LUSAKA, ZAMBIA — Outside a classroom in Chongwe, a rural area near Lusaka, around 100 pupils queue eagerly for their morning lessons. When the teacher opens the door, the students scramble for the 15 or so desks available, nearly causing a stampede. The noise is deafening. Those who fail to secure a chair spread sacks on the floor; a few sit on stones. The teacher looks exhausted even before the lesson begins.
After Ghana in 2017 and Democratic Republic of Congo in 2019, Zambia is the latest country in Africa to abolish school fees as the region gradually moves toward free universal education. This year has been the first in which secondary school students, usually children 13 and older, will be able to attend classes completely for free. (Primary education has been free in Zambia since 2002.)
But as students and parents rejoice over the scrapping of fees, teachers say the government failed to provide the infrastructure and personnel to accompany the new policy — and that they are now left alone to withstand the spike in enrollment, which trickled down to primary schools as well.
Waiving the fees was a campaign promise of President Hakainde Hichilema, who won a landslide victory in August 2021 over incumbent Edgar Chagwa Lungu. Hichilema’s party, the United Party for National Development, also obtained a majority in Zambia’s National Assembly.
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While Zambia has high enrollment rates at the primary level, the same isn’t true for secondary. In 2018, around 36% of girls and 19% of boys ages 14 to 18 were out of school, according to the Education Statistical Bulletin of that year, which is the latest available.
Teachers say the upsurge in enrollment in 2022 has beleaguered an already frail school system. Prior to the new policy, the average pupil-teacher rate in secondary schools in Zambia was 36.9, and 61.9 in the primary level. Now, some teachers say, their classes hold more than 100 students.
“I used to teach 75 children last year in a grade six class. Now I have 102 children in the same grade,” says Mwape, a teacher at a rural school in Chongwe, who asked that only her middle name be used as she had no clearance from the Ministry of General Education to speak to the press.
“Now that education is free … anyone who enrolls has to be accepted, but again that is a challenge because we don’t have adequate classes nor desks,” says Bernard, a teacher who also requested that his full name not be used.
Aaron Chansa, the executive director of National Action for Quality Education in Zambia, a national civil society organization that advises the Ministry of General Education, says that while his organization supports universal free education, implementation has been rushed. “The government could have worked on the infrastructure and ensure that schools have enough desks,” he says. “What we are seeing now is unhealthy for learners. Learners are sitting on the floor, the teachers are overwhelmed. Hence the very essence of education is defeated.”
Minister of General Education Douglas Syakalima says that the government will sort out the challenges in the education sector. “We needed to get started and ensure our children are in school and continue funding the schools as we also recruit teachers.”
When it comes to the latter, the ministry has kept its promise: 30,400 newly recruited teachers started work Sept. 5 as the school term began, according to Permanent Secretary of Technical Services Joel Kamolo. The new batch increases the national teacher workforce by 27%.
But the pledge to build new schools seems to have fallen short. During the 2022 budget speech, Minister of Finance and National Planning Situmbeko Musokotwane said 120 new secondary schools would be built this year, which would amount to a 10% addition to Zambia’s current number of such schools, by 2018 data. President Hichilema reiterated the same promise of 120 new secondary schools on Sept. 9, at the opening of the National Assembly in Lusaka. But Chansa says not a single new school has been built.
Still, most students received the new policy gladly. Royda Daka, from Chinyunyu, a rural area east of Lusaka, was able to resume her studies this year at age 17 after dropping out in 2020 following a pregnancy. “I lost hope of returning to school after having a baby because no one was willing to pay for me,” she says. “But when I heard that education is free, I convinced my mother to take care of my baby while I am at school.”
Madalitso Manda, a domestic worker and single mother of six living in Lusaka, is full of hope for her younger children, as her two eldest, now 20 and 18, didn’t progress to secondary school because of the fees. “The only children that go to school are the young ones who are in primary,” she says. “Now that there is free education, I will ensure the other two also return to school next year.”
Prudence Phiri, GPJ Zambia
Rodgers Kapali, a farmer in Chongwe, is also joyous that his 17-year-old son was able to resume his studies this year. “My son has been home, despite making it to grade eight. I failed to take him to secondary school last year because we had no money,” he says. Asked about the quality of education and the overcrowding in classes, Kapali says he believes the government will work out a plan soon. “Every new thing has problems,” he says. “What is important is that free education has been implemented.”
Some students, though, do echo the teachers’ concerns that education quality will fall as inclusion rises.
“We are too many in class, desks are few, we have to squeeze each other on desks or sit on the floor,” says Brandina Phiri, who is in grade six, the second-to-last grade of primary level. “If you are a slow learner, it’s hard to catch up because the teacher is equally stressed from talking to a huge crowd.”
While the government has yet to come up with strategies to accommodate the new students, Mwape, the teacher, says she has devised her own plan to cope with her numerous pupils.
“I go around the class to ensure that I mark each and every one’s work from where they are seated,” she says. “That way, I begin teaching in small groups for most of them that have not understood the lesson. This also helps me monitor each and every pupil.”