The down trending rate of Literacy in Zambia among the 15-24 years old in marked in Blue
The down trending rate of Literacy in Zambia among the 15-24 years old in marked in Blue

By Michael Chishala

About thirty years ago, the Zambian public education system was something to talk about. We had quality expatriate teachers from all over the world (eg India, West Africa, East Africa, the UK and USA) in addition to our own wonderful locally bred educators. We learned with kids from all kinds of nationalities. Whites, Indians, Chinese and even Koreans were in the public schools. Even up to the late 80s we had Indians still with us and a literacy rate of almost 70% of 15-24 year olds.

Our education system produced the highest rate of IQ in Southern Africa as measured by the Special Paper 1 and 2 in the GCSE Primary School system. When the Zambian economy began to tank in the late 80s, we exported plenty of professionals, especially teachers to Botswana and Namibia. I remember many teachers leaving us and coming back with new vehicles within a year.

So good was the Zambian public education system that we used to laugh at kids in private schools as being dull. They were considered rejects who failed to make it to the best government schools. Hillcrest and David Kaunda were the two leading Secondary schools at the time and only the crème de la crème got there. And there were also the Trust schools created by the mines which were the epitome of excellence in education standards.

Today the picture is radically different. Every parent now wants to send their kids to private schools, despite the costs being around ten times that of government schools which are now considered useless. So far has the public education system fallen that you can walk into pretty much any government school any time of the year and you are 90% guaranteed to get a place for your child.

Some public schools like Lusaka Girls had to convert from a Primary to a High school apparently because they could no longer get enough kids from the middle class Rhodes Park neighbourhood as they were all now in private schools. The only kids available to attend were from low class areas and the distance became prohibitive as transport costs have soared.

Many parents (especially in rural areas) are still failing to send their kids to public schools because even though education is free (on paper), there are plenty of other hidden costs like uniforms, reams of paper, soap, tissue, books, PTA fund, building fund, school trips, etc. They typically add up to around K500 per year which poor families with an average of 4 kids cannot afford. No wonder the literacy rate of 15-24 year olds has been steadily declining since around 1999.

Things are now at a stage where I ask myself what is the point of public schools in middle class residential areas. Why not just privatize them or turn them over to other people to manage? I think all public schools are candidates for being taken out of government hands, either ownership or management (or both).

The common argument against this is that non-government schools will increase fees and leave out the “commoners”. Considering where we are, I think anything other than the status quo would be better. It is not necessary for government to own or manage schools in order to provide free education. Many countries in the world including USA, Pakistan, Chile and many European nations use a system of “School Vouchers” which are given to families to present to any school of their choice as payment for educational services.

Parents can top up beyond the value of the voucher if they want a better deal. In essence, it is a bursaries scheme for basic education. I think this is a better system because it breeds competition among schools which in a free education market brings down prices and increases quality as managements innovate. The current public education system is not improving as teachers and school managements have no incentive to get better. They still get the same pay and conditions whereas in a competitive system like the one I describe, you go bankrupt if you are not improving.

We can already see this working fairly well in the tertiary education sector where we see the mushrooming of universities, colleges, trade schools and institutes. Some see this as a negative due to concerns about education quality but I see it as a positive because over time, bad institutions are weeded out as people vote with their feet. It is also possible to improve the accreditation process of tertiary education institutions.

I think it is time for the government of Zambia to rethink its education policy and think outside the box. Let all options be on the table and debated. Nothing is unthinkable, not even the privatization or concessioning of University of Zambia and Copperbelt University.

Chart of Literacy rate in Zambia (15-24 years old)
http://bit.ly/1KXbFaG

School Vouchers (Wikipedia)
http://bit.ly/1NVEvrW

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10 COMMENTS

    • The vast majority of kids here in the U.S. attend public schools (Grades 1 thru’ 12). Only a minority of them are in private schools during these grades. Another minority (especially from the Christian community) are homeschooled. My wife and I homeschooled our kids until 7th grade (middle school) then we sent them to public school. The system of using vouchers, to the best of my knowledge, has largely been a political issue, giving politicians some issue to campaign on during election season. All developing nations experience infrastructural challenges and Zambia is no exception as education needs a lot of that. Zambia simply needs to invest in its educational structure and infrastructure a lot. Ghana is not a rich nation but it has for decades been producing the best minds in Africa.

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  1. I think the best way is to make teachers accountable. Govt schs have in most cases better qualified and experienced tchers as compared to private schools. But the work attitude in the civil service is Gabon Nation disaster stadium.

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  2. I don’t think privatisation is the answer. Professionalising the teaching profession is the solution.

    Right now teaching is the profession of failures who couldn’t get to their dream. We need to make it hard to become a teacher so that teachers can be as proud as lawyers.

    It has been done in Finland and their education system is admired by the whole world and their numbers are outstanding. Yes you will have to pay our teachers professional wages

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  3. Otherside, my friend, the problem is with people who have been head civil servants from FTJ’s time.
    In KK’s time, there children were in the same schools as the “common man’s” child.
    Have you checked out Kaingu’s attitude towards CBU. He doesn’t care because his children are in Malaysia.
    We have good teachers (& civil servants) but its the low lifes, who by our foolishness we put into GRZ, who are demotivating the civil service.
    In KK’s time things like Kapoko were unheard of now go to GRZ schools & see how homes have been turned into chicken runs & all available space is a garden or kantemba.
    Someone will say this is initiative but why not give these teachers land (& other incentives) away from schools where they can practice their other passions in their spare time.

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  4. Good article ;the govt can also turn some primary schools into magnet schools.unfortunately not many bloggers will read this vital piece,this shows how misplaced most zambians spend their time on politicking.

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    • I love the analysis of the current state of education in Zambia. Iam a product of that system that we used to think we are the best of the best. Whenever i visit Zambia i take time to look at the infrastructure of the public schools and it an eyesore. But it can only mean only mean one thing about the leaders and those who are supposed to plough back into society as they have become selfish and only thinking about themselves. Imagine if K.K and his first cabinet had only thought about themselves and their families and not Zambians in totality, will the current crop of leaders be where they are today with the education that they have? the answer is a big NO. But it is the same in Africa where we like compromising on pertinent issues.

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  5. Well articulated article bro thumb up! Quality Education is in private schools than Govt schools. Issues at CBU are best example of poor education management. Such institutions must be placed in private hands, teachers,lecturers must be engaged on contracts with no affiliation to Unions. Non performing *****s must be fired at the end of their contracts like in private sector. America is ticking because do not embrass Trade unionism. Govt must also scruitinize degrees from open university. Lecturers at CBU should simply resign and go abroad if they can fit in instead of frustrating the students. The *****s must know that we are paying them alot of money and we want results. Parents must join in riots to demand value for money.

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