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)

School Vouchers (Wikipedia)