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Clamping down on primary school fees in Swaziland

Clamping down on primary school fees in Swaziland

Over one in ten children in Swaziland drop out of education before the final grade of primary school. This means there are more than 50,000 out-of-school children in the country (UNESCO data 2010).

The Swazi government would like to improve this situation by making sure there are no costs to families for primary school education.

The ‘Free Primary Education Programme’ was introduced in Swaziland in 2009.  But despite its introduction, many schools still charge top-up fees. This cost can be a huge burden on the poorest families and cause some children to be removed from education. Speaking to The Guardian, the director of Save the Children in Swaziland confirmed that “there are many children who are idling at home....because they can’t afford the top-up fees”.

The government has recently requested that state primary schools stop charging extra fees and refund any money taken over the last three years. Some school heads say they are unable to make such refunds. They argue that money given over the past few years has already been used to settle bills.

Spending on the education sector as a percentage of the country’s gross national product has been rising. According to UNESCO, the country dedicated 7.6% to the education sector in 2010, compared with 4.9% in 1999. This means that annually, the government pays around 60 dollars per child for pupils in grades one to five. In addition, schools can receive grants for orphans and vulnerable children.

Government officials therefore contend that extra money shouldn’t be needed.
Top-up fees charged by schools vary, with some parents paying over 70 dollars per child each year. This is a huge sum considering over 60% of Swazis live below the poverty line, existing on less than two dollars per day.

Schools which charge extra say that the funding from the state does not cover all their running costs. However, government officials blame mismanagement or lack of efficiency and point to the fact that many schools operate without demanding top-up fees. The minister of education and training admitted that fraud and corruption could be a key factor in schools requiring extra money.

The new move by the government to clamp down on top-up charges is bound to prove popular with parents. One mother of three spoke of her relief at not having to pay fees anymore, since in the past she’d only managed to pay with loans from micro lenders. She told The Guardian “it was difficult to raise the money, but I had no choice because I didn’t want my children to be uneducated like me”. Like many parents, she is now hoping to have seen the last of the practice.

Laurinda Luffman signature