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There is a debate going on in Uganda about the benefits of Free Primary Education, or, true to the age of test messaging shorthand, FPE. This may have sounded like a good idea to many, politicians, teachers, parents and students alike, but now people are questioning its wisdom. Apparently, headteachers have seen a dramatic decline in the involvement of parents in the education of their children, acting like it is now only the government’s business to assure their children are learning. It may have been, as happened in Tanzania, that the influx of thousands of children previously not in school flooded classrooms, pushed over the edge a system that was likely already struggling to keep up. Now the quality of education is suffering, leading one reader to pose the following question on Chris Blattman’s blog: “Is everyone getting mediocre education worse than few receiving good, and most no education?” Syntax aside, I think it is a question worthwhile asking.

It reminds me of a discussion I had a couple of years ago with one of the primary school headteachers here in Mtakuja. He was telling me, matter of fact, not whining or complaining, that a parent had come to berate him for his efforts to encourage his/her child to do well in the exam at the end of Standard 7, the final year in Primary School. What if their child received a good grade, and was then able if not obliged to go to secondary school? They asked him. Then they would be on the hook for four years of secondary school fees! These are real issues.

As with so much when it comes to development, it hinges on questions about who should be taking responsibility, and for what and how much. And about who is deserving of what. And I sense a libertarian trend that seems to equate being responsible with the qualification of being deserving. These are questions that come up in one shape or form on a continuous basis in our work, answering them is hard, because a lot of it is relative, especially considering who deserves a hand up or out. In terms of responsibility, I believe the answer requires some thought about how much responsibility one can realistically expect from anyone person or community. While I fully agree that taking responsibility for your own actions and over your own life is generally a good thing, but if somebody doesn’t, does that make it an undeserving person? It strikes me that having the belief or trust in oneself to take responsibility is the outcome of a complex set of experiences and opportunities that shape a person, that are not evenly spread among humanity. Throw in community dynamics, power inequities, and it all becomes a lot more complicated.

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