Who decides the meaning of free education?

Education ministry executive director (ED), Sanet Steenkamp made a remarkable statement (if she was quoted correctly). She said that free education does not necessarily mean that all the needs of learners will be catered for by the government. While we admire the education executive director for managing a very tough job, we must take issue with her here. The ED does not have the remit to tell Namibians what the constitution means. That question is one for the courts.

Article 20 (2) of the Constitution says that the State shall provide reasonable facilities to render effective the right to education to every resident within Namibia by establishing and maintaining state schools at which primary education will be provided free of charge.

The Education Act: Section 38(1) says, “all tuition provided for primary and special education in state schools including all school books, education materials and other related requisites must be provided free of charge until the 7th grade or until the age of 16 years.”

There is no qualifying sentence that says, ‘only if the parents pay up.’

Furthermore www.ombudsman.org.na says, the requirement that primary education be provided, without charge to the child, parents or guardians are unequivocal. The provision of “free” primary education is not conditional on the availability of resources.

There is no qualifying sentence that says, ‘parents must fill the gap when the government cuts the budget.’

Schools can, of course, hold voluntary compliance fundraising activities for EXTRA projects and programs. But, voluntary is not mandatory!

It is no longer a donation when it is obtained at the barrel of a gun. “Give $20 for a fund for new light bulbs for classrooms or else your child cannot come to school. Donate $30 to pay the school maintenance man or else you will not receive your grades.” This is extortion.

It exerts incredible negative pressure on parents. Many parents were already unemployed. Others, now, have lost jobs or are on half salaries or delayed salaries. Prices are up as businesses try to decrease their losses by squeezing every penny from a broke public. And yet, schools send so-called ‘requests’ for contributions that are actually letters of demand. Parents should group together and sue. Let the courts interpret and clarify the constitution in this regard.

Steenkamp’s main point is valid. Parents and communities must step up and support schools. Education can be even more successful with those at home engaged and involved. Families and communities should (note: should, not ‘MUST’) offer whatever services or time that they can to schools.

Administrators complain that without some sort of ‘stick’ parents won’t assist. Who said life was easy? Schools must think innovatively and find out how to get more parents to buy-in to the school and what is going on. What is the school doing to improve outreach and alumnae support? Are they sending funding proposals for foundations, churches, businesses or professional associations? Or are schools taking the lazy or easy way to get quick cash: squeeze the parents.

Saying that contributions to schools are ok without government gazetted guidelines, opens the door for schools to begin acting as if such voluntary contributions are required. We all know that this is exactly what happens. Teachers must look up the words: volunteer, donate and contribute.

Many parents have complained that the ‘requests’ for money are constant. Monthly or weekly there is a demand for one thing or another. Is this being addressed or controlled?

Schools often justify their ‘demands’ for money saying, “Parents spend $20 in a shebeen easily enough, let them spend it on the school.” Or, “they pay N$100 for hair, let them find money to pay $30 to the school.” Law is not applied by judgemental gossip or subjective commentary from interested parties. This is a policy discussion on the constitutional rights of children in public schools to not be harassed for money.

Even before the pandemic wrecked the Namibian economy, schools suffered severe budget cuts. After teachers get their well-deserved salaries there is little left for anything else. That is where the problem must be addressed.

Schools are not receiving sufficient financial support. This is in spite of the huge education allocation in the national budget. Why? Service shortfalls in schools lie at the feet of the education ministry, not the struggling parents. Address these things. Stop breaking the law by forcing parents to pay for access to public education. Call in parents for full disclosure and brainstorming for funding ideas – ASK for support based on facts, not threats. Are their in-kind services parents can offer?

Consider this: the photocopier in the school breaks down. The ministry either cannot or does not fix it in time. They let the ministry off the hook and dump the problem on the parents by saying: “Finance the repair of this machine, or else.” The ‘or else’ is usually something exclusionary happening to their kids.

Leave the definition of the meaning of ‘free education guaranteed by the constitution’ to the courts. Ministry administrators, school principals and teachers do not have this remit.

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