Most public schools that applied for levy and fees increases for the first term of this year have now received feedback from the relevant office in the Ministry of Primary and Secondary Education.
The picture is not looking good.
Almost all public school authorities are battling with the challenge of delivering education against the backdrop of rising costs and limited resources.
On the other hand, the Government is trying to strike a balance between steep fees increases and the earnings of the majority.
A school head shared the struggle.
“The increments we applied for, that were duly discussed, proposed and voted on by the school development association (SDA) of parents, and based on a budget that was looking at simply maintaining standards, have not been approved.
“It is bad enough for all schools. But for schools with boarding facilities, it is extra difficult. It is a daily headache to feed the children.
“Bread prices are creeping up regularly. In addition, we cannot get roller meal which is what we had budgeted for and have to buy the more expensive refined mealie-meal.”
The SDA chair for the same school says the late approval of fees increases has worsened an already dire situation.
“We applied for increments in December when we held our SDA meeting,” the SDA chair said.
“If the approvals had come before schools opened, parents would have paid then and we could have procured most of the stuff that we need to run the schools.
“For the borders, we would have bought most of the non-perishables that are needed for the term.
“With some suppliers of perishables, we could have negotiated price lock-downs by paying in advance. Basic stuff to run the school like cleaning chemicals and stationery would all have been sorted. But now we have to try and get things whose prices have gone beyond our inflation estimates with less money. It is just not working.”
As in the streets, WhatsApp groups for parents’ views on the way forward are diverse.
“So, school X is now raising fees every term?” grouched one parent.
“This is after the school authorities had announced the approval of an increment that will see parents pay almost $4 000 in top up levies when they paid $3 130 at the beginning of the term.
“Why are you acting like you are not living in this country? What are you paying for a loaf of bread now? How do you expect the school to operate?” another parent was quick to respond.
Those who support keeping fees tagged to costs say it is important to maintain standards and keep schools developing even in the current economic climate.
“Remember some years ago in many schools we let things go,” said another parent.
“There were no repairs and maintenance. There was no development at all. Learning standards plummeted and teachers left the service. Many institutions are still struggling to come back from thaat downward spiral.
“We cannot go into the same situation with our eyes open. Decisions we make now will not only impact on the present learners, but also on future streams. So keeping fees pegged to cost and not losing focus of our vision is the only way forward.”
But not all parents can afford such lofty idealism. There are many who are just barely holding on.
They have shelved plans on a personal level and are now concerned with simply surviving in the hope that things will get better sometime soon.
In another social discussion, another parent said it was clear that in the current situation some public schools — especially former Group A, that are meant to cater for all children are becoming enclaves for the partly privileged.
“When I attended the meeting to adjust fees last term, I realised that I was out of my depth,” said another parent.
“There were parents who were casually proposing high figures, more than four time what I was earning at the time.
“Others were even proposing payments in US dollars. And when it was time to vote, the high figures got the majority show of hands. So clearly these schools are no longer for the poor.”
Many schools are now resorting to unorthodox means of staying afloat.
Some institutions are asking learners to bring stuff like stationery and cleaning chemicals. In the case of borders, a list of provisions is given out for parents to buy.
In other schools, parents are coming up with their own extra levies which they use to buy what the school needs and hand that over as donations.
There are also tokens of appreciation for teachers which are set cash payments.
The challenge with that system is that it relies on every parent committing to meeting the agreed payments. Where a parent chooses to default, there is little room for enforcement.
The issue of sending children away for non-payment of gazetted levies and fees is already a human rights topical challenge and a legal minefield.
Which only leaves the option of discrimination against children whose extra levies are unpaid.
This is happening in classes where the teacher concentrates on the children who have paid and ignores those who have not.
There was a case at an elite private school in Mutare some years ago whereby the school authorities placed on the notice boards names of pupils whose parents had not paid the extra levies.
The learners were hounded by their peers in the dining halls as they would be asked whose parents’ money they were literally consuming.
In tears, the learners would beseech their parents to comply.
Clearly, discrimination is brutally effective to enforce compliance, but it is equally bad on the learners. One can only imagine the trauma suffered by those children.
In addition, there is also the high financial risk with the moneys that have no regulatory oversight.
Soon, we could be hearing cases of misappropriation as there are no set guidelines for the procurement processes for these informal levies.
The real solution is for the Government to allow SDAs to set their own fees, and as long as the application is in order, it should be approved.
Some learners will be affected and may have to change institutions, but in the long run it is a better option.
It will make it easier to define schools in urgent need of intervention by state and non-state actors.
It is the only way to ensure that schools can maintain standards and keep the country’s education system running.
l The writer is a former high school teacher and textbook author.