26 April 2013

Namibia: Universal Primary Education and Barriers to Learning


THE government of the Republic of Namibia, through the Ministry of Education, implemented Universal Primary Education in January 2013. This is one of the Millennium Development Goals countries that are United Nations member states, including Namibia, have promised to deliver by 2015.

Universal Primary Education entails that children can attend primary school without being compelled to pay any school related fees. This provision thus relieves parents and communities who would normally not be able to afford school fees from the financial barrier to education. Given the correlation between poverty and low literacy rates, this is obviously a commendable achievement for Namibia. Universal primary school is also a good step towards inclusive education since it promotes access to education by all and not by a select few who can afford it.

At independence, the right to education was among the first to be pronounced by citizens and was encompassed in the Constitution (Article 20), and Universal Primary Education, which makes it possible for children from communities affected by poverty to not be excluded from primary education, which our government promised to offer to all children within Namibia, is one vehicle towards achieving maximum childhood literacy and numeracy.

The universal primary school proclamation has the main intention to promote access to quality education. It presupposes that parents who have financial difficulties will still be able to have their children attend school, while those without such difficulties can still contribute financially to enhance the quality of education rendered by schools. The current situation is that many parents in the society have interpreted Universal Primary Education as Free Primary Education, with the emphasis on 'free' thus leaving the burden of provision of primary education solely to the State, even in the many cases where parents and caregivers are able to make significant contributions to the enhancement of the quality of education delivery.

As a democratic State, it could be advisable to devise tools through which we, at various stages, can take stock of the impacts of Universal Primary Education on access to education and develop various interventions to enrich primary education in a holistic fashion. It is my personal opinion that if we continue with the current trend without reflection and re-designing, it will increase access, but compromise other variables, among others quality, equity and achievement.

I am almost sure that many parents and caregivers have not started saving money for secondary education, while primary education is subsidized 100 percent by the State. This could be because of other basic needs including food and health provision that now take priority in family budgets.

Having attended to the finances as one barrier to education, I would like to shift your attention to various other barriers to learning existing in our education system and communities. One provision of the Namibian Constitution is that education is an entitlement of all citizens (Article 20). Education remains a fundamental right to which every citizen within the borders of Namibia is entitled, at all costs, irrespective of their gender, socio-economic, physical, intellectual or other backgrounds. This culminates in the concept of inclusive education in which states and communities should remove all barriers rendering this constitutional provision null and void for children in certain pockets of our society.

Being a democracy that should uphold democratic and inclusive values and having put our signatures to various national, regional, local, SADC, continental and international policies, policy guidelines and protocols, we cannot afford to have a high number of children excluded from quality education. Currently, a worrisome number of our children experience barriers to learning that cause them to be excluded from education.

We have these good policies but barriers continue to push children out of the system. I challenge every responsible citizen of this republic to come out of their office or home between 08h00 and 12h00 on an ordinary school day. I promise you that you will see children of school-going age, including those who should be attending primary schools, in towns and villages. Some are going about their household chores; others are selling airtime, sweets, eggs, vetkoek, name it, and others are allocating parking to citizens. Why are they not in school? This means that in one way or another, they could not access or could not remain in school!

As a matter of fact, there are many barriers to school attendance and performance in the Namibian education system. So, who created these barriers and whose responsibility is it to remove them?

Exclusion from education assumes many forms. Many children are either excluded from education in the sense that they do not have access to educational settings (not in the school yard). In this category will be children living and being on the streets, children affected by abject poverty and the psycho-social impacts that accompanies it such as those living in informal settlements with poor support from their families and communities and the many children with disabilities and special needs, some of whom could only secure a place on the waiting list of a special school or are excluded.

Then you have children who attend school but do not gain significantly from their presence in school - some cannot read or write; some are made to feel that they do not belong, because they are different in one or other way; children of ethnic minority families; children with special needs; children with learning or emotional difficulties among others; children heading households or are involved in running families to the extent that the dual roles interfere with one another (in classes but do not benefit maximally from educational programmes) or those receiving a substandard education due to poor educational resources and teaching methods that are incongruent with learners' needs and realities and the education system's lack of acknowledgement of learners' and teachers' differentiated learning and teaching styles.

Many of our educational institutions are characterized by adversarial conditions. Frustrated teachers bring to the table a lot of negativity, which is projected onto the learners. They sometimes bully learners from poor socio-economic backgrounds or allow them to be bullied by others. These learners are at their own mercy and they fight (defend themselves) or flee (drop out). Learners with special needs or those with disabilities are given derogatory labels instead of receiving psychosocial and cognitive support.

In some schools, corporal punishment and other forms of violence continue unabated in schools, despite its abolishment. Many teachers will attest to the fact that, even if schools do not want to administer corporal punishment, parents and caregivers bring children to school demanding that the principal beat them. This demonstrates that communities and schools have failed to apply alternatives to corporal punishment to instill values and address the challenges of instilling discipline. No wonder we have a violent society in which a woman or child dies every week at the hands of another stronger individual.

If we inculcate the belief that problems are best solved by violence, how do we intend to reverse this in adulthood? The teacher education curriculum is quadri-fold since it addresses academic knowledge and theories, skills, principles and values. However, when you visit schools, you will be surprised at the disconnection between the teacher-education curriculum referred to above, and the actual elements of school and classroom practices which in most cases are totally against the principles of caring, inclusion, love and integrity.

The language used in classes, the atmosphere and the human relations in those schools are so hostile and horizontal in many respects. And in such settings, children do not experience a sense of belonging, they don't look forward to school and if they cannot take it anymore, they leave or under-perform. Surely teachers have informed understandings of pedagogical connections between emotional and physical wellbeing and academic achievement. Why they find it difficult to apply in learning contexts remains to be investigated through action research.

Poverty, unemployment and other major factors have impacts on learners that could make them difficult to love and teach. Yet, teachers should possess skills to manage learners and make them perceive schools as safe spaces. While a significant number of schools in our country will fit the characteristics I sketched above, there are many schools that are quite the opposite. They are spaces of safety and love; they do not apply corporal punishment; they are high- performing schools; their teachers are highly motivated and self-driven and every child would strive to be associated with them. Perhaps it is time to learn from them.

How do they manage to do what they do? Are they not affected by poverty, unemployment and HIV and AIDS? How differently do they implement Universal Primary Education and how do they maintain high standards? If we want to rise to the challenges of this emerging global world, we might need to review our current practices and actions in order to prepare a future for our nation that is conversant with the principles of human dignity that we uphold and recite in our national documents. Education for All being one such principle, we stand at a point of self-introspection and reflection about our individual and group contributions to this ideal. The message that should resonate among all of us is that we should use international protocols to instill meanings to our local realities and cultures.

- Dr Cynthy K. Haihambo Ya-Otto is the Head of Department: Department of Educational Psychology and Inclusive Education in the Faculty of Education, University of Namibia.

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