ACCORDING to a statement released by the Democratic Congress (DC), their current barrage of election campaigns, particularly in constituencies they lost, is premised on one factor the party considers to be of utmost importance.
If they get re-elected into power they intend lowering the current secondary school fees to a point where Lesotho children will “almost attend school for free”, as DC deputy leader Monyane Moleleki put it in response to questions from one of the local newspapers.
There is no doubt almost every parent would welcome the opportunity to ensure “free” (but quality) education for their children.
However, in their quest to score points and gain significant mileage over their competitors, political parties should never lose sight of the bigger picture, that, low fees and political points can result in irreparable damage to our education.
For starters, one wonders just how much ground work and consultation the DC has done among all relevant education stakeholders, especially principals and teachers who are involved in day-to-day running of schools.
What has been their input in the fees structure?
How much is government prepared to contribute to the upkeep of every school if the fees fountain they depend on dries up?
How many grants will each school get to offset their inability to pay private teachers who many schools can hardly do without?
How are schools expected to manage all their running costs which, among others, include maintenance (especially of vehicles, broken furniture and other technical assets like computers), fuel, electricity and water bills, night watchmen (to prevent vandalism), salaries of private teachers and support staff and feeding for some schools?
These and other equally vital questions need to be addressed before we can allow politicians’ desperate quest for votes to mess with the emotions of the poor and give them hard-to-fulfil expectations.
What the above questions lead to is that even in countries where citizens pay nothing for school fees, there is no such a thing as absolute free education.
The concept exists only in theory. In reality, someone should always be prepared to foot the bill as running costs can never be completely wished away.
Schools which offer practical subjects are already struggling to purchase essential materials, seeds, laboratory equipment, ingredients and groceries since the current fees were lowered.
This contradicts the very mission of government to have our education enable children to leave school with the required practical skills to survive the harsh economic climate.
The quest to entice citizens, especially the poor, for the sake of votes must not be to the detriment of our education.
The annual teaching practice in my faculty at the National University of Lesotho affords me and my colleagues the opportunity, every year, to travel to high schools (a total of 119 schools in 2013) in seven districts from Botha-Bothe to Quthing.
This is a total of seven districts which, viewed solely in statistical terms, represent 70 percent of Lesotho’s districts.
During informal discussions with principals in most of these schools, I have discovered how deeply frustrated they are to run schools with significantly reduced budgets which curtail their financial leverage to provide decent education to learners.
Some of these schools are dilapidated to a point where they are no longer child-friendly.
During the numerous school visits I have done over the years, I have come across schools where there is no perimeter fence or wall, making it possible even for kidnappers, rapists and other external dangers to pounce on the school.
Others are fenced but have no security checkpoint at entry, allowing anyone (and anything) to come in and out as they please.
The following have also been sadly observed: broken furniture, ceilings that are falling apart, walls which were probably last painted when the school was built, lack of a ceiling to prevent excessive heat, cold and noise when it rains and unhygienic run-down toilets.
These are just infrastructure matters which do not include private teachers and other support staff who at times go without pay when money is not available.
When the Lesotho Government (which in some cases pays fees for more than half of the student population at some schools) reneges in paying fees on time, such schools face a near shut-down as they cannot meet even the most basic of their needs.
It has been discovered that the environment in which a child learns contributes significantly to the well-being, general happiness and mood of the child.
This then translates to better grades.
The skill, dedication and attitude of the teacher still remain key, though. The environment I have just described is one of absolute squalor and is toxic therefore it severely limits children’s maximum potential.
I might be told that free primary school education is already running successfully.
Its success simply lies in the fact that parents don’t pay fees and access has been hugely increased.
Constantly schools struggle to meet the most basic of needs and have seen the already disturbing student-teacher ratio soar to unprecedented levels thereby negatively affecting quality.
You might, justifiably, ask why many parents opt for expensive private schools for their children when public schools are free!
Frequent allegations of embezzlement of funds against some principals however, does not help their cause to fight for increased fees as divergence of funds for personal benefit prevents schools from establishing a sound financial footing to meet their needs.
Such corrupt principals are just some of the characters that must be flushed out of our private and public institutions; they are holding Lesotho’s development to ransom.
When politicians set their sights on gaining votes, yet fail to answer key questions about the direction of our education, Basotho should get worried.
This is the one area any nation cannot afford to compromise.
It is the catalyst to the true eradi cation of poverty, creation of opportunities and socioeconomic empowerment.
For the sake of the poor in our country, I would welcome free basic and secondary education but politicians should allay our fears that any moves will not compromise quality.
We should not allow our education to be turned into a pawn for politicking unless politicians can convince us they have taken care of our most worrying concerns.
The problem is we have grown accustomed to politicians who sometimes cannot be trusted.
The only gift many of them have is empty oratory.
They can do almost anything to outdo one another and for most, the relentless pursuit of more votes is an obsession which often makes them promise what they cannot fulfil.
Mahao Mahao is a lecturer in the Faculty of Education at the National University of Lesotho