“Killing community initiative in education”. 8 Nov. 2014. (Edited version appeared in Fiji Times as “Fundraising in Schools”).
Killing community initiatives in education
(An edited version appeared in Fiji Times, as “Fundraising in schools”. 9 Nov. 2014)
Professor Wadan Narsey
The thinking public should have been horrified at a recent news item that the new Minister of Education (Dr Mahendra Reddy) ordered the cancellation of a fund-raising Saturday Fun Event by Veiuto Primary School.
Dr Reddy is reported to have said “We do not want the schools or the management to impose any levy on the students and their parents without the proper approval of the Education Ministry.”
Dr Reddy claimed that an earlier approval for the Veiuto Fun Day levy had been given by a lower ranked Education Ministry staff without his knowledge and this had now been cancelled.
Apparently, a few parents had also complained that they should not be paying the small $80 levy being requested by the school.
There are many worrying aspects of this incident, including schools’ ability to provide quality education that parents want, the strengthening of equity between rich and poor students, the self-help initiatives of our school communities, and the undesirable strengthening of a dictatorial spirit in the Ministry of Education, and placing MoE officials between the rock and a hard place.
The Minister of Education will no doubt repeat their elections mantra that the Bainimarama Government, with their per capita grant to all schools in Fiji, has made education “free for all”.
Of course, this initiative to guarantee a minimum fee payment for all primary and secondary school students is an excellent initiative that will help all poor students and poor schools with a base level of resources.
But the Ministry’s demand that schools must not engage in further fund raising without their approval, is totally counterproductive for many reasons.
Quality education is expensive
How often have we heard education industry leaders claim that they want to create a “smart society.”
All good educators know that to make students “smart” requires expensive equipment and infrastructure.
All school principals know that providing a quality education at preschool, primary and secondary schools requires far more per capita resources than is provided by the Ministry of Education and tax-payers, or can ever be provided from tax-payers’ funds.
The per capita grant covers only basic tuition costs and basic resources.
It cannot cover all the ancillary costs such as computer laboratories and software, Internet access and use, library, laboratories for chemistry, biology and physics, field trips, sport facilities and equipment, musical equipment and halls, to name just a few.
The Fiji Government budget, for the foreseeable future will be hard-pressed to pay for all these costs, for all schools without discrimination.
No doubt, this can be a long term objective as the Fiji economy grows, and the Government tax revenues and expenditure, grows along with it.
But for now, Government can only provide a basic amount.
Which is why concerned parents and schools engage in fundraising which is stupidly being banned by the Ministry of Education.
Who exactly does this ban help? Or more to the point, who does it harm?
Hurting the poorest students
Note that the additional resources raised from parents and communities are used to improve the collective school services for all the students, rich and poor alike. Some cannot be paid for without a collective effort.
If the schools are forced to comply with the Ministry of Education ruling, then the inevitable result will be that they will reduce the quality of their services to what can be financed by the basic government grant, the lowest common denominator.
Rich parents will still provide their own children with the extras that they need (like computers, internet access etc), but only at home, for their private use.
Losing out will be the poorer students whose parents cannot afford to provide the extras at home.
This will worsen the inequity and widen the digital divide between the rich students and the poor.
Not exactly what the Minister of Education should want, is it?
But there are other harmful effects of the Minister’s dictatorial ruling.
Stifling community spirit
Dr Mahendra Reddy, himself an educator, ought to be aware that most good primary and secondary schools in Fiji have been built from the early colonial days by the communities themselves, and not tax-payers’ money in general.
Indeed, there have been very few government initiated schools which have been in the top tier of either primary or secondary schools.
In the last few decades, the tax-payers have been funding a larger and larger proportion of the salaries of teachers and even the expansions of school class-rooms and facilities.
But schools are still engaging in independent fund-raising, because they know very well that they are also building a strong community spirit and commitment among the parents rich and poor alike, they strengthen the parents-teachers bonds, and they build strong accountability of the school and teachers to the parents and students.’
These fund-raising events also enable parents to have great “fun” at the their children’s school, which for many parents is like reverting to their childhood for a day or two (minus the “sixers” or the “hundred lines”).
But the Minister of Education does not want this, because of a blind commitment to the Bainimarama Government’s mantra of “free education”.
The Minister of Education seems to have no qualms about stifling the self-help spirit of our communities.
The Minister of Education seems to forget Bainimarama’s frequent lectures to Fijians to get out of the “hand-out mentality”.
Of course, he also knows that that good principle was ignored just before the elections, when freebies were thrown at voters left right and centre, to get their votes.
Selfish parents putting MoE officials between a rock and a hard place
It is the nature of humans beings that they do not want to pay for quality services.
Some selfish and intellectually challenged parents are clearly complaining to MoE that they are being asked to pay “voluntary levies” by some schools.
MoE officials then have to tell the schools and the PTAs that raising money without MoE permission is illegal. But the Education officials become silent when a parent asks them: “are you going to fine me or send me to jail if I pay a voluntary levy to the school?”
Schools that want to give quality education to their students might want to publicize to parents to take their children to other schools if they do not want to pay the voluntary levies that parents have collectively agreed to and that there is no room for “free riders”.
Of course, there is always the option that some schools may wish to take, which is to become totally private, charge whatever fees they like, and thereby serve only the children of the rich and those who value education enough to pay for it, the same way they spends hundreds of dollars a year on beer, cigarettes and kava.
Another dictatorship in the Making?
It will be pointless of Dr Reddy to say that the school should obtain the Ministry’s permission first.
Why should they? Community fund raising for education is not a privilege to be granted by some Minister of Education.
Moreover, why would the Minister countermand some “lower” official who had earlier given permission in any case?
Is Dr Reddy giving his Ministry officials the clear message that only the Minister must make all such discretionary decisions?
Unfortunately, Dr Reddy might be bringing to the Ministry of Education his recent Commerce Commission dictatorial experience of imposing price orders by decree, on thousands of pharmaceutical and hardware items (with absolutely unknown effects).
But even there, Dr Reddy was not averse to eating humble pie when a Higher Authority told him in rather unflattering language to stay well away from controlling the ridiculously high charges of the mobile phone companies, or the ridiculously high monopoly pricing on domestic airways routes (with occasional “specials” to soften the consumers of both services).
Mind you, Dr Reddy has shown that he has the courage to eat humble pie on behalf of the Bainimarama Government, having very quietly reversed the disastrous policy of ending national examinations, which had been meekly accepted by the school principals and managements.
The previous Minister of Education had totally ignored my previous call to him in 2010 (and several times thereafter) to reconsider that irrational and unwise decision of the Bainiamarama Government.
It has now taken four years for the effects of that disastrous dictatorial policy to sink in, with possibly irreversible effects on the quality of several cohorts to school children (with not a cheep from supine school principals and education authority managements).
Dr Reddy may be forced to eat yet more humble pie when the current review opens the Pandora’s Box on the Ministry of Education’s scaling of national examination marks, begun under previous governments, but also continued for eight years by the Bainimarama Government.
Will Dr Reddy have the courage to also reverse the 55 year retirement rule, which has devastated the education system of experienced principals, heads of departments and specialists, but was not applied to the chosen few in Government. See here:
But then again, he might like all such education retirees to apply to him for his personal approval of contract renewals, on a case by case basis, as befitting all dictators who love to demonstrate their personal power over others.
Note the Minister’s recent proclamation that from 2016 only experienced teachers will be allowed to teach the youngest children in schools. Will this policy be also applied to pre-schools, and with a correspondingly higher salary structure? The Minister has more fun and games ahead of him.
Dr Reddy has already promised that that he will set up an Education Commission to look at the entire education system in Fiji, which would presumably consult widely among school authorities. One would think that Dr Reddy would wait for the Report of this Education Commission or consult with education authorities, school principals and teachers’ unions before he announces dramatic changes to education policy.
With a pliant public, browbeaten after eight years of dictatorship and media censorship, it is going to be an uphill battle for elected government ministers in the Bainimarama Government to return to collective decision-making which respects community views and wishes.
Previous letters not answered by Minister of Education (Filipe Bole) or the PS Education (Dr Brij Lal) who is now elected to Parliament and a back-bencher not considered for the post of Minister or Assistant Minister of Education.