The Minister of Basic Education, Dr Unity Dow has called for reforms in Botswana’s governance and education system. She contends that unless a major paradigm shift is adopted the current state of affairs in public schools will not go away.
“As long as our education system is primarily academic, we are always going to have a cohort of kids who cannot handle purely academic subjects. We need to reform the education system so that we can have multiple path ways,” said Dow in a wide ranging exclusive interview with this publication.
Dow said, although Botswana has impressive retention rate in primary school, ranked among the best in the world, there are problems that come with such nobility. Botswana has 96 percent of its children who are supposed to be in school, in school. “It is good; it means we have every child in school; the smart child, the average child and other types of children. But there is a problem there, because we do not have enough specialised schools,” she said.
Not every child should be in a regular primary school. Some of them are slow; some have sight problem, some hearing problem and should be in specialised schools. If we were in Finland or Australia, such kids would be in specialised schools that deal with their particular problems.” Dow concedes that the Ministry does not have resources yet, with only few testing centres; one in Tlokweng and a satellite one in Francistown.
Dow said, even though she is a minister, it is not an easy thing to implement or change existing government policies. She said sometimes the problem is not the existing policy, but poor implementation which is a result of the inefficient procurement processes.
“One of the major problems in government process is the procurement system. I have had discussion with people telling me that it is almost impossible to have a brilliantly executed idea in government. We can all love it and agree that the idea is brilliant but it will never work,” she said. “The system is not set-up for innovation; it is not set-up for creativity. We are suspicious of innovation; we are suspicious of new ideas, we are suspicious of everybody. The system suspects everybody is corrupt, so nobody does anything as a result.”
STUDENT TO TEACHER RATIO
Student to teacher ratio is considered an important factor in achieving better student performance. In recent years, owing to growing population, migration to other factors affecting the country, class sizes have been growing. While the number of students grows every year, the number of teachers has remained the same. As various experts and education rating agencies indicate, it is easier for some students to fall through the cracks and not get the individualised attention they need to succeed academically.
Various studies have shown that when there is a lower student-to-teacher ratio, students will receive more attention from their teachers. Teachers themselves have more manageable workloads as they have fewer students to keep track of, which in turn translates into them having more time to spend one-on-one with students. More time can be spent on instruction rather than managing a classroom or discipline. The Revised National Policy on Education (RNPE), also known as the Kedikilwe Commission recommended less than 35 students per class.
Dow conversely believes as much as she agrees that student-to-teacher ratio is a factor, the problems contributing to poor performance are many and more entrenched, and would need more than just reducing classes but availing other resources as well. “You would find that in some schools we still have class sizes as small as 15, sometimes 10, and then you have some classes which have 35 or 45 and still do better. The numbers does not necessarily lead to better results, of course it is one of the factors that contributes,” argues Dow.
“You will be surprised in other countries their schools are doing great with classes which have 60 pupils. So it is not just about the number of classes but also about what resource you have there. If you are delivering education through other means such as internet, and also having assistant teachers, you could afford to have classes that are bigger.” Dow said, it is also necessary to put into consideration issues like age, when talking about student-to-teacher ratio.
“If you are looking at eight year olds, it is better to have smaller classes. That is why universities have bigger classes. You would find that, a student is in a class of 35 students at secondary level, and then a class of 100 the following year at a university. Clearly it is more than the numbers, but also how education is delivered in that set-up,” she said. “On average class sizes there is a consensus, we need smaller classes. But we are also concerned that even schools with small classes are not delivering good results.”
SHORTAGE OF BOOKS
One of the criticisms that faces Dow’s ministry is persistent shortage of text books in public schools. Dow admits that shortage has been ongoing, but indicated that it is caused by various factors, chief among them the public procurement system. “One of the problems is our procurement system and this is across government. In our bid to have the fairest of the fairest procurement system, it takes on average three times longer to buy anything by government, than in other countries like the United States, Germany or wherever. Even if you buy a cup, you have to look for three quotations for that,” she argued.
“We are said to be the least corrupt country [in Africa], but the downside of that is that it takes longer to buy anything, and we will continue like that as long as there is little freedom for the executive in decision making.” Dow said the procurement system does not allow senior public officers to make quicker decisions as and when is necessary, the result of which the students are feeling the pinch because of failure to deliver text books every single year.
“The system does not say, this person is a director, we trust them. If I want to buy a juice, I still have to look for quotations, even when we know how much a juice costs,” she observed. “We should be able to say, go and buy that juice, as long as it does not cost more than this much.” The former High Court Judge is of the view that government’s financial year cycle does not help because it is too short and constrains government ministries and department from planning ahead.
She said this also prevents ministries from budgeting outside the financial cycle, therefore being unable to even buy books for future. “Our financial year starts from April to March the following year. In the normal life of a country, that is too short. Most countries do not have annual budgets; they budget three to five years. Government must be able to commit to five year contracts, not annual contracts,” she contended.
“As long as we do the annual contracts and we budget the way we do, we will always have this problem [shortage of text books]. The whole procurement system is a problem, whether you start the process early or not. I believe we need reforms in the procurement system,” she said. The second problem, which according to Dow contributes to shortage of textbooks, is the entitlement mentality of free education and lack of accountability in public schools. She said under normal circumstances, government should not be replacing text books year-in year-out.
“Since we told everybody that education is free, there is no accountability. I think we should start sending invoices to parents on yearly basis, indicating the cost of teaching a student,” she said. “Maybe they would not break the windows and the tables. We have been begging students to return the books, but they do not, yet there are no consequences. If I were to take radical measures to correct the situation, the unions, the media and the MPs will be on my bag, criticizing me.”
She said, in contrast, you will never see students in private schools destroying infrastructure because there is a sense of responsibility from students and from pupils emanating from the fact that they know the cost associated with offering education there.
Dow agrees that employing teachers on temporary arrangement is affecting school performance. She noted that this is not because teachers who are hired on temporary basis are less qualified but because they do not have security of tenure. “I know some of them are great teachers, but if they do not have security of tenure, it affects their productive. I would have happier teachers and secure teachers if they were not temporary,” she stated.
However this is matter as far as government is concerned; it is beyond Dow’s control. Even if she had wished to employ more teachers on permanent basis, Directorate of Public Service Management (DPSM)’s decision to set a limit on number of people employed by government proves to be a headache.
“Unless the system creates vacancies we cannot hire anybody on permanent and pensionable basis, only temporary,” she said. According to the minister, she needs more than 3000 teachers in public schools to deal with the shortage. The teaching service currently has 26 000 teachers employed on permanent basis.
URBAN SCHOOLS VS RURAL SCHOOL
Results in recent years have indicated the growing gap in terms of pass rate between urban schools and rural schools. Several countries around the world have been drawing up policies aimed at addressing the disparity that exist as the government start acknowledging the socio-economic factor in schools performances. In a country like Botswana, which is considered among the most unequal societies in the world, the problem is even more retrenched.
Dow acknowledge this problem and said, to date, they have tried several incentives to uplift school in rural areas, especially those in remote areas, but with no improvement. “As for incentives, we have come up with many, like additional meals in rural schools. We know when kids are hungry are unable to be attentive. You go to a school like D’kar for example, we have a partner in De Beers which has helped to build libraries, but still the results do not improve,” Dow said.
Lebang Mpotokwane, one of the conveners who presided over the opposition cooperation talks that resulted in the formation of the Umbrella for Democratic Change (UDC), has advised against changing the current umbrella model in favour of a merger as proposed by others.
The Botswana Congress Party (BCP) leader, Dumelang Saleshando recently went public to propose that UDC should consider merging of all opposition parties, including Alliance for Progressives (AP) and Botswana Patriotic Front (BNF).
Saleshando has been vehemently opposed by Botswana National Front (BNF), which is in favour of maintaining the current model. BNF’s position has been favoured by the founding father of UDC, who warned that it will be too early to ditch the current model.
“UDC should be well developed to promote the spirit of togetherness on members and the members should be taught so that the merger is developed gradually. They should approach it cautiously. If they feel they are ready, they can, but it would not be a good idea,” Mpotokwane told WeekendPost this week.
Mpotokwane and Emang Maphanyane are the two men who have since 2003 began a long journey of uniting opposition parties in a bid to dethrone the ruling Botswana Democratic Party (BCP) as they felt it needed a strong opposition to avoid complacency.
Tonota born Mpotokwane is however disappointed on how they have been ejected from participating in the last edition of talks ahead of the 2019 general elections in which BCP was brought on board. However, despite the ejection, Mpotokwane is not resentful to the opposition collective.
He said the vision of opposition unity was to ultimately merge the opposition parties but he believes time has not arrived yet to pursue that path. “The bigger picture was a total merger and we agreed that with three independent parties, members might be against merger eventuality so the current model should be used until a point where they are now together for as long as possible,” he said.
“UDC should gradually perform better in elections and gain confidence. They should not rush the merger. We have been meeting since 2003, but if they rush it might cause endless problems. If they are ready they can anyway,” he advised. For now the constituent parties of the umbrella have been exchanging salvos with others (BCP and BNF).
“There are good reasons for and against merging the parties. Personally, I am in favour of merging the parties (including AP and BPF) into a single formation but I know it’s a complex mission that will have its own challenges,” Saleshando said when he made his position known a week ago.
“Good luck to those advocating for a merger, it will be interesting to observe the tactics they will use to lure the BPF into a merger,” former BNF councillor for Borakalalo Ward and former BNF Youth League Secretary General, Arafat Khan, opined in relation to BCP’s proposed position.
Mpotokwane, who is currently out in the cold from the UDC since he was ejected from the party’s NEC in 2017, said the current bickering and the expected negotiations with other parties need the presence of conveners.
“We did not belong to any party as conveners so we were objective in our submissions. If party propose any progressive idea we will support, if it is not we will not, so I would agree that even now conveners might be key for neutrality to avoid biasness,” he observed. Despite being abandoned, Mpotokwane said he will always be around to assist if at all he is needed.
“If they want help I will be there, I have always been clear about it, but surely I will ask few questions before accepting that role,” he said. UDC is expected to begin cooperation talks with both AP and BPF either this week or next weekend for both upcoming bye-elections (halted by Covid-19) and 2024 general elections and it is revealed that there will be no conveners this time around.
The Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) moved through its lawyers to attach the property of Umbrella for Democratic (UDC) President Duma Boko and other former parliamentary contestants who failed in their court bid to overturn the 2019 general elections in 14 constituencies.
WeekendPost has established that this week, Deputy Sheriffs were commissioned by Bogopa Manewe Tobedza and Company who represented the BDP, to attach the properties of UDC elections contents in a bid to recover costs. High Court has issued a writ of execution against all petitioners, a process that has set in motion the cost recovery measures.
Botswana Sectors of Teachers Union (BOSETU) says COVID-19 as a pandemic has negatively affected the education sector by deeply disrupting the education system. The intermittent lockdowns have resulted in the halting of teaching and learning in schools.
The union indicated that the education system was caught napping and badly exposed when it came to the use of Information System (IT), technological platforms and issues of digitalisation.
“COVID-19 exposed glaring inefficiencies and deficiencies when it came to the use of ITC in schools. In view of the foregoing, we challenge government as BOSETU to invest in school ITC, technology and digitalization,” says BOSETU President Kinston Radikolo during a press conference on Tuesday.
As a consequence, the union is calling on government to prioritise education in her budgeting to provide technological infrastructure and equipment including provision of tablets to students and teachers.
“Government should invest vigorously in internet connectivity in schools and teacher’s residences if the concept of flexi-hours and virtual learning were to be achieved and have desired results,” Radikolo said.
Radikolo told journalists that COVID-19 is likely to negatively affect final year results saying that the students would sit for the final examinations having not covered enough ground in terms of curriculum coverage.
“This is so because there wasn’t any catch up plan that was put in place to recover the lost time by students. We warn that this year’s final examination results would dwindle,” he said.
The Union, which is an affiliate of Botswana Federation of Public, Private and Parastatal Union (BOFEPUSU), also indicated that COVID-19’s presence as a pandemic has complicated the role of a teacher in a school environment, saying a teacher’s role has not only transcended beyond just facilitating teaching and learning, but rather, a teacher in this COVID-19 era, is also called upon to enforce the COVID-19 preventative protocols in the school environment.
“This is an additional role in the duty of a teacher that needs to be recognized by the employers. Teachers by virtue of working in a congested school environment have become highly exposed and vulnerable to COVID-19, hence the reason why BOSETU would like teachers to be regarded as the frontline workers with respect to COVID-19,” says Radikolo.
BOSETU noted that the pandemic has in large scales found its way into most of the school environments, as in thus far more than 50 schools have been affected by COVID-19. The Union says this is quite a worrying phenomenon.
“As we indicated before when we queried that schools were not ready for re-opening, it has now come to pass that our fears were not far-fetched. This goes out to tell that there is deficiency in our schools when it comes to putting in place preventative protocols. In our schools, hygiene is compromised by mere absence of sanitizers, few hand-washing stations, absence of social distancing in classes,” the Union leader said.
Furthermore, Radikolo stressed that the shifting system drastically increased the workload for teachers especially in secondary schools. He says teachers in these schools experience very high loads to an extent that some of them end up teaching up to sixty four periods per week, adding that this has not only fatigued teachers, but has also negatively affected their performance and the quality of teaching.
In what the Union sees as failure to uphold and honour collective agreements by government, owing to the shift system introduced at primary schools, government is still in some instances refusing to honour an agreement with the Unions to hire more teachers to take up the extra classes.
“BOSETU notes with disgruntlement the use of pre-school teachers to teach in the mainstream schools with due regard for their specific areas of training and their job descriptions. This in our view is a variation of the terms of employment of the said teachers,” says Radikolo.
The Union has called on government to forthwith remedy this situation and hire more teachers to alleviate this otherwise unhealthy situation. BOSETU also expressed concerns of some school administrators who continuously run institutions with iron fists and in a totalitarian way.
“We have a few such hot spot schools which the Union has brought to attention the Ministry officials such as Maoka JSS, Artesia JSS, and Dukwi JSS. We are worried that the Ministry becomes sluggish in taking action against such errant school administration. In instances where action is taken, such school administrators are transferred and rotated around schools.”