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To ban or not ban user fees in primary schools

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Chikondi Chimala

Barely a month before Standard 8 learners sit for Primary School Leaving Certificate of Education (PSLCE) examinations, there are fears that a government-enforced ban on user fees that parents used to pay may negatively affect the learners’ performance.

On January 27, 2022, government announced a ban on several user fees that primary schools were charging learners.

According to the memo, which was directed to, among others, Chief Education Officers, District Education Managers and all primary school head teachers, government said some schools were charging exorbitant fees, denying some learners an opportunity to sit for tests when they failed to pay.

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However, several school committees have expressed worry over the ban, arguing that while some schools were abusing the money contributed by parents, to a large extent the money was serving to the benefit of the learners.

Speaking to Malawi News during the week, Robertson Saizi who is secretary for Luchenza Zone in Thyolo District which looks after 12 primary schools, said they witnessed improvement in the performance of learners after the introduction of the user fees.

“We are not disputing that there was abuse elsewhere. Probably, the ministry also has evidence on such cases. But our problem is providing a solution that disadvantages the learner. We are of the view that they should have come up with ways that would have handled the abuse but still let the arrangement go on because largely it helped the learners,” he said.

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Saizi said before the introduction of user fees, the pass rate was low in some schools in the zone as compared to years after the introduction of the fees.

He said, among other uses, they were spending the fees on printing test papers, a departure from having questions written on blackboards.

He said this was exposing the learners to real-exam environment and led to improvement in pass rates.

“In 2019 only 36 learners were selected to various secondary schools. In 2020 when we first introduced the fees the figure rose to 54 and second-year which is last year the number rose further to 77, so you can see the trend. Exposing the learners to a real exam environment was helping,” he said.

Steve Shara, an education policy analyst, said while the ministry was attempting to address a problem, it has ended up creating a new one.

“The ministry has adopted an approach for policy decisions to be informed by evidence. This issue is a good test for that approach. There was evidence that schools were charging fees, calling them school fund or school development fund. This was because since the introduction of free primary education, the government has never managed to fully fund schools. So, schools have had no choice but to request parents and guardians to fill the gap,” he said.

Shara further observed that there have been no coordinated policy guidelines on how to collect these funds, nor on how to utilise them.

“The elephant in the room however is about our economy as a country. The National Education Sector Investment Plan (NESIP) 2020-2030 projected that for 2022-2023 the education sector would need a budget of K1 trillion. The 2022-2023 budget has allocated K462 billion, which is not even half of what the sector needed,” he said.

Teachers Union of Malawi (Tum) Secretary-General Charles Kumchenga said the user fees were not all bad as they covered a certain financial gap that government was failing to meet.

“The approach should have been not to completely ban it,” he said.

Ministry of Education spokesperson Chikondi Chimala insisted that the ministry is sure that with all the funding that schools receive, all needs should be adequately covered, including printing of test papers.

“In fact, many school zones have heavy-duty printers that they use for such exercises in addition to funding they receive for use on their needs.

“You might also wish to note that through the Malawi Education Reform Programme (MERP), the Ministry has revised upwards the Primary School Improvement Grant (PSIG) from a minimum grant amount of K600,000 to K800,000 which will be disbursed based on enrolment. The ministry has committed to disburse these grants within the first two months of the academic calendar,” he said.

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