opinionBy Irene !hoaës
Windhoek — The private cost of primary education makes up a significant part of the expenditure of most households, and the proportion increases for lower-income groups.
The 2003/4 Namibia Household Income and Expenditure Survey revealed that households dependent on remittances and grants spent 6.2 percent of their resources on education, compared to the national average of 2.7 percent.
Although the Namibian Constitution states primary education should be compulsory and provided free of charge, parents are obliged by the Education Act of 2001 to contribute to the School Development Fund (SDF). The SDF contradicts the constitutional provision of a free education for the Namibian child.
According to a 2011 Ministry of Education publication titled 'Free Primary Education in Namibia - Current Context', it is assumed that the current annual cost to an urban household for a primary school child's education would be around N$2 100 and about N$1 100 in rural areas, excluding highly variable transport and hostel costs. About a third of this amount is for SDF and stationery, while the remaining two-thirds is for uniforms, sports and extramural activities.
For example, a Namibian family with four school-going children would spend N$1 942 per month just to be on the poverty line.
The strain imposed by educational costs, especially at the beginning of the year, is immediately evident and increases for that quarter of Namibian households living below the poverty line.
Pensioners head some of these households. On the effectiveness of child welfare grants, it was revealed that 43 percent of the grant goes to school-related expenses, while only 40 percent goes to food-related items.
However, education is such an important priority that even the poorest Namibians are willing to make considerable sacrifices to keep their children in school.
Only about two percent of primary school age children (7-13) are not enrolled in school. However, the most harmful effect of the private cost of primary education has to do with its contribution to continuing inequality, and more generally the poor quality of education available to poor Namibians.
The 2001 study on SDFs found that the education ministry estimated that N$65 was needed for books per primary school learner annually, however the ministry was only able to allocate about N$40 for that purpose.
On average, urban schools were able to allocate about N$27 per learner for books from the SDF, making up the deficit, while rural schools could muster only N$8.
In addition, urban schools could afford to fund relief teachers, a measure clearly beyond the reach of almost all rural schools. In some instances teachers were obliged to pay relief teachers from their own pockets, if they have to stand in for them.
Government has set out its basic goals for education as access, equity, quality and democracy, however all, with the possible exception of democracy, are falling short of expectations, due to the high private cost of schooling. Parliament has instituted a system whereby deserving learners are exempted from paying contributions to the SDF and for schools to be compensated accordingly.
However, no adequate means of compensating schools for such exemptions has been established as yet.
The granting of exemption is viewed as a loss to the SDF, which is regarded as essential for achieving a reasonable level of education when provision by government is inadequate.
Application procedures for exemption are cumbersome, while no current data is available, hinting towards a possibility that less than five percent of learners are granted exemptions. Schools do not readily advertise that exemptions are possible, while some schools find ways not to enroll those who they think might not be able to afford their SDF contributions.