The Sunday Mail
Schools open in a few days’ time and almost all Zimbabwean parents, to their immense credit and often with great financial sacrifice, have made the required arrangements to send their children to class, but there is still some confusion and the need to cut coats according to the cloth.
The Government has made some interventions. Tuition fees in the State system will not rise, this is at the Government schools and those run by local government and others where the teachers are all civil servants who are hired, deployed and, critically, paid by the Government out of the general tax revenue.
So here, as Acting Minister of Primary and Secondary Education Professor Amon Muwira made it clear last week, the Government can control tuition fees. These costs absorb the bulk of the education budget, the largest item on the Government’s list. The Government also budgets for textbooks, and so long as these are looked after properly less than 10 percent should be up for replacement each year. Parents should only have to replace lost or damaged books, not the general allocation.
There are two other recognised costs at State schools, the general levy and the boarding fees. Here the ministry has rules. Parents have to approve these additional fees at properly constituted meetings. Ideally, all parents should attend and be prepared to make their voice heard and to vote.
In the case of the general levy, parents should be presented with proper accounts of the previous term or year and with a properly costed budget for the next term or year. Usually, there are essential items that simply have to be bought. If a roof is leaking or plumbing in a bathroom has corroded then obviously this cannot be ignored or deferred. Then there are items that are desirable but which can be deferred in a difficult year, and as we are emerging out of an austerity period with salaries a long way behind inflation for most, this is a challening year. A bit of economic growth, the continuing monthly decline in inflation and the maintenance of the present stability in exchange rates will by next year present a different picture. So can the bus last another year?
But parents need to take the responsibility of attending meetings and be ready to speak and vote. All too often a small minority, not much more than the 20 percent quorum, actually attend and frequently a small eloquent minority take control of the meeting. These enthusiasts are needed but we cannot afford to ignore the majority. Fears of “victimisation” are daft. A school that will “victimise” a child because the parents speak against the School Development Association chairman is not worth attending.
So parents need to look carefully at the proposals and ensure that all the required items are properly budgeted for. Here, parents can often be useful. Almost all parent bodies have members who are experts in a particular field and who can pick out where a dollar or two can be saved.
Boarding fees, as the Acting Minister stressed, have to be realistic. All parents know how much it costs to feed a child for three months and that has to be paid whether the child is at home or school. The one problem is that the school needs to raise this money as a lump sum at the beginning of the term. And besides food there are other costs in hostels, from staff salaries to electricity bills and essential maintenance. Boarding is not an essential element of education, as it was in colonial days and all pupils could attend day schools, as almost all do in the rest of the world outside what used to be the British Empire. Boarding is a very “English” cultural tradition.
So boarding is not subsidised. Parents pay for it although they can claw back some of the fees by savings in home groceries and transport.
Another consideration for the State system is moving back to enforcement of zoning regulations. Many Government schools with good reputations have been rejecting children within their zone to take children of well-off parents from outside the zone. That is not a good idea in a public system. And sometimes this will require special consideration for those at the bottom of the heap in a zone. The ministry can take action. Of course, there can be some exceptions, where a pure boarding school is surrounded by day schools or where a school’s zone is largely now commercial but the general rule of preference from zone must be enforced.
In addition, the ministry needs to expand the BEAM programme further and make it more flexible, so that partial help can be given to more needy schoolchildren rather than full help to a few. It also needs to be properly administered, which is not the case at all schools although some stand out as an example to be emulated.
Private schools should not be a problem. The ministry needs to enforce its basic rule that fees are set after parents vote in a properly constituted meeting after being presented with accounts and a budget. Again parents need to be active, attending and speaking out at the meetings rather than waiting to complain when those prepared to vote have already given their thumbs-up.
The market is not blind. Overpricing will force many parents to move their children to cheaper private establishments, and these are burgeoning, or look for other alternatives. There were times when top private schools faced viability problems when they lost large blocks of traditional parent groups. It can happen again.
The Acting Minister also stressed, in line with general Government policy, that fees at private schools must be set in Zimbabwe dollars, not in US dollars or in local currency converted at the exchange rate on the day of payment. That warning was serious and with growing economic stability needs to be enforced. Private views on finance cannot be rammed down the throats of the public.
Financially 2020 could be a challenging year for most parents and most schools, hence the need for latter to be continually consulting and for schools and parents working out ways to pay for the essentials, defer what can be deferred and probably go without the merely desirable, at least for this year. But with good sense this can work. And it must work.