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Government strives to increase access to education

Since taking office at the beginning of this year, Zambian President Levy Mwanawasa announced several measures aimed at getting into the country’s classrooms more children who otherwise would have dropped out of school due to pregnancy, early marriage, inability to pay school fees, or other reasons.
Benedict Tembo and Gershom Ndhlovu

Rudo Phiri, a Grade 11 student at the Catholic-run Dominican Convent Secondary School in Ndola, Copperbelt Province, Zambia, was one year away from graduation when she became pregnant. Phiri had no choice but to withdraw from school so that she could give birth. Soon after Phiri had her baby girl, she did something rather unusual: she returned to school and passed her "O" level examination, which made her eligible to enrol in a teacher's college.

Phiri is one of many students who would have otherwise dropped out of school due to pregnancy, early marriage, inability to pay school fees, or other reasons. But thanks to a variety of programmes set up by the Zambia government to make education accessible to all, Phiri and others like her are now sitting in the classroom instead of in the kitchen or on the streets.

In Phiri’s case, the Programme for the Advancement of Girl-Child Education - or PAGE, as it is widely known - helped her to return to school. PAGE, a programme under the Ministry of Education, is involved in sensitising communities about the importance of educating girl children. PAGE also collaborates with non-governmental organisations such as the Forum for the Advancement of Women Education in Zambia (FAWEZA), which promotes the advancement of girl-child education and the involvement of women in education.

Dr. Kabunda Kayongo, former Minister of Education in the 1990s and a woman, created PAGE, which has received a lot of support from donor agencies such as the Swedish International Development Agency (SIDA). Another huge problem that the government faced was the growing number of children who took to the streets in major cities because their parents could not afford to pay school fees and purchase other school requirements such as uniforms, books, pens, and pencils.

Recent statistics compiled by the Central Statistics Office (CSO) indicate that at least 45 per cent of children drop out of school in Grades One to Seven due to their parents’ inability to pay for their school fees. This situation is more prevalent in rural areas, where people are hardly surviving due to other social and economic ailments such as poverty and unemployment.

The statistics further show that about 95 per cent of children are admitted into government schools and two percent into mission schools, with private and industrial schools absorbing the remaining three percent.

To reverse this trend of dropouts due to economic reasons, the Zambian government has scrapped the compulsory school uniform to help pupils from poor families continue with their education. And in a bid to curb high levels of illiteracy, the government has also re-introduced free education from Grades One to Seven, promising to provide schools with materials such as exercise books, rulers, erasers, pens, and pencils. In according with the guidelines, no user fees - including Parent-Teachers Association (PTA) fees - should be levied against a student. PTA funds for specific school projects will now be raised through raffles and other means, after getting clearance from provincial educational officers.

In his address to the nation during the official opening of Parliament in February 2002, President Levy Mwanawasa announced that the government would also give grants to all basic schools for the purchase of school requisites and would deploy newly trained teachers to rural schools, which in the past had not been fully staffed. "Financial grants amounting to K11.7 billion (about US$2.9 million) have been released to all basic schools," President Mwanawasa said in his national address on February 21. "The ministry is currently in the process of procuring essential pupils' requisites such as exercise books, pencils, rubbers, rulers and teachers' instructional aids," he said.

He added that the Ministry of Education had issued guidelines to all stakeholders on how to implement the policy. As well, 3,000 science kits had been procured and distributed to basic schools to support the teaching of science. This year, an additional 17,000 Grade Eight and Nine, and 700 Grade 10 places had been created following the upgrading of more primary schools to basic school status and the subsequent phasing out of Grade Eight and Nine classes from secondary schools. The re- introduction of free education from Grades One to Seven, and the provision of bursaries for vulnerable children in Grades Eight and Nine, are positive measures overall, says Alfred Zulu, president of the Zambia Independent Monitoring Team (ZIMT), a human rights non-governmental organisation.

"This is a very good move, but there is need to extend it to colleges and universities," says Zulu, noting that post-secondary school is very expensive. "And also, the policy should go further in declaring that education becomes compulsory so that all parents take their children to school, failure to which they would be prosecuted." He hopes that the government would introduce bursaries for students in higher institutions of learning, and that the conditions of service for lecturers be improved to raise their motivation levels. In his speech, President Mwanawasa said negotiations with unions to improve conditions of service and reduce brain drain had commenced and would be concluded soon.

"Government should also have hinted on tax-free incentives for educational requisites such as books and computers," says Zulu. "We hope this will come up in the budget so that people could easily have access to quality education."

Muweme Muweme, Coordinator for the Jesuit Centre for Theological Reflection (JCTR)’s Economic and Social Development Research Project, explained that recent research conducted by JCRT in collaboration with Oxfam reflected that increasingly intolerable economic hardships on households might eventually lead to many young people not being sent to school.

The implementation of the government’s Basic Education Sub-sector Investment Programme (BESSIP), whose objectives are to increase access and improve learning achievement, is set to continue. The programme would also be extended to Grades Eight and Nine. President Mwanawasa said government was trying to find funds to enable it to continue with the rehabilitation of schools and teacher training colleges that started last year under the Highly Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) initiative.

The re-introduction of free education up to Grade Seven has been welcomed by many Zambians, who have long argued that the poor would be unable to set a firm foundation for their children upon which they can build a future if education was beyond their grasp. They argue that it was free education that enabled many people to become wealthy and hold key positions in various government and private sectors. Others, however, argue that, although the intention is good, free education would only be on paper unless the learning institutions are funded directly by government to offset the running costs currently met by parents.

Their concern is that the government today does not have as many resources that it had in the early years of independence. When Zambia attained her independence in 1964, she had a strong economy and was wealthy enough to provide all educational needs in its free education programme.

Government provided pupils in both primary and secondary schools with books, pencils, and other school requirements. Government also provided stationary stocks, libraries, sports equipment, and salaries, not only for teachers but also for gardeners and other non-teaching staff who maintained the schools.

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