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‘Lesotho’s education system now shutting out kids from poor families’

’MATIISETSO MOSALA

Sixteen-year-old Lisebo Ntamane is likely not to write her Junior Certificate (JC) exams this year because her struggling single mother cannot afford to pay school fees for the second quarter, despite having paid her exam fee.

While education is free and compulsory for pupils aged between six and 13 in Lesotho parents’ failure to pay school fees means many will not proceed to higher levels due to the high cost of school fees, exam fees and book rentals.

JC is an external examination that would allow Lisebo to transition to high school, a step closer to attaining tertiary education which in turn is a step closer for her to be able to assist her struggling mother to care for her siblings. 

Speaking to the MNN Centre for Investigative Journalism, Lisebo says she was expelled from school two weeks ago for failure to pay the second quarter school fees along with many others of her classmates.

Lisebo Ntamane

“It was on a Tuesday and we were in the English class when one of our teachers came and read out a list of names. After calling out the names, the teacher said those whose names were read out should leave school and only return when they have paid school fees. I was one of them,” Lisebo recalls.

When schools re-opened on October 6, 2020 following an indefinite closure due to the national lockdown that came into effect in March as the coronavirus spread, Lisebo says her mother tried in vain to raise M1 370.00 required for exam fees for the November 2020 exam.

Lisebo feels she is being denied the chance to learn and prepare for examinations just because she is behind on school fees.

The Lesotho Education Sector Plan of 2016 to 2026 found that fee policies contribute to lowering access and demand for secondary education among the poorest families.

In Lesotho, far more young people want to go to secondary school than those who make it, evidenced by secondary school enrolment rate at 43.3 percent, which signifies that school fees are a deterrent.

Studies have indicated that only less than 30 percent of students in the country can afford the fees for secondary and high school.

This has left access to secondary education skewed towards urbanites and higher income groups while rural dwellers and the poor continue to lag behind.

As a result, a number of learners have dropped out of school after primary school.

Thandekile Makeka who lives at White City goes to Qacha’s Nek High School where she is doing Grade 11. She says she is originally from a small village of Harapase in the Qacha’s Nek district where there is no high school.

Unlike many others, Makeka considers herself very fortunate to have family in White City, a village closer to the district’s town which afforded her an opportunity to study further.

“Education is not taken seriously, especially in the rural areas where some children have no access to it. I would have been one of these children if my uncle had not moved to White City,” Thandekile shares, criticising the government for being silent on children’s right to education in rural areas.

While access to education remains a challenge, Thandekile believes fee policies also contribute largely to lowering demand for education, more so for children from poor families.

According to her, some parents find school fees, exam fees, and book rental fees too expensive and education is even more costly for those who have to stay in boarding schools because there are no secondary or high schools in their areas.

“Free primary education enabled children to access education without hindrance as it covered learning resources such as books, stationery, equipment and also provides feeding schemes”, Makeka explains.

However, she believes in as much as introducing free education to secondary and high schools would help greatly in ensuring children stay in school, it would make parents lazy as they would not be contributing anything towards their kids’ education.

For 17-year-old Tlelepe Tsoako, a Grade 12 learner from Ha Thifa, exam fees add on to the already heavy financial load parents carry in order to educate their children.

“More often than not parents try their utmost to come up with school fees money and keep up but exam fees usually sets them back as it is paid after the first quarter of school which is the most expensive as it is inclusive of registration, book fees and uniforms,” Tsoako states.

He believes the Ministry of Education should work on extending free education to secondary and high school as failure to do so will widen the inequality between the rich and the poor.

Tsoako says: “Some parents truly struggle to pay fees and if they are not assisted some children will be denied the right to education just because they can’t afford fees”.

In most cases, children are unable to either stay in school or complete their education because they are often suspended for failure to pay school fees, which is usually the end for them since the government does not issue out bursaries in the middle of the year.

Thandekile and Tsoako both agree that the high number of dropouts and low completion rate amongst their peers is also due to teenage pregnancy which often leads to child marriage which has been on the rise in recent years.

Furthermore, Tsoako says some parents are negligent and play a passive role in their children’s lives, citing it is in very rare cases where children would not want to go to school.

A principal at Patlong High School, ’Mamakhoathi Teke, explains to the MNN Centre that many of the parents in rural areas are unemployed and live on agriculture.

In the Patlong area in particular, Teke says the majority of parents live in South Africa where they work as domestic workers on farms and in other informal businesses.

At the reopening of schools, only one student out of 110 students was able to pay school fees, with two more paying in the weeks that followed.

“School fees are a hindrance to children’s education; we really do feel for parents. I was speaking with one parent who is still in South Africa who told me she has lost her job. Her son is back in school but with neither the school fees nor the exam fee”, Teke adds.

During this COVID-19 period, Teke wishes the government could subsidise school fees for struggling parents to ensure students that have to write external exams do so.

Patlong High School is one of the few high schools that accept school fees payment in kind, that is, in grains and staple food products such as maize, maize meal, beans and peas.

“Since we have a feeding scheme, we have made provision that instead of buying grains or staple food from some farmers. We take whatever the parents have and convert that into school fees to try and meet them half-way,” reveals Teke.

Fees have become such a limitation at Patlong High School that the school governing body had to come up with creative ways to ensure children do not stay out of school.

Grades between 8 and 11 are mostly when most children dropout according to Teke who adds that out of the over 100 students she had in Grade 11, only 50 are certain to sit for exams.

Teke observes Lesotho’s Constitution states that primary education will be free while secondary education will be at least accessible to all therefore every child is expected to attain secondary education.

In order to ensure parents retain a certain responsibility and play an active motivating role in their children’s lives, a subvention needs to be introduced despite the government’s constrained budget, she suggests.

High school fees were rationalized in 2012 in all public schools to deal with the uncoordinated manner schools were charging fees.

’Mamphono Khaketla, Minister of Education and Training at the time, said the approved charges would include boarding, feeding, and Junior Certificate book rental fees but exclude Cambridge Overseas School Certificate (COSC) book fees.

The fee structure, however, was met with dissatisfaction by many schools who argued it was prohibitive which would result in reduced access to secondary and high school for some children.

The maximum fees in government day schools should be M900 a year while technical government day schools should charge a maximum of M1 000 per annum.

The maximum fees in public day schools has been set at M1 200 per annum, while the technical day schools will charge M1 300 a year.

Other theoretical boarding government schools will be expected to charge M2 300 while fees for technical boarding government schools should be set at M2 400 per annum.

Khaketla said at the time combined day schools which have been charging M500 per annum should increase their fees to M650 per annum, while combined boarding schools should charge M2 000 per annum.

“The rationalization of fees held back many schools’ development because the fees we charged before they were aligned to individual schools’ needs.

“The manner in which it was hurriedly and prematurely introduced did not consider the rural and urban areas of the country and the differing access to resources,” Teke said.

Teke argues the education system is not balanced, explaining that free primary education facilitated for all to go to school free of charge regardless of age. She adds, the small government sponsorships that are available for underprivileged children deny 18-year-old children or older the opportunity to progress to high school. 

For many children, access to education remains a challenge due to school fees that are too costly for parents hard-hit by poverty. As long as there is no equitable education, quality education will remain compromised as evident in results from different schools over the years.

“The majority of top performers in external exams are mostly and usually from urban areas, with those from the rural areas lagging behind.

“Our education system is still lacking because it rightly starts at pre-school level but for the majority of the rural areas there is no access to these schools because there are very few of them.

“Even these few present are operating from a backroom or under the tree. Children from the area are exposed to other learning tools, technology and opportunities much later in their lives unlike those in urban areas,” Teke states.

While children in urban areas not only rely on classroom education but often have access to affordable data bundles or unlimited WI-FI, Teke says many of the children at her school do not have smartphones and the that have them cannot afford to buy data.

Most of the pupils always approach her and say: “Madam this topic is very interesting and I wish I could Google and read further but I do not have data”.

The inequality gap is further worsened by the unequal footing children from the rural and urban areas.

At Makhaola High School, 71 pupils enrolled for the Grade 11 in January, but only 62 returned in October when schools re-opened after the national covid-19 lockdown.

The principal told MNN Centre that of the nine who did not return, five are financially strapped hence they did not return while the remainder said they were not ready for exams following the long break from school.

“In Grade 12 we had 92 at the beginning of the year but 76 returned. Of those who did not go back to school six have financial challenges, three got married and the rest are unaccounted for as we could not get hold of them,” the principal states.

The exam fees for students doing 8 subjects is M2 035 and M1 845 for 7 subjects, excluding Biology for Grade 12 pupils. 

Qacha’s Nek High School principal, Thabang Phamotse, attested that school fees contribute immensely to high dropouts, low progression and completion as well and low access and demand to education.

While parents often raise the school fees money, he says, many cannot then afford exam fees or vice versa.

The MNN Centre learnt from Phamotse that in the Qacha’s Nek area, children travel long distances to get to school such that some go to school once a week just to get notes and assignments so that they are not left too far behind with school work. Often many end up dropping out.

“There is inequality in terms of access because our district especially is geographically remote making it hard to get to schools unlike in large cities where planning is significantly better,” he says.

In Mokhotlong, the rate of dropouts increases yearly, with the Lesotho Highlands Development Authority (LHDA)’s 2019 health impact assessment stating that Mokhotlong district has a high rate of school dropouts which has led to early child marriages.

Schools of high educational standard at primary, secondary and high school level are available throughout the country, with Maseru boasting several well-established international schools.

’Mantamane Ntamane, a widowed 50-year-old mother of four who pays school fees for three of them concedes she is extremely overwhelmed.

While one is still in primary school and another in form A (grade 8), she had to hustle for the exam fee money despite being out of work.

“I am a single mother, my husband with whom I used to share responsibilities, died years back. I have three children who are in school, who I have to feed and clothe”, ’Mantamane says.

’Mantamane makes a living through the schools’ feeding scheme which she contested for, but due to the Covid-19 pandemic and closure of schools it has not been easy to make ends meet.

Rapelang Makume, a 15-year-old boy, was last in school in 2018. He had just started secondary school doing Form A (Grade 8). He says his parents passed on when he was still very young and has since been in the care of his sisters.

Unfortunately, things got so hard for his sisters that they could no longer afford to pay his school fees so he dropped out.

“I have been at home, doing nothing all day, waiting for my friends to get back home from school so that we play,” Rapelang says fighting back tears.

Since the family does not have livestock he does not have anything to keep him busy at home. Rapelang says he just wants his life to “pick-up” and not be the way it is insinuating he wants to go back to school.

’Masekonyela Motšetše, a young mother told MNN Centre she is going to pay school fees for her son now in Form B well aware that he is going to fail and will have to repeat the grade next year meaning she has to fork out more school fees.

“My struggles date way back but this year has been the hardest and most unfair of them all.

“I know he is a slow learner and this year he has only been in school four months so it is unlikely that he will proceed to the next grade,” states Motšetše.

However, for Motšetše, not paying school fees to send her kids back to school for the remainder of the school year would be failing them considering they have already been involuntarily out of school for months.

Motšetše who was retrenched by one of the factories in Maseru shares the same struggles with many other parents who are failing to keep up with the high costs associated with sending children to school.

Lesotho Association of Teachers (LAT)’s Secretary General Letsatsi Ntsibolane said as a member of the International Labour Organization and Education International, the Union plays a pivotal role in ensuring the Ministry of Education and Training fully implements all UN agencies conventions and policies on provision of education for all.

Ntsibolane states there is sufficient evidence from studies that show inequalities in accessing education between urban and rural learners as well as between the rich and the poor.

According to the Lesotho Ministry of Health study of 2016, he says, access to secondary education continues to be more accessible in urban areas and higher income groups, while rural areas continue to suffer disproportionately.

The union welcomes free primary education for ensuring access to education for all, however the manner in which it is handled leaves much to be desired, he states.

LAT deems it pointless to have free primary education when secondary education remains expensive resulting in high drop-out rates.

In LAT’s view there is a lot of wastage when too many learners cannot make it to secondary education, not to mention tertiary education.

“Despite efforts to facilitate access to education through free primary education, secondary education continues to be expensive for lower income households.

“The World Bank Report (2019) reveals that for 100 students who complete their primary education, only 36 complete their secondary education and five complete their tertiary education,” Ntsibolane says.

In Mafeteng, a group of 20 parents and guardians wrote to the Minister of Education and Training on July 1st 2020 pleading with authorities to make sure their children would not be excluded from school over non-payment of fees.

They explained how it has been extremely difficult to pay school fees and make ends meet at the same time.

The outbreak of the novel Coronavirus pandemic has brought to the forefront challenges parents are going through in trying to get their children educated. They say however that even before coronavirus hit, they were already struggling to make ends meet due to pre-existing shocks and crises. This means they were already struggling to pay our children’s school fees.

Many relied solely on remittances sent by their children who work in South Africa, majority of which worked in the informal sector – often outdoors. Due to these factors, they could find themselves forced to abandon our livelihoods and may have to sell their cattle and planting and sowing equipment.

“Once we do that, getting to be self-reliant again will become extremely difficult. We know that as parents and guardians it is our responsibility to make sure the fees are paid, but it is overwhelmingly hefty” their letter states.

The group further tasked the Minister to consider expanding secondary education and make it universal by abolishing school fees starting from next year, 2021.

On August 28, 2020, the same parents and guardians wrote to the Prime Minister Dr Moeketsi Majoro, this time with a momentum of 100 signatories and more supporters.

Member of Parliament and Chairperson of the National Assembly Portfolio Committee on Social Cluster concerned with education, Fako Moshoeshoe, claims he is not aware of the letter by the parents. He insists the right protocol for the parents would have been to address the letter to his committee for assistance on the matter.

According to him, however, parents and guardians ought to not lose responsibility of educating and taking care of their children, citing that the government played a huge rule in ensuring children stay in school through free primary.

Minister of Education and Training, Ntlhoi Motsamai, could neither grant this reporter an interview nor respond to questions sent to her.

However, the ministry blames government’s dire financial position for failure to implement free education in secondary and high schools – twenty years later.

Speaking to the MNN Centre the Chief Information Officer in the ministry, Molikuoa ’Mota, said from consultations with policy makers within the ministry it has emerged that Lesotho’s economy cannot sustain such a commitment that contemplates the abolishing of school fees at secondary and high school levels.

The Centre learned that the government is already overwhelmed with free primary education as a result of lean budget allocations to the education ministry, owing to, among others, successive bloated government wage bills and teachers’ salaries.

’Mota admitted that the ministry is aware of the high rate of dropouts in secondary and high schools across the country, but said the ministry cannot conclude that fee policies are a predominant factor.

“Development partners such as the World Bank Lesotho and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) Lesotho have been working closely with the ministry to assist where the ministry falls short. There is a consideration of a comprehensive case study to determine factors leading to high dropouts,” ’Mota stated.

This story was supported by Media Monitoring Africa (MMA) as part of the 2020 Isu Elihle Awards.

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