Africa, Development & Aid, Education, Headlines, Poverty & SDGs

SWAZILAND: Free Education? Maybe Next Year…

Mantoe Phakathi

MBABANE, Jan 28 2009 (IPS) - Although the Swazi constitution stipulates free primary education from 2009, parents will have to pay school fees this year. Only three days before the start of the January term, the country's government announced it will continue to charge for primary education, contrary to the law.

Assembly at Ngwenya primary school - govt says Free Primary Education does not mean fees will be scrapped... Credit:  Mantoe Phakathi/IPS

Assembly at Ngwenya primary school - govt says Free Primary Education does not mean fees will be scrapped... Credit: Mantoe Phakathi/IPS

Minister of Education, Wilson Ntshangase, told Swazi media on Jan. 21 that government will not offer free primary education (FPE) – at least not this year: "Owing to the dire shortage of teachers, schools infrastructure and equipment, a total roll-out of free primary education will not be realised in 2009."

FPE was integrated in the constitution as one strategy to ensure that all of the country's children will be able to complete primary school education by 2015, as stipulated by the United Nations' Millennium Development Goals.

In Swaziland, 16 percent of children of school-going age are not receiving an education, mainly due to lack of resources, poverty and HIV/AIDS, according to statistics by the United Nations Children Fund (UNICEF).

The education minister defended his decision to keep charging primary school fees, stating there was no universal definition of what the term 'free primary education' means in practice.

"[We] view FPE as a consolidated programme aimed at creating an environment characterised by minimum barriers to quality primary education," Ntshangase explained. FPE does not mean that school fees would be completely scrapped, he claimed.

The Swaziland National Association of Teachers (SNAT) is greatly disappointed by the education ministry's decision to charge school fees, ignoring constitutional provisions, said SNAT secretary general Muzi Mhlanga.

Late notice

"The fact that government decided to announce that parents would have to pay school fees only a few days before schools reopened proved how disrespectful it is towards the citizens it is supposed to serve," lamented Mhlanga.

Apart from the elimination of primary school fees, SNAT demands that government provides children with meals during school hours.

"Because of the high rate of poverty, where 69 percent of the population live under the poverty line, and considering the high number of destitute children some of whom don't have parents, government should ensure that there are feeding schemes at all public schools as part of the FPE programme," said Mhlanga.

Ntshangase, however, insists the education department has done a good job with regard to increasing access to primary education. In 2003, the department scaled up educational grants to orphans and vulnerable children in public schools, started providing free textbooks to primary schools in 2004 and free stationary in 2006.

Refusing to commit to a year in which primary school fees will be abolished, the minister promised that educational grants will be offered to all children enrolled in Grade One in public schools in the near future.

"This constitutes 'free primary education' as envisaged in the constitution," he explained.

Ntshangase was quick to indicate though that parents and communities would continue to contribute to the education of their children despite the grant, a statement organisations, such as SNAT, see as a contradiction in terms.

Dumisile Dlamini (32), a mother of three who also takes care of her brother's two orphaned children, said she is "very disappointed" that government retracted its promise of FPE. Three of her children currently attend primary schools in the country's capital Mbabane.

Dlamini pays school fees ranging from $38 to $51 a term, an amount she is struggling to afford with her monthly income of about $100.

"These school fees don't include the cost of uniforms and transport. Although government gives free textbooks and stationery, fees at primary schools [are still too high]," Dlamini complained.

Exorbitant fees

What makes matters worse is that the Department of Education is at loggerheads with public schools about how to distribute the $100,000 fund aimed at paying school fees for orphans and vulnerable children, according to SNAT. While government believes the fund is sufficient to cover the fees of all destitute children at primary school level, schools say the fund does not cover all costs.

For each orphan or vulnerable child, the education department currently pays $32.50, expecting the child's caregivers to come up with the balance, depending on the fee a school charges for the term. For example, a grant recipient whose school charges $60 in fees is expected to "top up" by paying the remaining $27.50.

Because many caregivers are unable to come up with the outstanding amount, many of Swaziland's disadvantaged children continue to drop out of primary school.

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