Free education a myth

Poor parents harassed for stationery, schools collect funds 'backdoor'

15 January 2020 | Education

Some parents and schools say they cannot afford the supposed 'free education' that the government introduced in 2013.

The system has forced some schools to beg donations from the business community, while others have come up with backdoor policies to charge learners money through school contributions.

Reverend Edward Amadhila, the technical director of the Tov multipurpose centre at Tsumeb, which houses orphans and vulnerable children, told Namibian Sun that schools are now demanding that parents buy stationery for their children.

This has reportedly forced some poor parents to keep their children at home because they are already struggling to provide for them.

No comment could be obtained from the education ministry since last Wednesday.

In 2013, the ministry introduced free education from pre-primary to secondary level, saying it was a constitutional obligation.

Government abolished the practice of schools demanding money from parents for school development funds.

The education ministry took over the responsibility of funding schools, depending on the number of children at school.

Per semester, primary schools were supposed to get N$300 per child, while secondary schools were supposed to get N$400 per learner from the ministry.

These funds were supposed to take care of learners' school needs such as exercise books, notebooks, pens and pencils, calculators and the like.

Where possible, study guides, photocopy paper and even cleaning materials and toilet paper and other classroom-related needs could be purchased from these government funds, while contributions from parents and caregivers were said to be voluntary.

However, schools are now providing learners with stationery lists, asking parents to purchase these items, a situation that is making education even more expensive than before.

Sources in the education sector say that last year the government could not meet this obligation and schools had to turn to parents and donors for funding.

“Although on paper schooling in Namibia is free, many people from poor backgrounds cannot afford it anymore. Some schools have now come up with a backdoor policy, as they started charging learners money through school contributions. It is not that they are wrong; they are only looking for money to cater for the day-to-day running of their schools, since the government does not give money to schools on time,” Amadhila said.

“At Tov, we are aware that for the poor parents this means that they have to keep their children at home, because they do not have money to provide the school needs.”

Amadhila said it is also a big challenge for organisations like Tov to keep children in school and they depend on donor support.

Namibian Sun also caught up with a parent, Paulus Kaalushu, while he was buying school supplies for three of his children.

Kaalushu said when free education was introduced parents were told that contributions from parents and caregivers would be voluntary, but now they are receiving stationery lists and teachers threaten learners whose parents fail to provide the required stationery.

“We were told that the government was providing schools with money for stationery, but now schools are demanding exercise books, notebooks, pens and pencils, calculators and the like, and sometimes study guides, photocopier paper and even cleaning materials, toilet paper and other school supplies from us. Teachers are even threatening to send our children back home if they do not contribute,” he said.

“In the past, learners could wear standard school uniforms that can be obtained from Pep Stores at a cheaper price. Many schools are now moving away from these uniforms towards tailor-made uniforms which are expensive and they are not included in the money that schools get from government. What type of expensive free education is this?” fumed Kaalushu.

An education source said schools in remote areas are the worst off. At some rural schools teachers are forced to pay for school expenses from their own pockets because the government fails to provide money on time.

“There parents do not make any efforts to provide stationery. They cannot afford them because many of them are poor. In the old days when there were school development funds, many parents used to contribute in kind and then the schools saw what they could do with the support they got. Now there is totally nothing,” the source said.

Since many secondary schools do not offer hostel facilities, parents also struggle to find housing for their children and many of them have to live on their own in shacks, Amadhila said.

“Every day they have to make a decision to stay at home or go to school and get the education which is the key to their future. This is what motivates us to keep the Tov alive,” said Amadhila.

“We have to monitor the children under our care and make sure they stay in school, thanks to our dedicated and committed friends and partners.”

Questions sent to education ministry spokesperson Johanna Absalom last Wednesday remain unanswered.

Namibian Sun wanted to know, among other things, what money is actually being provided by the government if schools are demanding stationery and other contributions from parents.

The ministry received nearly N$14 billion in the current 2019/20 financial year - a whopping 21% of the budget.

However, according to previous media reports 83% of its budget, or about N$11.5 billion, was set aside for the payment of personnel expenditure and 5% for capital expenditure.

The ministry's major cost drivers are hostel provision, the Namibia School Feeding Programme, utilities, stationery and cleaning materials.