THOUSANDS of pupils countrywide failed to attend school when classes resumed on Tuesday after being turned away for non-payment of school fees, particularly those in private and boarding institutions.
Candid Comment,Faith zaba
Parents were this week frantically trying to get cash, which is currently in short supply, resulting in long bank queues and reduced daily withdrawal limits of an average US$200 to pay the fees. Most schools were demanding fees to be paid in full before admission. Efforts by parents to pay at least half or three-quarters of the total were spurned by some insensitive school heads and administrators.
This is just callous. Schools must understand the environment in the country, where over 90% of the employable population is jobless and industry is operating at 34,3% capacity utilisation. This has resulted in those employed not getting paid regularly, while others are getting half salaries or in some cases have not received anything at all for months.
With the acute cash crisis, the informal sector, from which the majority of people earn their livelihood, is the most affected.
While it is understandable that parents should pay up before admission, it is unrealistic to expect them in this environment to have piles of cash to pay school fees in full before the new term. The reality of the matter is that schools are better off liaising with parents to come up with payment plans.
It is completely unreasonable to insist on the full payment of school fees under this economic environment.
There is therefore need for an understanding from both the parents and the schools administrators. While the parents should understand the schools’ position that they need cash to buy food for borders, teaching material, pay salaries to teachers under its school development committees and for the general administration of the school, the school heads should also appreciate the harsh economic environment and be flexible. Already some of the schools are charging extortionately high fees, which range between US$10 500 and US$18 000 a year for boarders. This combined with the schools’ demands that levies must be paid in full before admission is just unreasonable.
Those who run schools must not pretend that they do not know what is happening in the country. This discriminatory attitude that if one cannot pay full amounts of school fees on time, he/she should transfer the child to an inferior school is clear madness. We must all remember that education is a fundamental right. By refusing to admit, the schools are not just punishing the parent but also the child. What parents experienced in the past week was also a rude awakening to them. Parents should use the available structures, like the annual general meetings, to express their views on these issues.
While it is important to note that parents need to send their kids to schools they can afford, this should not be used to maintain an apartheid-like system where those with money defined by class and sometimes race, should create islands for their kids. There must be a system that allows equal opportunity for all. If anything, what the economic situation calls is for schools to reduce the fees and come down to earth. Government should be taking concrete action on such matters instead of shouting the loudest on useless issues like the National Pledge.
School administrators must think like educated people, not village bumpkins.