. You can't go for one size fits all.'
China, for instance, could afford to fund free education and he welcomed Beijing's move in the past year to make this a priority. This had to some extent been influenced by Unesco, after Beijing had hosted a high-level meeting of the body last November.
China also currently holds the chair of Unesco's executive board. Vice-minister of education Zhang Xin-sheng is the first Chinese to hold the position. 'This is helping to give China prominence within the organisation,' he said.
Professor Bray has taken on his new job knowing that the Education for All goals are unlikely to be achieved. But he is not despondent. 'Real progress has been made. It is a long-term process. We won't achieve universal primary education by 2014 but we will be closer than we would otherwise have been.'
The campaign has already missed its first target - to see gender parity by 2005. 'We missed the target but we are closer. It doesn't mean we give up. We work at it and get closer. In some countries huge strides are being made.'
He cites China, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam and South Africa as those that had moved 'leaps and bounds'.
'Others, such as Namibia and Botswana, have on-going challenges. Much has to do with the broader framework. Education can't be separated from government structure and economy.
'We do our part and it's a worthwhile thing to be doing. It is something I am very excited by.'
For more information about IIEP's work, visit www.unesco.org.iiep