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.
The Directorate of Public Prosecutions (DPP)’s decision to reject and appeal the High Court’s verdict on a case involving High Court Judge, Dr Zein Kebonang has frustrated the Judicial Service Commission (JSC) and Judge Kebonang’s back to work discussions.
JSC and Kebonang have been in constant discussions over the latter’s return to work following a ruling by a High Court panel of judges clearing him of any wrong doing in the National Petroleum Fund criminal case filed by the DPP. However the finalization of the matter has been hanged on whether the DPP will appeal the matter or not – the prosecution body has since appealed.
Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) top brass has declined a request by Umbrella for Democratic Change (UDC) to negotiate the legal fees occasioned by 2019 general elections petition in which the latter disputed in court the outcome of the elections.
This publication is made aware that UDC Vice President Dumelang Saleshando was left with an egg on his face after the BDP big wigs, comprising of party Chairman Slumber Tsogwane and Secretary General Mpho Balopi rejected his plea.
“He was told that this is a legal matter and therefore their (UDC) lawyer should engage ours (BDP) for negotiations because it is way far from our jurisdiction,” BDP Head of Communications, Kagelelo Kentse, told this publication.
This spelt doom for the main opposition party and Saleshando who seems not to have confidence and that the UDC lawyers have the dexterity to negotiate these kind of matters. It is not clear whether Saleshando requested UDC lawyer Boingotlo Toteng to sit at the table with Bogopa Manewe, Tobedza and Co, who are representing the BDP to strike a deal as per the BDP top echelons suggested.
“From my understanding, the matter is dealt with politically as the two parties are negotiating how to resolve it, but by far nothing has come to me on the matter. So I believe they are still substantively engaging each other,” Toteng said briefly in an interview on Thursday.
UDC petitioners saddled with costs after mounting an unprecedented legal suit before the court to try and overturn BDP’s October 2019 victory. The participants in the legal matter involves 15 parliamentary candidates’ and nine councillors. The UDC petitioned the court and contested the outcome of the elections citing “irregularities in some of the constituencies”.
In a brief ruling in January 2020, Judge President Ian Kirby on behalf of a five-member panel said: “We have no jurisdiction to entertain these appeals. These appeals must be struck out each with costs including costs of counsel”. This was a second blow to the UDC in about a month after their 2019 appeals were dismissed by the High Court a day before Christmas Day.
This week BDP attorneys decided to attach UDC petitioners’ property in a bid to settle the debts. UDC President Duma Boko is among those that will see their property being attached with 14 of his party members. “We have attached some and we are on course. So far, Dr. Mpho Pheko (who contested Gaborone Central) and that of Dr, Micus Chimbombi (who contested Kgalagadi South) will have their assets being sold on the 5th of February 2021,” BDP attorney Basimane Bogopa said.
Asked whether they met with UDC lawyers to try solve the matter, Bogopa said no and added. “Remember we are trying to raise the client’s funds, so after these two others will follow. Right now we are just prioritising those from Court of Appeal, as soon as the high court is done with taxation we will attach.”
Saleshando, when contacted about the outcomes of the meeting with the BDP, told WeekendPost that: “It would not be proper and procedural for me to tell you about the meeting outcomes before I share with UDC National Executive Committee (NEC), so I will have to brief them first.”
UDC NEC will meet on the 20th of next month to deal with a number of thorny issues including settling the legal fees. Negotiations with other opposition parties- Alliance for Progressives and Botswana Patriotic Front (BPF) are also on the agenda.
Currently, UDC has raised P44 238 of the P565 000 needed to cover bills from the Court of Appeal (CoA). This is the amount in a UDC trust account which is paltry funds equating 7.8 per cent of the overall required money. In the past despite the petitioners maintaining that there was promise to assist them to settle legal fees, UDC Spokesperson, Moeti Mohwasa then said the party has never agreed in no way to help them.
“We have just been put in debt by someone,” one of the petitioners told this publication in the past. “President’s (Duma Boko) message was clear at the beginning that money has been sourced somewhere to help with the whole process but now we are here there is nothing and we are just running around trying to make ends meet and pay,” added the petitioner in an interview UDC NEC has in December last year directed all the 57 constituencies to each raise a minimum of P10, 000. The funds will be used to settle debts that are currently engulfing the petitioners with Sheriffs, who are already hovering around ready to attach their assets.
The petitioners, despite the party intervention, have every right to worry. “This is so because ‘the deadline for this initiative (P10, 000 per constituency) is the end of the first quarter of this year (2021),” a period in which the sheriffs would have long auctioned the properties.
President of the Umbrella for Democratic Change (UDC) Duma Boko’s alliance with former President Lt Gen Ian Khama continues to unsettle some quarters within the opposition collective, who believe the duo, if not managed, will once again result in an unsuccessful bid for government in 2024.
While Khama has denied that he has undeclared preference to have Boko remaining as leader of UDC, many believe that the two have a common programme, while other opposition leaders remain on the side-lines.