from ARNOLD MULENGA in Lusaka, Zambia
LUSAKA, (CAJ News) – THE much-anticipated introduction of free primary and secondary education in Zambia ought to be a milestone for the Southern African country besieged by high illiteracy rates.
Yet, it is a source of conflict.
The implementation of the policy by the new government has apparently fallen victim to the economic calamity and political polarisation prevailing in a country struggling to let the dust settle after discordant elections.
The free education policy has exacerbated ties between the fierce political rivals, months after the conclusion of vicious polls eventually won by the then-opposition.
Some bloodshed characterised the electoral exercise, ranked among the most hotly-contested since independence, from Britain, in 1964.
The provision of free education, from early childhood to secondary school level, was supposed to take effect on January 10, a date schools were to be opened.
Schooling, however, has not resumed, until at least after a fortnight.
Depending on which side of the fence one is sitting, the move is necessary to curtail the spread of the fourth wave of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, or, the government has come face to face with the folly of making campaign promises oblivious of the economic reality prevailing in the nation.
The 24th of January, it falls on a Monday, has now been announced as the date for the resumption of the new school year.
“Although we were prepared as a ministry for the reopening of schools, the upswing (in COVID-19 cases) is a danger,” Minister of Education, Douglas Siakalima, explained the decision.
He added the delay would enable more learners to get vaccinated as a way of alleviating cases of COVID-19 cases especially among children.
This country of 19 million people, which has the eighth-highest caseload of the pandemic in the continent, has introduced vaccination for children aged 12 years and above.
Initially, vaccinations were restricted to citizens aged over 18.
The adoption however among the youth has been low.
At the time of going to press, Zambia had a total of 299,971 cases of COVID-19. This included 3,879 deaths.
Cases have soared since December when the government officially confirmed the fourth wave of the pandemic.
Critics of President Haikande Hichilema’s United Party for National Development (UPND)–led administration believe government is using COVID-19 as an excuse.
Among the most outspoken on the issue is the former minister of the capital Lusaka Province, Bowman Lusambo. Coincidentally, perhaps, last week, he has was arrested for alleged corruption.
Lusambo before his arrest alleged Hichilema’s “New Dawn Administration” had failed to fund public schools.
“There are no grants released to any school in Zambia in readiness for reopening,” Lusambo stated.
He argued the current caseload was more manageable than the previous waves of the pandemic hence it did not warrant a postponement of reopening of schools.
“President Hichilema somehow thought running a public education system is as simple as operating a cattle ranching business,” Lusambo lampooned.
Hichilema is said to be Zambia’s second-wealthiest cattle rancher.
“Failure to fund public schools and removing user fees at the same time will only manage to transform our education system into a real joke in the region,” Lusambo further said.
The official opposition Patriotic Front (PF), led by Edgar Lungu in its futile attempts to retain power last year, echoed his sentiments.
PF, the ruling party from 2011 until the UPND dislodged it at the August 2021 elections, accused the government of failure to keep the “head-spinning” promises it made to the people of Zambia during poll campaigns.
Antonio Mwanza, the spokesperson of the PF, argued the K324 million (US$18,795 million) released as the first quarter funding for public schools aimed at implementing the free education was too little to make any impact.
According to the opposition politician, this translates into K30 000 per school or K10 000 per school per month and K600 per student per year.
“This is a joke,” Mwanza blasted.
“This action by the UPND government is compromising the quality of education as the money allocated to schools is extremely insufficient.”
Mwanza added, “These are the issues the UPND government must respond to instead of falling for the falsehoods of the yellow media.”
This week, UPND noted the provision of “Free education from Grade 1 to 12” in a 21-item list of achievements attained by Hichilema since he assumed office.
“The list is endless,” the ruling party stated.
“All these have been implemented in four months’ time. What more in five years?” UPND quipped.
In inaugural address to the 13th National Assembly in September last year, Hichilema said Zambia’s education system at all levels of learning had deteriorated over the years.
“This calls for immediate action to restore our education system to international standards and best practice,” he said.
He said his administration considered education, science and skills development as an “equalizer.”
“We will, therefore, realign the sector to ensure that it contributes to job creation and economic development.”
In the 2022 Budget that proposed K173 billion in spending, the government announced a K18 billion allocation towards education.
The proposed expenditure on education represents a 31 percent increase compared to the 2021 allocation.
The government expects to recruit 30 000 teachers in 2022.
Presenting the Budget, finance minister, Situmbeko Musokotwane, pledged the government would construct an additional 120 secondary schools to increase access to education.
Government already provides free educational services for learners at primary school level but at secondary school level, learners currently pay around K600 per annum for tuition when not in boarding.
Boarders pay K3 600 inclusive of K600 tuition fee.
Parent Teachers Association (PTA) fees and examination fees are paid.
Tuition, PTA and examination fees in public schools are to be abolished.
The Adsum Foundation reports Zambia’s literacy rate stands at 55,3 percent, with illiteracy much more pronounced in females than males.
World Vision stated that although Zambia made significant progress in improving access to primary education, the percentage of illiterate children remains high.
Based on the Early Grade Reading Assessment (EGRA) among grade 2 students, 65 percent of Zambian school children scored zero, indicating that they could not read any of the words provided.
In 2018, the World Development report found that only 55 percent of grade 2 children in the country could not read a single word of a text.
The United Nations Children’s Fund notes although Zambia has made commendable progress in increasing access to education and gender parity, more than 250 000 children are out of school.
Marginally half of those enrolled in school do not complete primary school.
Education was topical in the manifestos of Zambia’s main parties in the 2021 general elections.
PF said during its tenure, it amassed achievements in early childhood education, primary and secondary school education, youth and adult literacy, teacher education, skills development, science, technology and innovation as well as university education.
UPND pledged full access to universal free education.
There were concerns though this provision was unfeasible owing to the country’s economic challenges.
In November 2020, Zambia defaulted on a US$42,5 million payment on a Eurobond, highlighting how many African countries were sinking further into unsustainable debt.
Zambia suffered the ignominy of being the first African nation to default during the COVID-19 scourge.
In December last year, Zambia secured an extended credit facility arrangement with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to the tune of $1,4 billion.
This marked a thawing of relations between the financial institution and one of its 190 members after years of hostility.
IMF meanwhile projects the fragile Zambian economy, which is heavily reliant on copper production, to grow by 1,1 percent in 2022.
– CAJ News