I am mentioning these statements because there are those among us who argue that the recent announcement by the Ministry of Education (MoE) that pre-primary and primary education will be free of charge, is too little too late. The reasoning goes along the lines that free primary education is enshrined in the Namibian constitution, which has been around for close to 23 years now, so why should we applaud people who have been owing us this basic right for more than two decades?
Well, well, how does one argue against that? My point of departure is that we are all entitled to our opinions, which may or may not be right. This piece will look at this major development by the MoE in the light of the opening paragraph above.
Let me refresh our minds about what the constitution says regarding education, so allow me to quote part of Article 20 which deals with education:
“Article 20 - Education
(1) All persons shall have the right to education.
(2) Primary education shall be compulsory and the State shall provide reasonable facilities to render effective this right for every resident within Namibia, by establishing and maintaining State schools at which primary education will be provided free of charge.
(3) Children shall not be allowed to leave school until they have completed their primary education or have attained the age of sixteen (16) years, whichever is the sooner, save in so far as this may be authorised by Act of Parliament on grounds of health or other considerations pertaining to the public interest.”
There you have it, dear readers; the constitution is as clear as the Namibian sunlight that primary education has to be compulsory and free of charge. So, why has it taken this long to implement it? Has the Namibian government been violating its own constitution for 23 years? As one opposition leader mentioned, can Namibians claim from government the money they have so far spent on primary education? Interesting.
I guess that Government and the MoE will speak for themselves, but my little knowledge is that the momentum for introducing free education came from the national education conference that took place in 2011. One of the resolutions was to implement the constitutional provision of free primary education. The Minister of Education, Abraham Iyambo, further stated that free education was in line with the UNESCO Education for All (EFA) initiative.
In 2000, 164 governments met in Dakar at the World Education Forum and pledged to achieve EFA, resulting in the Dakar Framework for Action. Six goals were identified to be met by 2015, and amongst these goals, Goal 2 stated: “Ensuring that by 2015 all children, particularly girls, children in difficult circumstances and those belonging to ethnic minorities, have access to, and complete, free and compulsory primary education of good quality.”
Furthermore, Iyambo made reference to the Millennium Development Goals (MDG’s), which has 8 goals, with the second one being to “Achieve universal primary education”, which means that governments must “ensure that by 2015, children everywhere, boys and girls alike will be able to complete a full course of primary schooling.”
It therefore seems that is an international movement for compulsory and free education; in fact, can education be compulsory without being free? Now that the decision has been taken to provide free primary education in Namibia, there must be concerted efforts to ensure that this noble cause does not backfire or boomerang. It is a very costly exercise because it is not just about abolishing school fees, but there must also be free provision of stationery, textbooks, science and ICT laboratories, etc.
The burning question really is: where does “free” start and end? Does it mean that, ultimately, hostel accommodation should also be provided free of charge? What about transport to and from school as in some countries? Needless to say, free education covers a wide area and it should be clearly defined so that we are all on the same page.
I do not have exact numbers, but from some of the media reports, it appears that there are close to 500 000 pupils in the grades from 0 to 7. This is almost equal to a quarter (25%) of the entire Namibian population. It was also reported that Government has budgeted N$50million for this exercise during this current financial year, which translates to about approximately N$ 100.00 per pupil. Is this enough?
It will be interesting to determine the actual cost of education per learner in order to calculate the exact cost of free education. It is a known fact that pupils in public schools did not pay for the salaries of the teachers; therefore, this cost remains the same.
Let us assume for argument’s sake that the additional costs per pupil per annum will be as follows: stationery N$ 2,000.00, textbooks N$ 2,000.00, maintenance N$ 3,000.00, and sundry items amounting to N$ 3,000.00. These add up to N$ 10,000.00 per pupil per annum, and for 500 000 pupils, this amounts to a whopping N$5 billion every year!
This is an interesting topic, and I advise my educationist colleagues to venture into this type of research. We need numbers to determine what exactly is covered by free education, so we can establish what Government can afford in the long run. We need to know what we are in for; remember what Millie Jackson sings in her song “All the way lover”? She says: “Don’t start something you cannot finish”.
Once free education gets going with primary schools, there will be a demand for it to continue to secondary and tertiary education as well. Can you reasonably expect to charge a pupil at high school when that pupil has gone through primary school for free? It is like a domino effect, or a chain reaction.
Whatever the ramifications, I am proud to say that in Namibia we now have free primary education at last.