School fees- a personal experience

I had to withhold tears as I watched my eight-year old daughter sob when I told her I could not fill her raffle form. Her teacher wanted it that day. She had been given the form almost a month back, but I had not been able to get sponsors.

She had brought several raffle forms before and I had filled them promptly giving her the amount that was required. I had not sought outside sponsors. My wife had, however, occasionally sought sponsorship from her workmates.

But this raffle was different. It was not even a raffle. It was a devious way by my daughter's school to get me to pay increased fees that had been turned down by Education minister Aeneas Chigwedere.

I was broke and had even asked to pay the fees in instalments. The fees had gone up by nearly 170 percent in the first term and now the school wanted to double the first term's fees.

I could not afford to pay the additional fees both physically and on moral grounds, but as I watched my daughter sob, not understanding my financial problems or what I was going through, I felt cheated and robbed at the blatant extortion the school had resorted to.

While I was prepared to pay any fees that the school charged, because I had made a personal choice to send my children to the school, I was not prepared to be used as a pawn either by the school or the minister. The two had to come clean and settle their scores without sandwiching me in between.

The way tings were, I would be a looser either way, but what disturbed me most was how the school was using me, as a parent, to fight its battle with the minister, lying that I had approved the fee increase.

The school was quite aware that under the Education Act it had to have the approval of parents to increase fees, but apparently it had been doing so for some years without my approval because of lax controls in the ministry.

Even the Association of Trust Schools, which represents private schools, had admitted in a circular to parents that: ".. it must be acknowledged that several of the Trust schools were grossly irregular in their non-observance of the Act and there is need to apologise unreservedly".

Though the schools were quite aware, according to the circular, that under the Education Act, no responsible authority "shall charge any fee, or increase the same by more than the prescribed amount or percentage in any period of 12 month unless such increase has been approved by the Secretary (of Education)" from as far back as 2001,everyone had been doing his or her own thing.

"In 2002," the circular went on, "the Permanent Secretary delegated authority to receive, assess and decide on applications to Regional Directors and since then difficulties have arisen with increased frequency, including: lack of acknowledgment or response; applications 'lost" etc.

"Given such frustrations, the rapid acceleration of inflation and the need to send out fee invoices to ensure that schools opened on time and had sufficient operating income; schools had increased fees without approval on the assumption that 'no refusal' was a tacit approval."

To me, it appeared Chigwedere had merely stepped in to restore sanity, just like central bank governor Gideon Gono had clamped down on the financial sector to restore order.

His method may have been crude, but it was probably because of the arrogance displayed by the private schools, which continued to defy his directives through various methods that they were employing to ensure that parents paid the fees they wanted.

I do not like to be misunderstood. I am prepared to pay any fees the school charges, but what I will not stomach is to be forced to accept that I agreed to the fees when I did not, and was not consulted, but merely told that this was what I had to pay.

My daughter's school first sent out circulars advising me about the proposed fee increases and asked me to agree to or reject the fee increases. It looks it received a very poor response, because the school board called a parents' meeting at which it wanted the parents to endorse the fee increase.

Some parents argued that the school could not just increase fees at will, especially since the budget it had presented only had the expenditure without revenue which parents believed the school had earned from its investments because of the high interest rates that prevailed towards the end of last year and during the first term.

Though 75 percent of the expenditure was on teachers' salaries, parents were more concerned about whether the fee was justified or the school merely wanted to screen the poor out. The meeting almost broke down when one of the parents said those who could not afford should pull out their children.

Parents were, once again, asked to fill slips asking them whether they agreed to the new fees or not. It appears the school did not get the response it wanted, because it called for another parents' meeting, but this time, parents were asked to meet in small groups.

With three children at the school, it meant I could not attend three meetings at the same time. I did not attend any of the meetings because it was now evident that the school was trying to use a divide-and-rule tactic. Parents could not take advantage of their numbers to gauge the majority view. And without anyone taking count of who voted for what in each small group, parents were, once again, at the mercy of school authorities.

It was after these meetings flopped again that the school introduced the raffle. Though it was titled: "Fund Raising Raffle" with the first prize being 100 percent discount for third term fees or 50 percent cash equivalent and the fourth prize being a 25 percent discount, the raffle had a minimum sponsorship of $10 000 per line.

One had to fill in all columns. Interestingly the columns on the raffle forms were equivalent to the balance parents were supposed to pay to meet the new fees turned down by the government. Children whose parents had paid the new fees were not given raffle forms.

For me, this was the last straw. Why did the school not just come clean, and say "pay the new fees or else". But what was even more disturbing was the frequency with which teachers demanded the raffle forms back from the children and the number of circulars that I started getting.

It also appeared that some people were trying to settle old scores through the fee issue. One circular, for example, had this to say:

"On the surface it may seem right for the government of the day to protect its citizens from unwarranted increases in school fees. Closer examination however reveals that it is not as simple as this. The fact is that the schools are not shielded from economic realities of our time, such as wage increases and the escalating cost of consumables and school maintenance in an environment of hyperinflation.

"It is our observation that it is not the private schools which are responsible for making bad economic decisions but rather those charged with the government of our country. Most private schools run on a non-profit making basis and are content simply to balance their expenditure against their fee income.

"No, the real issue here is the failed economic policies of this regime. If the economy was sound and inflation was kept at manageable levels then schools would not need to increase fees significantly. It is the collapse of the national economy which has necessitated the increases in school fees term on term.

"The unpalatable but inescapable truth is that the cause of our present predicament is bad governance. A failed administration is now desperately trying to find scapegoats to divert attention from its own manifest failures. Any school worth its salt is bound to increase its fees to the level required to maintain hard-won standards."

Having grown up in the colonial era, my stomach turned whenever someone mentioned "standards" because the so-called maintenance of standards was used to shut blacks out of the economy for almost a century.

"What is the regime's motive, we ask, for the unlawful forced closures of the private schools at the beginning of the second term?" the circular went on. "Is it simply a measure of their success in providing quality education which government schools have generally failed to do - another embarrassing reminder of bad governance?......

"Another more sinister interpretation of the regime's motive is that the forced closure of the private schools is a part of a larger plan to destroy all pockets of independent thought. The private schools have become in our time icons of free and liberal thinking which the regime is no longer willing to tolerate.

"By the same token they are perceived by an authoritarian regime as places in which dissent is encouraged, together with an alternative vision for the nation. The irony is of course that Mr Mugabe himself went to a catholic mission school, Kutama, where he was given the opportunity and encouraged to think freely. Since he sends his own children to private schools we must assume that he still values this quality.

"On this interpretation the regime's motives are down-right evil. They imply a deliberate intention to destroy the urban middle class, black and white, in order to create a totally dependent and subservient population of peasants, to whom the idea of independent thought would be taboo......."

As I watched my daughter sob, I began to wonder, who was using the children as pawns? But I had no choice. I had to pay the fees. What I was doing was morally wrong, but my daughter's welfare came first.

I had had a bitter experience before. In the eighties when I was with the Chronicle, I was assigned to do a story about doctors who gave workers "sick letters" to get time off work when they were not ill at all. I was asked by my editor to name the doctors and was given a by-line though I had insisted that my name should not be used.

This must have irked the doctors because one of them, one of the few that worked on Sundays, refused to treat my son six years later. I don't want the same to happen to my children now.

But, one could rightly ask, if I am so concerned about my children, why did I write this story? I had to get this out because, according to Alex Molokoane of Alex Hair in South Africa, blacks have been indoctrinated to expect appalling service for so long that they still have to be educated to expect good service.

Molokoane, who is quoted in the book: Revelling in the Wild - Business lessons out of Africa says: "It's a terrible thing, but in the past they have been made to feel as though the service provider of the product or service was doing them a favour by serving them....

"The one thing that I've realised about black people is that if you give them good service, they'll come back to you. But if you give them bad service, they won't complain, they'll just walk away. The only time I realised that we black people complain is when we are already fighting, like when we believe we have been really wronged?"

The truth is I want my children to get a good education. But I do not want to live my neighbour's life by pretending that I can afford it, when I am borrowing left, right and centre, just to keep my children at school - and probably protect my ego as well.

The new fees are just too much for me. While the Central Statistics Office, which calculates inflation, weighs education fees at only 3.4 percent the current fees consume 62 percent of my monthly income.

Though this is my choice, I don't want to live a lie.

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