Swaziland: Free Primary Education, at Last

Photo: James Hall/IRIN
Rural pupils fetch water for school.

Mbabane — Free primary school education got off to a rocky start in Swaziland this week, five years after a new constitution mandated that the government foot the bill for the first few years of a child's education.

The opening week was characterised by a lack of teachers, overcrowded classrooms and confusion about the payment of school fees. "To say this week's schools opening was a disaster would be an understatement," an independent newspaper, The Times of Swaziland, said in an editorial, noting that the warning signs of unpreparedness had been apparent for months.

Prime Minister Sibusiso Dlamini acknowledged "teething problems", and said efforts were underway to build more classrooms, provide learning materials and boost staff levels. "Newly recruited teachers may not reach the number we need, but we are already in the process of recruiting more," he said.

Swaziland's High Court recently dismissed a case brought by the National Ex-Miners Workers Union, which sought court action to speed up broad government implementation of free primary school education. Justice Bheki Maphalala ruled that while the constitution required free primary education, it did not set down a timetable.

"[Government] has put into place a detailed programme on how they intend to comply with their constitutional obligation; according to that programme, the implementation of free primary education will be staggered," he said.

The roll-out of free primary education affects only grade one and two, with higher grades expected to be included in future. The union intends to appeal the ruling, but some observers credit its court action with pushing the government to abide by its constitutional obligations.

According to local media reports, hundreds of students in the capital, Mbabane, were sent home because of overcrowded classrooms, and the situation was repeated in rural and township areas. At St Marks High School in Mbabane, 350 children registered for grade one, but the classrooms can only accommodate 180 pupils.

Euphoria

Despite the overcrowding, parents were euphoric that free education was becoming a reality; in the past, parents had either chosen which sibling would benefit from education, or adopted a rotation system where their children took turns to attend school each year to avoid paying more than one lot of fees. About two-thirds of Swaziland's one million people live on US$1 or less day.

"This is liberating. For the first time, every Swazi child will have an education, this is why there are problems this week - there are so many new students - but it will work out,"

This is liberating. For the first time, every Swazi child will have an education, this is why there are problems this week - there are so many new students - but it will work out

Goodness Mavuso, a mother of three school-aged children in Manzini, the country's commercial capital, told IRIN.

However, some pupils were turned away from grades one and two because in the past they had not been able to afford school fees and were now deemed too old to start school.

For decades there have been calls for state-sponsored education. King Mswati III, sub-Saharan Africa's last absolute monarch, noted when opening parliament in 1996: "Free education is not free," and cautioned that free education would be a burden on the treasury.

"Somebody is paying for FPE [free primary school education] and now it is government, which is why we prefer referring to it as state-funded education," Minister of Finance Majozi Sithole told local media.

The introduction of free primary school education coincides with other severe pressures on the country's finances: declining revenues from the Southern African Customs Union, and a shrinking national tax base as a result of the global slow-down.

Government has sponsored tertiary education at the University of Swaziland for a privileged few in the past, but this week the education ministry announced that in future university students would pay up to 50 percent of their fees.

Poor education standards

A student march to protest the introduction of fees was dispersed by security forces in Mbabane on 28 January and the university has been closed indefinitely.

However, the issue of fees has overshadowed the quality of education. "Formal learning takes place at school, but analytical learning is discouraged because success for both individual teachers and schools is measured in terms of the numbers of examination passes," Prof Richard Rooney, former head of the Department of Journalism and Mass Communications at the University of Swaziland, said in his blog.

"This encourages rote learning in the classroom and the cramming of students to pass examinations. An education system that produces graduates learning by rote, who do not know how to intellectually challenge themselves or independently seek knowledge, cannot produce an educated populace."

[ This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations ]

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