WHILE protests and debate rage in South Africa, Namibia has declared secondary education free amid vast challenges, among them a 3 percent increase in enrolment.
The widespread #FeesMustFall protests began in South Africa last year, disrupting exams and registration as university students demanded free education as promised by the Freedom Charter and by the ruling ANC.
In neighbouring Namibia, a former South African colony under apartheid, primary education was declared free in 2012, while secondary education is free from this year.
The Namibian constitution says that all people have a right to education and that “the state shall provide reasonable facilities to render effective this right for every resident within Namibia by establishing and maintaining public schools”. It also says no child will be allowed to leave school until they have completed their primary education.
Although Namibia’s free education has come 25 years after independence, the response has been overwhelming. In 2013, the first year primary education was free, 22 000 more pupils enrolled. This figure rose to 24 659 in 2014 and it was 34 000 last year.
Education Ministry projections are that pre-primary education enrolment could have increased by 25 percent from 23 624 pupils in 2013 to 29 530 learners in 2014
“Following the implementation of fee-free education, the ministry recorded an increase of learner enrolments at primary level at schools countrywide,” Johanna Absalom, education public relations officer confirmed.
There were 31 408 pupils in |pre-primary, 461 934 in primary and 203 610 in secondary last year, while the number of teachers was 698 475.
Last year’s figures show there were 1 723 primary schools in Namibia. Primary schools have about 462 000 pupils, while secondary have 183 000 in 694 schools.
In 2013/14, the government set aside N$162 million from its N$10.7 billion budget for free primary education.
Education Minister Katrina Hanse-Himarwa said during the 2014/15 financial year, the government disbursed N$135m for free primary education “to cater for all the basic necessities”.
For the 2015/16 financial year, Hanse-Himarwa said N$238m was allocated to the free pre-primary education programme, out of a budget of N$11,3bn.
Free secondary education was allocated N$3.5bn during this financial year.
The government bought 2 million textbooks for both primary and secondary schools last year, while 806 633 textbooks were bought in 2014.
Hanse-Himarwa said although the Education Ministry got the lion’s share of the budget, much of it went into salaries and other costs, leaving only 25 percent for infrastructure development.
To cater for the surging numbers, Namibia has increased the number of tent classrooms.
This month, the government said there were plans to build more than 20 classrooms at a cost of N$7m. These should be completed by the end of March.
Although teachers’ unions in Namibia have welcomed free education, they feared that the government would not be able to provide everything needed for a quality education.
The Namibia National Teachers’ Union said the introduction of free primary education had led to overcrowded classrooms and a shortage of reading material. In some cases, the union said, books were delivered to schools very late.
The union queried the measures the government had put in place to enable a smooth flow and a clarification of the finances set aside.
The Teachers’ Union of Namibia said there was a need for new schools, especially in rural areas, where overcrowding was common.
The union also called for the recruitment of more teachers.
There were 2 227 vacant teaching posts about two years ago and Namibia had to recruit 156 teachers from the SADC region.
Hanse-Himarwa admitted to the shortage of teachers during a visit to the Zambezi region this month but she said her ministry was working on a training programme.
“There are so many unqualified and under-qualified teachers in the system. We cannot, however, dump them but need to train them and this programme is at an advanced stage,” she said.
“There is a crucial need for teachers, especially at secondary level, for mathematics and science subjects. For that, the ministry has put in place agreements to use expatriates as a solution now.”