Friday, 10 February 2012

The cost of a free education

While most of us in the more developed world take universal, free and compulsory primary and secondary education for granted, this is far from being the case in Zambia. This week we heard that the Government has plans to abolish all fees in schools but is hindered by the amount of public money needed to purchase maize through the Food Reserve Agency. After this is achieved, it intends to concentrate spending on education and health to improve peoples’ lives. This will not be possible either, unless, as Kenneth Kaunda pointed out recently, the mining companies raise output and pay their due taxes without equivocation or attempts at avoidance or evasion. Doing this would be a good use of their investment to help grow the economy so that ordinary citizens and their families benefit.

The Government and previous ones were committed to providing free education from Grade 1 to Grade 12, as part of the 2015 Millennium Goals. Goal Number 2 is the provision of universal primary education. To this end the Government has announced the phasing out of the Basic (G1-9) & High School (G10-12) and a return to Primary (G1-7) and Secondary Schools (G8-12). We are still unsure of the timescale for this. Cynics say this makes Goal 2 much easier to achieve. The Government is concerned that learning achievement in the present system is low.

Our High School at Mwandi has been allocated 2 Grade 10 classes this year. Nationwide, 124 333 out of 276 840 pupils will be given Grade 10 places. This is almost 45%. 68 000 boys and 56 000 girls! Not yet gender parity there! 145 000 passed in 6 or more subjects. This is 52%, up from 49% last year. There were 30 000 no shows and 20 000 failed in all subjects.

Related to all this the Jesuit Centre for Theological Reflection has recently published a paper ‘How free is free education?’

We have little Ellie staying with us during term time this year. We have known Ellie since she was born. She was born with a club foot and had to have her right knee amputated then. She goes regularly to the Italian Orthopedic Hospital in Lusaka to have her prosthesis adjusted. She started Primary 1 in January this year. Her family lives and farms between Mabumbu and Sankalonga but Ellie cannot walk the 10km to school, hence her boarding with us during term-time, so we do have some insight into the costs incurred by Zambian families with school children.

In 2002 user-fees were abolished in Primary Schools, this was a welcomed reversal of IMF/World Bank ‘cost-sharing’ conditions in the Structural Adjustment Plan which had to be accepted to gain debt relief. These fees actually did very little to improve or expand education in Zambia. Then the Mwanawasa Government promised free education to Grade 12 and that no child should be prevented from receiving education because of fees.

The paper makes a distinction between direct and indirect costs. Education will never be entirely free and indirect costs can restrict the availability of education to poorer children as much as direct costs. There are still direct fees charged at Primary School through the PTA Levy and also Project Fees can be levied. These can range from K10 000-K30 000 per year. The indirect costs are school uniforms, shoes, textbooks, stationery supplies, transportation, ‘tuition fees’ and food for breaks and lunch. This can easily come to over K400 000 for one child.

Between 2000 and 2004 primary school attendance rose from 71-85%. This still leaves at least 15% or 300 000 children aged 7-13 not attending school who should be there. It is suggested that it is a lack of money that keeps these children away. Also it is girls who suffer most in these circumstances. Bursaries need to be more accessible and available to help the more vulnerable to attend school. In the 21st Century we need to ask ourselves is it right that a child is sent home because they have no uniform or shoes or are unable to pay the fees? Is Zambia really that poor? If we are serious about this then there needs to be higher grants going to schools that serve poorer areas for recurrent costs and rehabilitation. Our Basic School received a meagre K3m last year for 1500 pupils

In many places public education is close to collapse with over-enrolment, straitened resources, decaying infrastructure and a demoralized work-force. The 1:70 teacher to pupil ratio has remained unchanged for 10 years. The shortage of textbooks is chronic. 1 book to 4 pupils is an exceptional ratio and in many subject the teacher has the sole textbook for that class in that subject. State school teachers earn from K1m per month ($200) to around K2.5m ($500) for a Headteacher. In Grades 8 & 9, not being “Primary”, pupils are often charged around K300 000. The cost at Mwandi is K90 000.

High Schools like Sesheke will cost K1.2m per year. Our High School charges K750 000.

Vulnerable families and the schools in Mwandi have benefited greatly from the Mwandi UCZ OVC Programme that sponsors around 500 pupils at the Basic School and 90 out of 220 at the High School. The programme feeds 200 pupils daily. There is another program that helps with direct costs for children from poorer families within and outwith Mwandi with an emphasis on educational assistance for the girl child. It has put 24 pupils through Sesheke High School between 2007-11 and has helped 9 pupils in Grades 10 & 11 at Mwandi High School and others Basic Schools. We are indebted to many individuals and congregations who through their generosity make it possible to educate needy children by helping to meeting the direct and indirect costs which their families otherwise would struggle to afford.

There is an old truism, if you think education is expensive try ignorance and that there are some people who know the cost of everything but the value of nothing. Without good affordable and widely available education there will be no development, no drop in HIV/AIDS rates, no flourishing local commerce and industry, no drop in the unemployment rate and Zambia will risk becoming a stagnating and underdeveloped economic back-water.

We hope the political will is there to address this.

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