The dilemmas that are wrecking the heart of primary education
By Makanday Zambia Centre for Investigative Journalism
Attendance at primary schools has reached impressive levels, but despite them it appears that Zambian primary education is experiencing an epidemic of poor performance. Nationally, attendance is now estimated at 93% of the population who should be at school but the evidence is there of low learning achievement, a shortage of teachers and of teaching and reading materials.
On the plus side it does appear that the abolition of government imposed fees – so-called free education – has enabled greater access for children to primary education, but the move has plenty of critics who say the exercise was poorly planned, lacked sufficient funding and, above all, has failed to meet children’s learning needs.
And despite the statistical increase in attendance, there are still more than half a million children of school age who are not at school, as a glance at any inner-city street will demonstrate.
Certainly the linkage between free education and improved infrastructure and increased attendance is acknowledged by the 2013 Millennium Development Goals (MDG) progress report. It also says that Zambia has made further progress in boosting primary school completion rates with the number of pupils reaching Grade 7 increasing to over 90%.
So there is a central dilemma running through primary education: attendance is up but achievement is down.
That puzzle extends also to the apparent fact that performance appears to be better at community schools than at government schools.
The oddity in that is that community schools, although nominally government schools, tend to be located in poorer or remoter areas and are staffed by community members who have not, generally, been through formal teacher training.
Many are volunteer teachers. Community schools were started in the 1990s precisely to cater for the increasing number of children from poorer communities who were out of school, possibly stemming from upheavals in job security for parents caused by the structural adjustment programme, and some of it from the incidence of deaths of parents from AIDS and other illnesses. And sometimes, communities could be situated hundreds of kilometres from government schools, which were anyway too few and underfunded. There was simply no room for all children.
Organisations such as Zambia Open Community Schools (ZOCS) were established to coordinate and support community schooling. ZOCS started off under a tree at Msisi Compound in Lusaka and today it supports some 500 of the more than 2600 community schools countrywide, and they in turn account for more than 20% of all enrolments in basic schools countrywide.
What does seem to help explain the apparent success of community schools as compared with results from government schools – and this is borne out by Grade 7 results where community schools score over government schools – is the quality of care that volunteer teachers have for their pupils.
Says Mrs Harriet Miyato, executive director of ZOCS: “A child in a community is everyone’s child and must be treated like that. I think that is what has made community schools tick.”
It is a legal requirement for government to support community schools but, says Mrs Miyato, “what we’re not seeing is a deliberate strategy to ensure that the ministry is working in a formalised manner.
If they want to support a certain number of community schools in a year, and if that is implemented, that is when we’ll know that they are serious.”
However, Mr Lancelot Mutale, principal planning officer at the Ministry of Education, links enrolment success to a number of players who include government, private, grant-aided and community schools. He points out that the inadequacy of funding affects government schools as well as community schools. Nor does he believe that community schools have better results: “Some of them, not all, do better than government schools.”
He tends to agree with Mrs Miyato when he says that success is down to discipline and monitoring by members of a community, who ensure that teachers teach when they are supposed to do so. “The people who monitor the performance of teachers in community schools are the parents themselves.
The key lies in monitoring at the school level – the school administration and the community members. If there is better monitoring at school level the results will be better.”
This tends to be backed up by a statement from Mrs Grace Manyonga, executive director of the Zambia National Education Coalition (ZANEC) who blames poor performance of government schools on a lack of discipline: “I believe it is about discipline, it’s about teacher absenteeism, it’s about pupil absenteeism.
Are the pupils attending classes? Are the teachers teaching when they’re supposed to be teaching?”
Teacher effectiveness is a hot topic. Says Mrs Manyonga: “For me it is the issue of passion and monitoring. When schools open, you’ll find that in a lot of public schools, they’re not teaching. At grant-aided, private or community schools, the teachers are actually teaching on the first day of the term. So that is the difference.”
The end result is that basic learning achievements of students in reading and mathematics remain low – pathetically low, according to some accounts. Only 30% of Zambian learners are meeting minimum levels in English literacy, numeracy and life skills by the time they’re in Grade 5. In other words, from a classroom of, say, 50 students only 15 can read or carry out basic numeracy.
“Yes,” says Mr Mutale, “it is common knowledge that when you place so much emphasis on access then something else is going to suffer.It means that quality is going to be the victim. We have not hidden that fact.”
Comparisons with regional educational achievements are appalling. A survey carried out by an organisation called the Southern and Eastern Africa Consortium for Monitoring Educational Quality (SACMEQ) has found that the percentage of pupils by countryreaching the required literary level of proficiency was just 3.7% forZambia. The only country of the nine surveyed that was lower was Malawi at 1.4%. The best were Swaziland at 25.7% and Kenya at 18.7%.
In numeracy proficiency the result for Zambia was embarrassing at 0.1%, the lowest of all ninecountries. Why? The B & R has found that although the country has succeeded in putting children in school, the quality of education they receive is undermined by a crisis in funding.
The underlying reason seems always to come down to funding – or underfunding of priorities. In Zambia, education is, it seems, not very sexy for those who decide how much the schools – and by implication our children – will get for thesector.
The funding provided is simply not enough to cater for all school requirements (see table), although the government says it is doing enough to ensure all schools get a share of the national cake. Some schools at primary level receive as little as K 1000 government grant in a term. The table below shows the total cost of how much was allocated to various sectors of the education ministry. (See side story for more).
In dividing the 2014 allocation of K4,844,000,374 for primary schools by the approximate number of primary schoolchildren in the entire country at 3,217,872, the result comes to K1.50 allocated per child per year.
It gets worse. In 2014, the budget allocation for education was more than K8.5 billion. Of that, an astonishing 76% went on salariesand personal allowances. The 24% left went to cover infrastructure, purchase of books and other teaching and learning materials. All else, in fact.
Not surprisingly, critics are calling for reforms, in particular one that places a child at the centre of the sector.
“We have a problem,” says Mrs Miyato of ZOCS. “Do we really need to spend 80% of the education budget on salaries, or do we need tolook at restructuring the Ministry of Education and think of the child as number one priority – why we exist?”
Government is this year recruiting 5000 teachers to lessen the shortage, but critics say that the country loses 10,000 teachers a year at primary level alone. Mr Mutale remarks: “It may not be enough, but it is good enough!” Is it?
Sources within the Ministry attribute the poor performance of the sector to political interference.
Those critics say: “If we’re left as professionals to make correct decisions, I’m sure we would make good decisions.” Some critics believe the poor education system is a reflection of the country’s “broken” political system.
The problems outlined above would tend to be reinforced by findings of Room To Read, an NGO that seeks to improve literacy levels. When they started distributing books in primary schools they discovered that the problem was more than a lack of reading materials:
“We thought the schools are doing an excellent job, and all we needed was to back them up with books,” says Mr Godfrey Chimfutumba of Room To Read. “When we went back we discovered that those books still looked new. After careful examination we discovered children were not able to read.”
ZANEC believes the quality of teaching has declined over the years. Mrs Manyonga says the qualities of people who go into teaching are usually those who have not done well at Grade 12. “That compromises the quality of education because you already have the compromised cadre of people who are going into teacher education.”
Similarly, the Zambia National Union of Teachers (ZNUT) links poor education achievements to falling teaching standards. They say “teaching is a vocation – a calling – and teachers must be prepared to teach.
The poor achievement level is the reason government last year introduced a new curriculum, one that allows students to start off by learning not in English but in a language they are familiar with.
Mr Chimfutumba believes this will help: “If you go in class you speak English and then the children simply do not understand. Half the time they will look like they do not know. It’s simply because they cannot express themselves. There is a barrier there.”
Allocation by sub-sector in the 2014 budget (All the figures are in kwacha) Donors Government 2014 allocation
Headquarters 215,828,483 1,578,351,045 1,794,179,528
Provincial offices 7,460,000 751,385,924 758,845,924
Primary School – 4,844,000,347 4,844,000,347
Secondary School – 1,385,898,142 1,385,898,142
Tertiary 7,211,000 5,051,149 12,262,149
What “love and passion” can do
Experts say that community schools have excelled because of the “love and passion” that volunteer teachers have for the children, and that certainly seems to be the case at Chipata Open Community School in Chipata compound a few minutes’ drive from Lusaka’s CBD.
During a visit there it was fun interacting with the children but there were sobering moments too. The school now goes up to Grade 10 and enrolls children throughout the year because of the high demand for education in Chipata township.
The result is that the number of pupils is astounding at more than 1400, of which 900 are at primary level. The school has 22 teachers and some classes have more than 75 pupils in them – a ratio of some 63.6 pupils to each teacher. In one packed class I visited, delighted children were all tightly squeezed in together on the desks, elbows touching as they scrawled notes while the teachers talked and wrote on the blackboard.
There are numerous challenges. Grants from government do come in but they are small and erratic. Teachers are paid from contributions by parents, and sometimes those teachers go for months without getting their salaries of between K600 to K700 a month.
Unlike the situation in most community schools the teachers here are all trained under an arrangement with one of the private colleges.
Some of the children come from single-parent families while others are themselves parents and must also take care of their siblings. Such learners are exempted from making financial contributions.
The chairperson of the parents’ committee, Mr Nelson Ng’uni, says that without the school the majority of the children would receive no formal education since most parents cannot afford to pay a fee even as low as K50 a term for a primary school learner.
But hope and ambition survive. Janet Sibanda, a Grade 7 student has set her eyes on the big prize. Although she knows that her mother, a hairdresser, cannot pay for her entire education, 17-year-old Janet is determined to live a normal life and embark on a career in accountancy. Her story is not unique, it mirrors that of other children within the school.
Where the money went
The B&R has found that last year the education ministry suffered tough budget cuts, which led to some projects being shelved and several others put on hold. In the 2014 budget, education was allocated K8.5 billion (representing 20.2% of the total national budget), out of which K6.1 billion or about 76% went to salaries, allowances, pensions and gratuities to civil servants and government officials. Some 24%, supported by donors, was meant for infrastructure and all other non-personal emolument activities.
More damning is the fact that, of the K2.2 billion, which is 24% of the education budget for nonpersonal emoluments, K1.6 billion was meant for development of workshops and infrastructure, which used up K756 million, leaving a balance of K395 million. Take into consideration the fact that of the non personal emolument budget, more than K764 million came from a number of donors such as Irish Aid, DFID, JICA and civil society organisations.
The Ministry of Finance released about K2 billion for the non-personal emolument component out of the budgeted K2.4 billion.
Some projects, such as infrastructure, were poorly funded due to the 81% partial release of the funds. At provincial level, a planned budget of over K370 million only received K124 million. Similarly, infrastructure development at the science division got K157 million from the planned annual budget of K327 million.
There were further cuts to infrastructure. The ministry had planned to construct school infrastructure for the more than 200 upgraded basic schools countrywide and K320 million was allocated, of which only K100 million was released. Additionally, the plan to replace pole and mud structures at community and government schools in rural areas with permanent structures could not be achieved as only K10 million was released.
As usual, it was people in poorer areas that suffered the huge cut because even the little that was allocated for repairs for blown off roofs and other infrastructure was shelved.
The Bursaries Committee administration was funded partially, receiving slightly over K228 million of the budgeted K257 million.
What about grants to colleges? Of the planned K12 million budget, only half of that was funded by government and an additional K2 million came from DFID.