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Legal Right to Free Education Grows Globally

Expanded International Law Could Accelerate Progress

Students attend class in Freetown, Sierra Leone, September 17, 2018. © 2018 Saidu Bah/AFP via Getty Images

In today’s rapidly changing world, access to free education is essential for sustainable development and for children to thrive. Although current international treaties only prioritize a right to free education at the primary level, more and more countries are recognizing that this is insufficient, and are enacting national laws to expand children’s right to free education at the pre-primary and secondary levels.

Since 2015, 16 countries have adopted laws to provide or expand free pre-primary education. Pre-primary education, which takes place during the early years when children’s brains are rapidly developing, has profound benefits for children’s long-term development. But for many low-income families, it is out of reach. When Azerbaijan adopted legislation providing three years of free pre-primary education, participation rates shot up from 25 percent to 83 percent in four years. Armenia and Uzbekistan also saw large increases in pre-primary participation after adopting laws to expand free pre-primary.

Sierra Leone is the latest country to expand free education for children. In 2018, the government launched an ambitious Free Quality School Education program to provide free education from pre-primary through secondary schools. Enrollment across all levels surged from 2 million students to 3.1 million by 2021, with the biggest gains from low-income families. On April 24, Sierra Leone enshrined free education in its national law. Sierra Leone children are now legally guaranteed 13 years of free schooling, from one year of pre-primary through secondary school.

A new UNESCO report finds that countries with laws guaranteeing free education have significantly higher rates of children in school. Political commitments to free education are simply not enough. As part of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), all countries have agreed that by 2030 they will provide access to pre-primary education for all, and that all children will complete free secondary school education. But among the countries that have set specific education benchmarks as part of the SDGs, barely one in three is on track to achieve them.

The growing trend of national legislation to expand free education access is encouraging, but for the millions of children out of school, progress is too slow. International law more explicitly guaranteeing at least one year of free pre-primary and free secondary is needed to accelerate progress at the global level and turn political commitments into binding legal obligations.

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