Access to basic education in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) remains poor, with up to seven million children across the vast country out of school - despite a 2010 government decision to make primary education free.
DRC is still struggling to overcome the effects of wars that raged between 1996 and 2003, compounded by continuing violence in the east of the country and decades of corruption and poor governance.
The seven million figure was contained in the preliminary findings – reported by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs - of a study conducted by the DRC government with the UK Department for International Development and the UN Children’s Fund, UNICEF.
It said 25 percent of the primary school-aged children and 60 percent of adolescents were not enrolled in classes.
The free education directive is supposed to cover the whole country except the capital, Kinshasa, and the city of Lubumbashi.
"Even with the announcement of free primary education, parents, many of whom are unemployed and have little means of sustaining themselves, are bearing most of the costs involved in educating their children because of delays in releasing the funds for free education," Ornelie Lelo, communications officer for an education NGO in the capital, SOS Kinshasa, told IRIN.
Representatives of teachers' unions and officials of NGOs dealing with education issues told IRIN the quality of education offered in public schools stayed low because teachers were poorly paid.
"Since independence [in 1960] to date, the government has not prioritized school expansion and building of new institutions," Lelo said. "In Kinshasa, for instance, the number of public schools is much lower than private schools: 29 percent are public while 71 percent are private."
Government statistics for 2009-2010, drawn up with help from the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and UNICEF, suggest the gap in the capital is a little narrower, at 37 versus 63 percent for primary schools and 39 versus 61 for secondary ones.
Almost 74 percent of primary teachers are qualified versus 33 percent at secondary level.
Education officials have expressed concern over the severe shortage of teachers in public schools. In primary school, the national average is one teacher for 37 pupils, according to the national statistics, but in marginalized or rural areas, there can be more than 100 pupils per class.
According to UNESCO, at least 10 percent of primary teachers are aged over 55, the official retirement age. With financial support of the Spanish development agency (AECID), UNESCO is researching teachers’ conditions so as to work with government education officials to devise plans to improve them.
Lelo of SOS Kinshasa said the use of school land by private developers was another problem, especially in urban areas.
"Many of the public schools in existence are in deplorable conditions; no blackboards in many of them; in some, children sit on the floor due to lack of desks, and the most worrying concern is encroachment on school land by individuals, many of whom are connected politically," Lelo said. "One can find a pharmacy, restaurant or even bar right in the middle of a school compound - it looks like all open spaces in schools are up for grabs.
"We have written to the prosecutor-general, to the Ministry of Education and even to the Ministry of Justice over this issue but we have yet to get a response. We continue to appeal to the government to ensure the grabbed land is returned to the schools."
Photo: Jane Some/IRIN
|Kinshasa has more private schools than public schools, according to SOS NGO official Ornelie Lelo|
Jacques Tshimbalanga, spokesman for a coalition of education organizations and the deputy secretary-general of the National Syndicate of Conventional Catholic Schools, told IRIN the directive on free primary education was not realistic "and has proved difficult to implement".
Although the directive was meant to be gradual, with fees being waived up to grade four this year, Tshimbalanga said, the national budgetary allocation to education did not reflect this fact.
"In 2010, the budget for education was 7.2 percent of the total national budget; in 2011, after sustained advocacy and lobbying of parliamentarians by trade unions and NGOs, it went up to 10 percent of the total budget. Unfortunately, the disbursement of the funds is another story," Tshimbalanga said.
"Although 7.2 percent of the budget was pledged in 2010, we discovered after investigations that not even 6 percent was actually disbursed. This year, the budget for primary education actually went down by 28 percent compared to the allocation of 2010 and this is why we are concerned about this free education decree."
According to UNESCO's 2011 global monitoring report on Education For All, the military budget of DRC was twice as much as the education budget.
Tshimbalanga said the average monthly salary for a primary school teacher was $35-40 and since the teachers' salaries are often several months in arrears, parents were forced to chip in.
"Generally, teachers, like other Congolese workers, survive on very little, some even less than $1 a day, yet the cost of education is borne by parents, sometimes even up to 65 percent of the total cost," Tshimbalanga said. "In rural areas, some teachers supplement their earnings by working as casual labourers on farms; those in urban areas end up begging for money from their pupils' parents just to survive."
To improve the quality of education, Tshimbalanga said, the government had to pay teachers properly. He said the teachers’ union entered into an agreement in 2004 with the government for teachers to be paid a minimum of $208 monthly but six years later, this has not been implemented.
"This is why since 2005, teachers go on strike every year, demanding the honouring of this agreement," he said.
A 2007 survey by UNESCO and UNICEF suggested teachers’ conditions contributed to the poor quality of tuition and found that up to 43 percent of sixth-grade pupils lacked basic knowledge of French, mathematics and general knowledge.
Attempts to reach the DRC's education ministry for comment were unsuccessful.