Rise in drop out rate feared over school fees hike

When Zimbabwe's new school year begins next month, some parents are going to be forced to choose which of their children to educate as a result of a hike in school fees of between 200 to 2,000 percent.

Inevitably girls are likely to be pulled out of class first, threatening Zimbabwe's impressive strides towards gender parity in school enrolment.

Livingstone Sinyoro has four children currently in secondary school in the capital, Harare. With the fees' hike he cannot afford to educate all of them, and two will have to drop out.

"The two girls will not be going to school next year since they can read and write. They can be married, so I better try to send the boys," Sinyoro told IRIN.

"It's the girls who are often the first ones to drop out, either because they are forced into earlier marriages because it's the best economic option for a family, or they become involved in high-risk behaviour to seek money on the streets," UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) Information Officer Shantha Bloemen explained.

The government pays only a portion of the running costs of public schools. The shortfall is covered by funds or levies that are raised by school governing councils.

Parents serving on these bodies, at the more than 6,000 government schools across the country, have been meeting this week to discuss next year's fees. The school authorities say that, with an inflation rate of over 600 percent, there is no alternative but to ask parents to pay more.

One secondary school in Mbare, a high-density suburb of Harare, is set to increase its fees from Zim $5,000 (US $6) to Zim $15,000 (US $18) in January. The school serves a largely working class community, with as many as 80 percent of parents currently unemployed.

At Oriel Boys High School, which caters for children from middle-income families, fees are to rise from Zim $200,000 (US $242) to Zim $1 million (US $1,213).

"I have three children, one at Oriel Boys High School and two at St Dominic, which means I need $20,000 (US $24) a day for transport and other allowances, plus fees. This is bad news," said frustrated parent, Tedious Ndoro, a civil servant. He told IRIN it would be difficult for him to send all three children to school.

Education Minister Aenias Chigwedere has blamed "unscrupulous" schools rather than the economy for the rise in fees. He told the official Herald newspaper that his department did not have the funds to increase its subsidies to the schools to help offset the hike.

A UNICEF report this month said that the school drop out rate, currently at 10 percent, was likely to rise in January with the new school year.

Until three years ago, when the economic and humanitarian crisis began to bite, Zimbabwe had enviable education record and a literacy of between 80 and 90 percent.