By Nomalanga Moyo
SW Radio Africa
15 January 2014
The government has failed to pay fees for thousands of poor children who are eligible for assistance under a special scheme that entitles them to free primary education.
The government is supposed to assist children from poor backgrounds with school fees under the Basic Education Assistance Module (BEAM).
Schools re-opened Tuesday but for 900,000 children on the scheme, fees will be in arrears after the Social Welfare ministry said it has no money to pay for them.
The number of children on the programme is pegged at one million, according to a senior ministry official Sydney Mhishi, who was addressing legislators Tuesday.
At least 750,000 primary school pupils need help at a total cost of $8 per child per term, and to achieve this $28 million is required.
Mhishi said the ministry had asked for a budget allocation of $73 million to cover BEAM but only received $15 million – which is just enough to pay for 83,000 children in need.
Unless donors resumed funding the education sector as they used to until last year, Mhishi said many children will miss out on education.
“We used to have a basket funding where (European Union) countries pooled resources and gave it to UNICEF which would interface with our schools,” Mhishi said.
“That fell off two years ago. Their argument was that primary education must be free and compulsory. The current circumstance is that there will be no free primary education,” Mhishi continued.
“We still think DfID (Britain’s Department for International Development) might come again. If they don’t come, it means Government will have to look for the money,” Mhishi added, and revealed that funding from DfID ended last year.
Last year November, Mhishi told the same committee of legislators that his ministry owed schools $15 million in school fees.
Former Education Minister David Coltart said it was clear that the government was failing in its obligation to provide basic education to children, as required by the country’s constitution.
“The government is allocating insufficient funds to education and if we are to ensure that children at least get a primary education, this has to improve significantly,” said Coltart.
He added: “BEAM is a symptom of a bigger problem: it is underfunded and was devised a decade ago for a much stronger economy when there were far more people in formal employment than the current situation where a lot of people are poverty-stricken and can’t pay fees.”
“The scheme simply can’t cope, and compounding the crisis is that donors have pulled out,” the former minister said.
Coltart explained that one of the ways in which the government could address the growing crisis was by cutting spending in other areas, such as the size of Cabinet and reducing military spending.
He said there was also need to re-examine the administration of the financial assistance scheme to make it more transparent and effective.
Coltart also said that in the past committees set up to conduct vetting processes for the scheme had been accused of being partisan, and this had seen deserving children being left out.
“The question that government needs to ask itself is ‘do we really need the entire civil service and bureaucracy around BEAM at all?’”
“If government commits itself to free basic education then we don’t need that bureaucracy because every child will be able to get a free education,” Coltart added.