GENDER FOCUS with EMELDA MWITWA
THE abolition of school fees from grades one to seven was meant to facilitate the campaign for universal primary education. Now it seems thatâ€™s not the only barrier to children accessing basic education; uniform fees are. Apparently school fees have reincarnated in uniform fees in some basic and primary schools. In certain public schools, parents are somewhat obligated to buy school uniforms from the schools at a cost of about K250 to K300 or else they canâ€™t secure a place at the school. Some children from poor households still canâ€™t attend school because they canâ€™t afford high priced uniforms being sold in schools.
The case in point is a woman who approached me to register displeasure over a school in Chilenje. The woman, who I will call Mrs Kabelo, has enrolled three children in grade one at Hillview Basic School, formerly known as New Chilenje. Of the three, one is her niece and the other two her own children who are starting grade one at the same time due to financial challenges the family faced the previous year. Mrs Kabelo is a domestic worker who also sells vegetables at home to supplement her meagre income. Her husband is a bricklayer, and because jobs in his field are seasonal, they have so far only raised money to pay for two children.
The other child is still at home until they raise K320 for her uniform (dress, jersey and socks) and an additional K50 for the construction of a school hall.
The school, she says, has introduced a new uniform, made from a blend of green and white fabric. To avoid incurring high costs, they tried to have the uniforms tailor-made, but they couldnâ€™t find the fabric in town. Her complaint is that the school deliberately wants to profit from them, because they know that the material is difficult to find.
Alternatively, she feels the uniform set should have been sold at a cheaper price considering that the fabric is not readily available on the market.
Another parent complained about Yotamu Muleya Basic School where parents of grade eight pupils are allegedly expected to buy uniforms from the school.
Well, as far as I am concerned, itâ€™s wrong for schools to compel parents to buy uniforms from school. According to government policy, schoolchildren between grades one and seven do not have to pay school fees. School authorities shouldnâ€™t indirectly levy children in this category in exchange for a school place. All that the children need to attend school are their uniforms (from any source), books and pencils or pens.
The idea behind free education is to remove all barriers to achieving universal primary education. And since the Patriotic Front government introduced the free primary education policy, many girls and boys who otherwise wouldnâ€™t set foot in class are now able to read and write. And literacy means a lot for some children who though may not complete grade 12, are equipped to master vocational skills.
But I know for a fact that some schools may face challenges in meeting administrative costs, after the abolition of school fees between grades one and seven.
This could be the reason why some school managers may resort to persuading parents to buy uniforms from them. But if, as a matter of government policy, primary education is free of charge, it means just that.
Schools could do a number of businesses to meet costs for such things as salaries for cleaners and security guards which are not catered for by their parent ministry.
Itâ€™s wrong to force pupils to pay if government policy says they shouldnâ€™t. A teacher friend of mine in Kitwe tells me schools there no longer deal in school uniforms and parents buy such things from the markets. Some school heads were actually suspended for coercing parents to buy uniforms from their school.
I actually contacted Ministry of Education spokesperson Hilary Chipango, who restated that itâ€™s against government policy to force parents to buy uniforms from the schools.
He said parents have a choice to buy school uniforms anywhere. According to Mr Chipango, parents should feel free to buy uniforms from a cheaper source and if the school proves hostile, they need to report them to the parent ministry.
Mr Chipango said the Ministry of General Education is also against the idea of school authorities enrolling pupils on condition that they buy uniforms from them.
â€œWe donâ€™t force parents where to buy uniforms, parents have a choice where to buy these uniforms. Some schools are attaching [securing] school places to those uniforms; it is wrong.
â€œAs a ministry, we donâ€™t condone such and we have issued instructions to school administrations not to do that and we expect them to adhere to these instructions,â€ Mr Chipango stresses.
He further explains that the ministry does carry out investigations in schools when they receive complaints and erring school administrators have been punished.
Our conversation ended with Mr Chipango promising me that the Ministry of General Education would follow up the issue at Hillview and Yotamu Mulenga Basic schools and give me feedback.
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GENDER FOCUS with EMELDA MWITWA