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It’s 7 o’clock in the morning. Eight-year-olds Irene and James are on their way to school. Clad in blue and black uniforms, the standard 2 pupils walk towards Ndirande Primary School in Blantyre while reciting the alphabet.
But two of their friends have been absent because their mother, the only parent living at home, can’t afford the yearly fee to the school.
Their mother Juliana Chisesere is worried for their future.
“It’s sad," she said, "that children are being sent back due [to failure to pay] fees from schools that are meant to be free. How can they say that the primary education is free while we are forced to pay? I am failing to pay for the children because I don’t have the money at the moment.”
Some schools say parents do have the money to pay and schools use various tactics to force payments – such as suspending students for other reasons.
Chekaukutu Ndege, a former deputy headmaster for Bisa primary school in the southern district of Machinga, explains.
“It happens that most of the parents take advantage [of the situation]," he asserted. "If the students are being allowed to go into class without paying the fees, they see no reason to pay. But whenever we [kick out] the pupils, the parents are forced to pay that little amount of money.”
Juliana Chisesere and the parents of other suspended students are pushing for an end to the fees.
Energizing their effort is a recent survey by the local Evergreen Center for Development. The study, conducted in the northern city of Mzuzu, shows that about 500 pupils from six primary schools there missed final examinations because their parents had not paid their dues.
Charles Kajoloweka, the coordinator of the study, said, “The concern is that we are having so many students in primary schools who are denied their right to education that is supposed to be free because of these charges by the schools on primary education.”
The study also shows the money collected is used to pay for water and electricity bills, security guards and for printing examinations.
Kajoloweka said in his opinion, the government should be able to pay for everything. He says its allotting sufficient money to education, but funds are not being used wisely.
“We have also [heard] that these schools are [charging fees] because of underfunding from the government," he said, "But surprisingly we’ve observed that the Ministry of Education is [receiving the] lion’s share of the national budget. So our recommendation was that we need financial prudence in managing the allocation of funds in the Ministry of Education, which seems not to be the case as of now.”
The Evergreen Center’s study has attracted the attention of an umbrella body of educational organizations, the Civil Society Coalition for Quality Basic Education.
Its executive director, Benedicto Kondowe, said unless the system changes, it will be hard for Malawi to achieve the UN Millennium Development Goals. They call for universal primary education by 2015.
A call for action
“This issue is not new to the government," said Kondowe. "Many stake holders have spoken against it and the authorities seem to [turn] a deaf ear. We want the president to issue a directive that schools should not force learners to pay into a development fund. Leaders should realize they cannot continue to frustrate learners any more. They need to be in class and the issue of development fund should cease [immediately].”
A spokesperson for the Ministry of Education, Lindiwe Chide, told a local daily newspaper The Nation that all primary schools in Malawi contribute to school maintenance, and that the government would not abolish the fee. But Chide said it is not right for the pupils to be sent home for failing to pay the fund, adding that it’s the role of the Parent-Teacher Association to find ways to make up the difference if some pupils fail to pay. She promised her ministry will look into allegations that some schools are penalizing students who do not pay their share.
Meanwhile, Charles Kajoloweka of Evergreen Center for Development, is advising the students and communities to defend the rights of the primary school pupils to a free education.
United Nations statistics show that three million children are enrolled in primary education, or about 90% of those eligible. But development specialists say indirect fees for uniforms and schooling are among the reasons why some students do not go to school.