The right to free education: Fact or fiction?

Guest Column Miriam Tose Majome

Section 27 of the Constitution states that the State has to guarantee citizens the right to education.

The State is, therefore, supposed to take all practical measures to promote free and compulsory basic education for children.

The Higher and Education ministry acknowledged that many children were dropping out of school due to some economic and social factors.

Hunger and poverty were especially singled out as major factors in Matabeleland North.

The most recent statistics were released in 2013.

The statistics reveal a sharp increase in the number of dropouts, that is, from 23% in 2012 to 43% in 2013.

The Annual Statistical Report or The Education Management System Report 2013 stated that approximately 13 253 school children had dropped out from both primary
and secondary schools.

It can only have got worse in the last three years. Among major reasons were death, expulsion, illness, marriage, pregnancy and financial challenges.

Child marriages and pregnancies affected both boys and girls although more girls were affected.

Even boys in primary reportedly drop out of school in order to get married or for impregnating girls- presumably they got expelled.

Approximately 126 primary school boys dropped out due to marriage compared to 110 girls.

One hundred and fifty-four primary school boys compared to 71 girls dropped out due to pregnancy-related issues.

This is rather curious and unexpected, but unfortunately, no explanation is given.

In secondary schools, 293 boys dropped out due to making girls pregnant while 563 pregnant school girls left school.

There is no analysis of the statistics or discussion of any special intervention strategies taken by the State in order to provide continuous education for
school dropouts. The statistics reveal that boys also need attention as much girls pertaining to pre-mature pregnancies and child marriages.

Boy dropout rates are almost as high as girls, yet they are generally excluded from national discourse. Sadly, death takes away the lives of approximately 1 000 pupils every year countrywide.

Five hundred and twenty-five primary school children and 492 secondary school children died in 2013. More school boys than girls died.

This is the general trend in demographic sets. There are, however, generally more schoolgirl dropouts than boys.

It is encouraging that the ministry compiles and publishes these statistics even though they seem grim.

They are meant to inform the State of the strategies it needs to employ in its duty to provide free and compulsory basic education.

Instead, we see young children pacing the streets aimlessly and playing football at 11am during school days.

This does not make sense in a country whose Constitution purports to guarantee free basic primary school education.

Some of the enforcement interventions do not even require a lot of resources except coordination by the ministry and schools.

In the northern hemisphere, it is an established policy for most schools to conduct parents within hours if a child inexplicably fails to turnup for class.

There parents concerned are heftily fined for inexplicable absences and mostly for pulling children out of school for family holidays.

These small measures are very effective for instilling psychological messages that school attendance is compulsory and not easily negotiable.

Back in the heydays of Zimbabwe’s good educational standards, you simply could not abscond from school unless it was a life-and-death matter.

A common cold just did not count. Our parents forced us out of the house even if it meant hobbling 2km to school on crutches, dragging a broken leg along.

It was heavily frowned upon and indeed it was a personal shame to be marked absent in the class register even for a single day in an entire term.

Such institutional and personal control mechanisms were testament to the nation’s commitment to education.

The State, schools and ordinary citizens should all be very concerned and get involved when children drop out of school at such alarming rates.

There is a disconcerting increase in the number of children who are not enrolled in school.

Before the 2000s, it was rare to see children of school-going age milling around and wandering aimlessly during school hours as they do now.

All schools are required by law to be registered with the Education ministry under the Education Act. There is a constitutional provision guaranteeing free compulsory education and there is need to examine if this guarantee has practical application or if it is a mere statement in the Constitution which the State has no capacity or will to enforce.

It is the State’s responsibility to provide free basic compulsory education. However, in the past twenty years, the State appears to have abdicated this responsibility to private entities. However many of these private schools have no capacity and are in it only for the money.

However, we do acknowledge and appreciate those private players that are genuinely trying to fill the gap left by the State and are commendably educating the our childrenSection 5 of the Education Act places the responsibility of compulsory school attendance on parents.

This implies that there should be criminal consequences on parents for non-compliance. However, in the present economic depression, some parents can no longer afford to send their children to school. This begs the very big question of why affordability should even be an issue in a country whose Constitution guarantees free basic education for children (Section 27(1) (a).

There should be no talk of school fees or any other charges for basic education. Free means paying nothing; it has no other meaning. The Constitution does not
even talk of subsidies where pupils are expected to meet the difference. It talks of free education. Ironically, the State itself is at the forefront of making
education even more expensive than it is currently. One instance is the surprise introduction of examination fees for Grade 7, payable from 2015.

Education is actually very expensive in this country, paid for dearly through various charges imposed by schools such as development levies, uniforms, books
and many other charges which are all at odds with the Constitution.

Section 6 of the Education Act actually allows the minister to set and approve of school fees charged by schools.

It may be that the Act has not yet been aligned to the new Constitution but it is not feasible that school fees will ever be scrapped unless the Constitutional
Court ever decides any such challenge brought before it by an aggrieved citizen. Even with the new Constitution in place the State still managed to devise
another way of charging for education. When challenged about the constitutionality of the Grade 7 examination fees in parliament the Deputy Minister of
Education defended it saying that Government had no option because it needed the money to fund the examinations. When the State itself is at the front of the
pack in violating the Constitution it only heightens scepticism and pessimism in the populace. The State should ensure that education is as free as stated. For
a start State initiatives such as BEAM (Basic Education Assistance Module) should be decentralised and made more transparent and accessible. Tragically the
impression prevailing on the ground is that attending school in this country is now optional but for our nation’s sake this has to change. The State simply has
to be more active and devise means of forcing those young school drop outs back into classrooms where they should be.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *