Swaziland: Unconstitutional move to end free primary school education

The Swaziland National Association of Teachers has condemned the government’s decision to introduce school fees, a move that flies in the face of the country’s constitution which states that primary education is a right.

The Swazi Government has approved a circular allowing the Ministry of Education and Training to charge additional educational fees, effectively ending free primary education (FPE) in the country.

According to the union, this decision goes against the country’s Constitution which states that “every Swazi child shall, within three years of the commencement of this Constitution [2005], have the right to free education in public schools at least up to the end of primary school, beginning with the first grade”.

Financial background

The Swazi Government contributes €580 annually towards each child’s education, an allocation that is supported by the European Union (EU). However, school leaders have already complained that the funding allocated to them was inadequate.

The EU started funding FPE for first-grade pupils in 2011, spending €110 million between then and December 2016. In 2015, it reportedly sponsored 34,012 learners in 591 schools. It plans to continue paying for these school fees until end-2018.

In February 2017, however, when education was only allocated €3.5 billion in the national budget, nearly €2.7 billion was allocated to the country’s security forces, i.e. 12.4 per cent of Swaziland's total budget of €21.7 billion.

Top-up fees not necessary

The Swaziland National Association of Teachers’ (SNAT) General Secretary, Zwelithini Mndzebele, strongly criticised the government’s decision to effectively end FPE. He said top-up fees at primary school level were not necessary, given that basic education is a human right enshrined in Swaziland’s Constitution.

“The Government has the obligation to offer free primary education, with no option for top-ups, as that affects parents,” he underlined.

He went on to urge the government to increase the FPE grant instead of seeking an “easy way out”.

Recommendations

In addition, he called on the government to consider the recommendations of commission that had been set up to review the issue of top-up fees in schools. In its recommendations, the commission noted that top-up fees in schools were the reason why many Swazi pupils attended schools in South Africa. Mndzebele underlined that school leaders and school committees had already expressed concern about the fact that insufficient funds to run schools had depreciated the quality of education.

He also highlighted that it was regrettable that the Government had already abrogated the provision of free primary education for all guaranteed by the national constitution by limiting free education to orphans and, now, by reintroducing school fees.

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