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Monday, 27 July 2015

The "Imagine" Reality Check: Universal Education

In North America and Western Europe we consider it normal that each child (male and female) be given an education up to the age of 18 at no cost to the parents, but consider educational opportunities for children on other continents:

Education in India (whether by guru or in Islamic madrasas) has traditionally been reserved for boys in the upper castes.  The first group to offer schooling to children of lower castes were Christian missionaries in the early 1800’s.  As of 2010, the Right of Education Act promises to deliver local & universal free education to all children up to the age of 14.  According to an article in the British newspaper the Guardian (May 2013), schools in South Delhi are overcrowded and inadequately staffed.  Culturally, girls are not given the same opportunities to study.  The poor suffer the most because the people of India who are well off opt out of the public education system and pay for private instruction. Provisions for disabled children are minimal. [1]

This nation in Central America offers education up to and including 5th grade, but school uniforms and school supplies are to be paid for by the parents.  When parents are unable to afford these items, children do not attend school.  Often children living in poverty are also kept out of school in order to help at home.  Lack of teacher training and accountability results in lower standards of education. [2]

According to UNICEF,
Schools are struggling to meet the needs of Zambian children. At least 1,500 classrooms per year need to be constructed to accommodate all those eligible. Lowered enrollment rates result from this lack of school places and the long distances needed to travel when schools are in rural areas. Quality of teaching, with so few trained teachers within the educational system, is an issue of concern.
Parents are committed to educating their children but the distance to school and poverty levels mean that poor households cannot manage the cost of students’ uniform and supplies, despite the introduction in Zambia of free basic education to 7th grade. [3]

How is it that universal education up to age 18 has been a mainstay in the West?  The Christian influence cannot be overlooked:

  • Some of the first schools that did not charge tuition fees to students were Jesuit schools in Europe [4].  The Jesuits are a Roman Catholic order that established a system of school starting around 1545 because they saw education and piety being hand in hand.  Contrary to what one might expect, these schools for boys were not primarily aimed at educating new priests.
  • Education for children in England’s working classes was first offered by churches who held Sunday Schools.  These children often worked more than 12 hours per day, six days per week.  They had Sundays off, so enterprising pastor, Robert Raikes [5] saw the opportunity to give these disadvantaged children a chance to become literate and able to function in society.  For about 90 years (1780’s-1870), Sunday schools (which also spread to America and the continent) were more about reading, writing and arithmetic than they were about teaching Bible stories, although the Bible was indeed the reading textbook.  Boys and girls were allowed to attend, and classes were taught by both men and women.  After children had graduated from Sunday School, they had the opportunity to become teachers and leaders as well, providing a form of empowerment. [6]  The state took over in providing daily education to all students, but would it have done so if its success had not been first modeled by Sunday Schools?
  • Edgerton Ryerson, the superintendent for Canada West (the early name for Ontario, Canada), was a Methodist pastor and educator.  His vision for universal, compulsory education for children up to the high school level was the blueprint for the School Act of 1871.  Morality was not seen as an “add-on” but would be taught in and through the subject matter.  Ryerson also valued the existing church-based universities as the destination for high school graduates.


Universities in Western culture are held in high esteem as places of learning and free thought.  Who can we thank for these halls of higher education?

[4] Ignatius of Loyola: Founder of the Jesuits  by John Patrick Donnelly (2004), page131
[5] Raikes was not a single-issue Christian leader.  He was also involved in prison reform and hospital care.

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