Monday, September 11, 2006

How free is education in Zambia?

I rememer recently watching Question Time on BBC1. One member of the Government waxed lyrically about the fact that education in Zambia is now free but how free is free education in Zambia I asked myself? Ironically that's the provocative title of a report released last week looking at the cost of education in Lusaka.

Looking at the results of this report prepared by the Jesuit Centre for Theological Reflection (JCTR), the Director Peter Henriot declared that he was saddened by the apparent absence from current political debates of intelligent discussion of serious questions like those raised about the quality and quantity of education for the youth of Zambia.

The Government of the Republic of Zambia made an important decision in 2002 to remove the so-called user fees in primary schools throughout the country.
The return of free education meant a noteworthy reversal of the IMF/World Bank designed cost sharing plans that were part of the overall Structural Adjustment Programme that Zambia was obliged to accept as a condition for debt relief.
Many people - parents, educationists and development advocates - hailed the move as a step in the right direction.
The introduction of school fees had brought a marked decline in the quantity of education and had not brought a significant increase in the quality of education.
The State House website says very clearly: The development of any nation depends on the quality of education that is provided for the children and the youths in the country.
It therefore promises that the government has realised the need to continue to invest in the education sector. President Mwanawasa has even indicated the desire to extend free education through Grade 12, assuring that no child is hindered from obtaining an education because of fees.

But the findings of the JCTR report point to issues that must be addressed before acclaiming that education in primary schools is truly free and is accomplishing the greatly desired steps toward development.

These issues definitely affect the availability of education for children from poorer families.
Although the report focused mainly on primary schools in Lusaka, it presents insights that point to a prevailing situation across the nation, across all types and levels of schools.
Any woman or man campaigning for the office of President, member of parliament or local councilor could get a sense of what the JCTR report concludes by simply walking around the compounds of Lusaka or other major cities or into rural areas.
Just talk with parents, teachers, and headmasters about the cost, accessibility and quality of education in Zambia, as did the two JCTR researchers, Chris Petrauskis and Sheila Nkunika.
Peter Henriot claims that if these candidates come up with different findings, they must be interviewing on a different planet! When we talk about costs of education, we must distinguish direct costs and indirect costs.
Direct costs are those administered by the schools, such as user fees, PTA charges or project fees. Indirect costs include school uniforms and shoes, books and supplies, transportation, private tuition, packed lunches, etc.
The JCTR report finds that the government policy of free education has led to the removal of nearly all direct fees for grades 1 to 7. But it is true that some schools continue, contrary to guidelines from the Ministry of Education, to administer modest (K10,000 to K30,000/year) PTA charges or project fees.
But it is indirect costs (mostly uniforms and shoes, books and supplies) that can add up to an average annual amount of K440,000 for one child.
What that can mean for poorer households of four to six children is, obviously, prohibitive of access to ìfree education. And to speak of extending free education up through Grade 12 without seriously addressing this problem is neither economically realistic nor politically responsible.

It is true that with the abolition of school fees the net attendance rate at primary levels increased from 71% in 2000 to 85% in 2004 - a commendable achievement.
But approximately 15% of Zambian children, almost 300,000 girls and boys between the ages of 7 and 13 - are simply out of the educational system, missing training in the basic literacy, numeracy and reasoning that is essential for their own and the nation's full human development.
The JCTR report found that in households located in high-density areas in Lusaka, many children simply were not in school. Some parents reported as many as 5 school age children out of school.

The majority of parents attributed the absence of their children from education to a lack of school fees.

Many sad stories told the human side of these statistics, especially for the girl-child for whom education in a school is considered by many as a luxury.

Zambia has signed on to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Education for All action plan and the Millennium Development Goals all of which call for the realisation of universal primary education.

Petrauskis and Nkunika make the necessary recommendation, therefore, that some very positive action must be taken to deal with the indirect costs of education that are so burdensome to poor families, even as direct costs may have been eliminated or lessened.

An expansion by the Ministry of Education of its bursary programme is called for to ensure that poor or vulnerable households have access to sufficient resources to provide uniforms, transportation, lunches, etc.

Another recommendation of the report is that the Ministry of Education should assure that the guidelines are strictly enforced so that no child is sent away from primary education on account of being unable to pay any fee (whether Project or PTA) or not having a school uniform.
But this will also require that the Ministry of Education should allocate proportionately higher grants to schools serving poorer communities, so that the necessary funds can be available for recurring operation expenses and rehabilitative projects.

An obvious need to be met in order to advance both the accessibility and quality of education in Zambia is the improvement of conditions of service of teachers.
Surely teachers should be able to meet the demands of the JCTR Basic Needs Basket if we are to expect them to give their best in educating children.

Yes, education is costly, even free education! And so donors should be called upon for greater assistance to Zambia and the government should be expected to have better priorities in its expenditures and in its Fifth National Development Plan (FNDP)

Without well educated Zambians, foreign investors are not going to come to Zambia, whether or not they are welcomed by aspiring presidential candidates. HIV/AIDS rates are not going to decline significantly.

Local industry is not going to flourish and employment rates are not going to go up.
And Zambia's most important resource, our people will continue to be underutilised, underdeveloped and undervalued. Let's hear the political campaigners talk about that!

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