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John Roughan: Free Primary Educatio & Re-Election!

Free Primary Education And Re-Election!

John Roughan
18 January 2005

At last a major step towards investing in village life is close up to becoming reality. Investing in Basic Education (at least at the primary schooling level, if not yet adult learning) strands to get a much needed funding boost. We are officially informed that this year and the following years the government will invest more than $160 for each primary student's schooling. What great news! However, this wonderful news has been muddled up by politicians mixing their re-election bids with our kids education.

For the first time that I can remember, the Ministry of Education has begun to reverse an education policy as old as the nation itself. Since its earliest days Solomon Islands invested its education dollar on university students and less, much less, on primary school students. In 2004, for instance, Solomons' 75,000 primary school children received much less than half of what the country's 2,500 post secondary students absorbed.

In fact even today Solomons' Kindy children pay higher education fees than do primary, secondary and tertiary students. As a child climbs the education ladder fees become less and less--in terms of hours spent in class, trained teaching staff and classroom accommodation--until a student entering USP, UPNG or other universities, pays nothing. Government's current policy of earmarking direct funding for primary schooling is a most welcome, if decades delayed, step.

But as with so much that will happen in Solomons in 2005, parliamentarian re-election bids are set to confuse people. First of all, as the PS of the Ministry of Education states correctly there's no such thing as FREE education no matter what a politician declares. Someone, somewhere, somehow must foot the bill for this most expensive exercise called education. Yes, let's be thankful that the government is finally coming to its senses and plans to assist with about $160 for each primary school child this year. But know well this new policy is as much about politicians seeking re-election as it is about bringing quality education to our kids.

For some schools, particularly on the village level, the $160 grant will be pure manna from heaven. For other schools, however, those in town, for instance, this grant doesn't begin to cover half the school's yearly costs for electricity, water, repair and maintenance, communications, staff salaries of security guards, secretarial help, cleaners, teacher aids, insurance, teacher accommodation, new classroom buildings, etc. etc. That is why all urban schools will still need parents to contribute funds to make the school hum well.

Not a single headmaster or primary school principal, however, has received a penny of the money politicians promised although schools across the nation have already opened their doors. Many principals recall only too vividly what happened in 2002 when the same government also promised to make secondary schools fee free. To this day government sent not a penny to a single secondary school.

Will this happen again this year? I don't think so but public statements of "free primary school education" and the reality of no money in the hands of school authorities makes for confusion. Many a headmaster will rightly demand parents pay school fees when their doors open for business this week. School authorities need funds up front and once the promised government money does appear, then there will be a refund. But that's a poor way to start off the school year!

The country's education sector, by far our biggest, most important and most expensive industry, needs preparation, planning and heaps of hard work to make it a success. It employs thousands of workers--teachers, administrators, school personnel--, its clients, almost 90,000 young people, are the nation's future hope and this industry needs millions and millions of dollars yearly investment if it is to function well. Hence, preparation, planning and hard slogging work on how to best invest millions of dollars, not mere political statements, are the order of the day.


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