The decision to more than double the number of Zimbabwean schoolchildren whose fees will be paid through BEAM, the Basic Education Assistance Module, with the budget in turn doubled to $4 billion shows the determination by the Government to make theoretical rights a practical programme.
BEAM was widened this year to include school uniforms and basic stationery along with the tuition fees, again ensuring the child being helped could attend school and do the work, the practical nitty-gritty.
The 1,5 million children whose fees will be covered by BEAM next year comprise around one third of all schoolchildren, and this is the likely percentage of families in such serious poverty that they cannot afford school fees. A lot of families go through a lot of effort and make many sacrifices to ensure children do go to school, but evidence from dropout rates and the like shows that some fail, hence BEAM.
The extension of BEAM also moves Zimbabwe to the point where tuition fees will not be charged in public sector schools, an avowed target. But regardless of whether fees remain for those who can pay, the fact is that we are now at the point where no child has to leave school because of poverty of family, which has the same practical result as fee tuition, and the schools are not denied the fees money they need to provide a reasonable standard of education.
There is still the question of levies at many Government schools. While these have to be approved by a majority of parents attending a special meeting, disparities in income can mean a minority are hit seriously.
When levies were introduced in the early 1980s as an extra source of income for schools during the huge post-independence expansion of education, safeguards were introduced along with the permission for go-ahead communities to offer the highest quality possible of education. One safeguard was for the school development association to have some sort of system to lower the levy paid by a particular parent in a case of extreme and obvious need.
One school in Harare’s northern suburbs put in such a good system that the then Minister of Education thought it should become the standard. The committee of that SDA carefully worked out a levy that it thought at least three quarters of parents could pay, and then had this passed by the majority at the required meeting.
Parents who could not pay, and that particular school had the children of domestic workers as well as the children of householders, would make a confidential application to the committee and bring the necessary documents to a private meeting with a small sub-committee. The SDA never let a parent off entirely, but would cut the levy by up to 90 percent in extreme circumstances, the concept being every parent had to be a participant in the school and pay at least something. Parents outside the zone had to pay the whole sum.
Most interestingly the head, and the rest of the parents, never found out how much each parent had paid. The total was allocated to the school, the accounts were audited, but it was impossible to divide the children into groups based on parental income or lack of such income. Something similar is probably now needed again.
The reasoning behind BEAM obviously starts with the right of every child to education, and the need to have systems in place that convert that right to a practical possibility.
But there are also other benefits. One of the simplest and most effective ways of breaking cycles of poverty in communities is to send all children to school. It is not guaranteed in each case, and you still get poor people whose parents were poor, but it works sufficiently often as to be a good investment. An uneducated adult is likely to be a permanent aid recipient, and is unlikely to meet their potential to earn an income and become a taxpayer instead.
One who has been through school at least has the basic skills to move forward, either in further formal education or through self-study, experience and formal or informal apprenticeship.
Both human rights of individuals and the national prosperity of the country need zero gates on the road to education. The needs of students for tertiary education, which tends to be more expensive, must also be considered.
There are a number of schemes to get students from poorer families into tertiary education so they can fulfil their full potential, but we need to be aware that some might fall by the wayside and be continually on the lookout for where needs are not being met. To an extent loan programmes and bonding systems can move a lot of students through colleges and universities, since here the students can pay back, either in money or work, after graduation. But the important point is that we do not leave anyone out.
The sort of A Levels needed to get into some universities are so high that you can have a child, who 20 years ago would have been among the top of the class, missing out because they are a point or two short of the effective minimum. We have to be ever alert to the need that everyone gets the opportunities they need, in practical form, to move ahead as far as they are able and become productive and innovative members of their communities and the nation.