Are We Ready to Expand Free Education?

THIS year President Hifikepunye Pohamba announced what must have been good news to many: that in addition to the universal pre-primary and primary education, Grade Eight would also be offered free next year.

Secondary schooling (Grade 9-12) would follow from 2016.

Pohamba had directed the Minister of Education, David Namwandi, to start preparations over the next two years for the realisation of free universal education come 2016. “No one should have the excuse that they could not send their children to school because there was no money. Let the children go to school,” Namwandi said.

But are we ready for all these changes given the logistical challenges facing our own economy? I think it is only logical to argue that with the extension of the free system, many parents, including those who could not afford it in the past, would now send their children to school. That would require more resources at the whole chain of the system: more classrooms, more hostel blocks and libraries, but above all, more teachers. That would mean training and recruiting more teachers to meet the added demand. It also means better pay and other incentives to attract and retain teachers.

Some people might say this initiative by our President took too long to see the light of day. They might be right because the World Conference on Education (1990) for all set a goal of universal primary education in every country by the year 2000. And our own Constitution in Article 20 speaks to that issue as well. Thus, for more than ten years we have basically been ignoring this Constitutional requirement and we are only now trying to come to terms with it.

I’m not quite sure whether ‘universal’ means ‘free’ because if certain sections of society are unable to send their children to schools because of lack of money, then one cannot talk of a system being ‘universal’. Thus I’m talking about the issue of accessibility and equity here which is very crucial because the social consequences of defining access to education in terms of family wealth would be disastrous for our society.

The Ministry of Education has always been the largest recipient of state funding over the years. But some people might ask why fund these folks anyway? The answer is that, in addition to the more existential issues to justify the need for education, is that we justify putting huge public funds into education because the system exists to serve the public interest.

While on the issue of public interest, let me quote from a former secretary general of Unesco, Federico Mayor, who wrote: “The level of education of the overall population of a particular country determines that country’s ability to share in world development to benefit from the aancement of knowledge and to make progress itself while contributing to the education of others”.

This is a self-evident statement of truth and that’s why we put so much emphasis on this sector. But is this ambitious dream to put each and every Namibian child in school, possible? The philosophic argument for a universalfree-primary education cannot be contested. The point is that pre- and primary schooling is the foundation and building blocks of education. But is this not just going to be another pie in the sky? I’m posing this question in view of the crisis that currently besets our primary and secondary school systems despite the huge amount of money being invested in this sector.

The more general point to make here is that learning under the right circumstances and environment, is the first step. As it is now, these right conditions don’t exist at some of our schools, especially at some of our rural primary schools. We have got some facilities in need of repair. Stories abound in the media about some of the most deplorable conditions at some schools where kids have to either sleep or eat on the floors. A physical environment which is not right, does not allow for an enjoyable teaching space both for learners and teachers.

Despite our own efforts and assistance from others like the MCA-N which has been one of the main partners to help us address our educational problems, one still hears of shortages of textbooks at many schools where students have to share books. Lack of classrooms (where some kids have to be taught under trees or in tents) and lack of proper housing for both teachers and learners, are some other factors that can be demoralising.

Teachers are over-burdened and have to juggle between teaching, administrative work and preparation. Thus, in the absence of qualified teachers, the ministry has to be flexible and recruit unqualified teachers – who then could be given in-service training. Back to the core point: reform and improvement. Hopefully the new curriculum for junior primary level set for next year, would do just that.

Source : The Namibian