‘Govt working flat out to address teachers’ grievances’

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In February 2018, Prime Minister Thomas Thabane reshuffled his cabinet and appointed Alliance of Democrats deputy leader, Ntoi Rapapa, as Education and Training minister.

In this wide-ranging interview, Professor Rapapa shares his vision with Lesotho Times Reporter Pascalinah Kabi. 

LT: What is your vision with the Education ministry and is there any time frame that you have set to achieve your objectives? 

Prof Rapapa: It is my vision that within five years the issue of teachers’ welfare should be on a level that is commensurate with what they are doing. Issues of infrastructure such as classrooms, offices, kitchens should have improved to the required level. All our schools should meet certain minimum standards of operation. Proper library and Wi-Fi facilities should be available at the tertiary level so that people can easily identify with the institution and be happy to be there. 

LT: Your ministry has been in the news for some time now for all the wrong reasons. What are you going to do to ensure that your ministry cleans up and implements its mandate as expected? 

Prof Rapapa: This is a very important point. The ministry of education and training has many serious challenges and we are on people’s lips for all the wrong reasons. For the first time since the 2017/18 financial year, I strongly believe that the challenges in the ministry are being addressed coherently. We are working very hard to shake and clean up our administration. There are major things that we must do to ensure that this ministry cleans up and live up to its primary mandate.

I have emphasised to the ministry’s staff that we can only clean up by adhering to good corporate governance, the legislation and policies of the ministry as well as sticking to an approved budget by the parliament. Adhering to these three pillars would significantly address and mitigate the challenges.

It is important for people to note that changing people’s mindset to comply with good corporate governance, legislation and policies is not going to be easy. And it is already evident as this is not sitting well with some of the people within the ministry which is why we have so many issues that we are working hard to root out.

Currently the ministry owes teachers huge amounts of money and we are working hard to pay the debts. In November 2017 alone, we paid out M16 million and we will continue paying this financial year so that we clear this debt and start on a clean slate.

I also looked at the root cause of these huge debts and realised that the failure to adhere to the approved budget, ministerial policies and legislation landed us in this mess. We overcommitted ourselves and the commitment was never in line with the approved budget and therefore we created the debts.

The ministry made some decisions which were not in line with the approved budget and therefore could comply with such decisions. Some of the most disturbing issues are that we entered unlawful agreements and in an attempt to resolve such contracts, we are also encountered some problems.

Another major challenge is that we do not have good policies for basic education, that is, free primary, school feeding and curriculum reform. We also have challenges in the higher education sector. A close look at the budget shows that there is a lot of money allocated to the ministry but a big chunk of that money is for teachers and other civil servants’ salaries as well as subventions for higher learning institutions. Only 0.07 percent of that budget is allocated for infrastructure development.

We have a shortage of teachers in the schools. There are understaffed schools and the welfare of the teachers is very poor and is our infrastructure.

We have to look beyond the government budget. We must devise ways of getting money elsewhere because the budget is limited and it can only do so much. From Early Childhood Care and Development (ECCD) to tertiary, I am 100 percent convinced that the whole education sector is underfunded. We have to find other ways of sourcing funding. I thank the government for allocating most of its budget to the ministry of education but the challenges experienced by the ministry require way more than the budget allocated to the ministry.

I am exploring how we can find assistance outside the government system through the private sector, development partners and individuals of goodwill. I thank those that are already assisting us like the World Bank, other development partners and some individuals in and outside the country.

I have already engaged some people and the ministry intends to have Education Financing Dialogue soon. 

LT: Concentrating on higher learning institutions with reference to the ongoing issue of National University of Lesotho, what are you doing to ensure that the institutions are not underfunded? 

Prof Rapapa: After the budget was approved, we have since realised the challenges facing the higher learning institutions and we are going to engage the Ministry of Finance on the reallocation of funds so that we address this problem.

The second move is to find out ways in which these tertiary institutions can be assisted with financing from both the government and outside government but the first thing is to discuss the matter with the Ministry of Finance. We have to look far beyond our current problems and I think another option is to ensure collaboration between institutions. Collaboration may assist in a case where another institution does not have certain equipment but access it from another institution. Our own institutions need to find ways of how they can share facilities. 

LT: You were appointed the ministry at a time Lesotho is implementing the new primary curriculum intended to respond to the modern challenges. It is however an open secret that courses offered at the tertiary level are no longer responding to the market demands. Do you already have a plan in place to address this matter and how long would it take you to implement it? 

Prof Rapapa: It is our expectation that the tertiary institutions would have been reformed and ready to respond to the market challenges when the first cohort under the new primary school curriculum joins the tertiary institutions. When undertaking the curriculum reforms we are also bearing in mind that tertiaries should be able to absorb all the learners specialising in different fields, hence why we need to work on the financing options now.

Under the new curriculum we have introduced aspects of technical and vocational education and training (TVET) and as government we need to assist the institutions of higher learning to be ready to accommodate learners from the reviewed curriculum. So it is important that the tertiary should be prepared, through the assistance of government, to help learners from this area and many others that are not being catered for at the moment. 

LT: What is ministry doing to respond to concerns raised by both parents and teachers that there are no materials and equipment needed to efficiently execute the new curriculum? 

Prof Rapapa: Through the assistance of World Bank, we are currently procuring equipment and materials needed by the schools to execute or implement this new curriculum. However, we have another challenge with the Grade 7 and this is entirely dependent on the outcome of the courts of law. There is a court case against the Ministry of Education and Training concerning the text book materials for Grade 7.

We were interdicted from distributing the text books until the court case has been completed and this has negatively affected the Grade 7 and it is our expectation that the matter will be soon resolved because the text books are already in our possession. 

LT: Do you think that teachers were justified to petition Prime Minister Thomas Thabane, alleging that you have failed to solve problems brought before you? 

Prof Rapapa: We must understand that the teachers’ grievances are three fold. The first one lies solely on the operational efficiency of the ministry. We are already dealing with that and we will soon overcome this challenge. The second one is in relation to the money owed to teachers.

We use all the money allocated in the budget to pay the debts owed to teachers and where there are shortfall, we will wait until we have been allocated more funds to service our debts. So on this matter, it is difficult to say when we would have dealt with it.

Most of the problems raised by the teachers did not take place in 2017/18. These are problems which are 10 years old and we are doing over best to solve them. We have identified the root causes of these debts. I trust that debt issue will be a thing of the past if we get all the money in this financial year.

Some of the teachers’ demands require legal amendments and as long as the legal framework remains what it is, we can only do as the law dictates. The issue of operational efficiency has been dealt with and we are working hard to ensure that we do not repeat the same mistakes and avoid perpetuating the problem.  One of the root causes of this huge debt is that the ministry hired people knowing very well that there was no money to pay them. We hired people under the pretence that “there is a need, we will see how we will pay them” and this just tells us that are operations were never in line with budget approved by parliament. We are working hard to source more funding and as we speak, all teachers hired recently are able to get their salaries starting April 2018, unlike in the past where they would go for months without their salaries.

So the teachers were well within their rights to petition the Prime Minister if they felt that we were not dealing with their problems, problems that we are dealing with. 

LT: What is your reaction to the Public Accounts Committee (PAC)’s findings that your ministry has over 400 paid ghosts and other maladministration issues; what are you doing to address these matters? 

Prof Rapapa: The PAC discovered that there are 445 ghosts teachers. We are carrying out a study for each one of those 445. Some of the reasons behind these ghost workers are unauthorized movement of teachers from one work station to another and we need to find the people responsible for that. Secondly, we have discovered that some people change names in instances when they get married.

We will soon issue an official statement detailing how this 445 was arrived at and people responsible for that will face the wrath of law. In some incidences, we discovered that certain individuals left their work stations for greener pastures and continued to be paid with the principal fully aware of that practice. This person will give the principal part of the money to pay a substitute teacher and action has been taken against these people as this is unlawful employment by all definition and standards. 

LT: There are some key individuals, with managerial positions in the ministry who are highly compromised in this issue. Who is heading this investigation? 

Prof Rapapa: The PAC made its own investigations. Names of people suspected to be ghost workers were called out in full view of the people. So in order to clear these names, we need to do the verification on the ground and this investigation is headed by the Principal Secretary (Thabang Lebese) and there is no way that it will be compromised. The exercise’s verification mechanism is very intact.

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