The introduction of free basic education (FBE) in Zambia in 2002 during the Basic Educational Sub-sector Investment Programme (BESSIP) significantly improved access to primary education, especially after declining enrolments in the 1990s. Secondary and tertiary education, on the other hand, stagnated during the early years of FBE and BESSIP and access to these two levels was not expanded to accommodate the primary school student population (although there has been a slow increase in enrolments in tertiary education in the few existing institutions).
While there was increased access for children at primary school level, an insufficient budget was allocated to the sector, which undermined delivery and quality of education. There has also been a shortage of teachers and teaching and learning materials; general school infrastructure is inadequate. This state of affairs has had a negative impact on the effectiveness of delivering services at primary, secondary and tertiary levels in the education sector. The internal system is very inefficient and characterised by poor transition rates and poor reading and arithmetic competency skills at mid-primary level and generally unsatisfactory examination performance at both primary and secondary levels.
The literacy rates for youths (15–24 years of age) are reasonable at 67% for females and 82% for males in 2010, reflecting the gender disparity in favour of males common in the region. In terms of school participation available statistics show that girls’ primary gross enrolment ratio was 112%, while that for boys was 113%; girls’ primary net enrolment ratio was 94%, while that for boys was 91% in 2010.
Of concern is the fact that more than a quarter of a million children are out of school and 47% of those enrolled do not complete the primary school cycle. The dropout rates are within the 2–3% range and therefore not high but the transition rates at 54.2% for primary education (Grades 7 and 8) and 38.54% for secondary education (Grades 9–12) are a serious problem. The reasons for this may relate to long distances to school, poor school water and sanitation and pregnancies in the case of older girls.
In the past, policies guiding education service delivery in Zambia were often led from a political perspective. While colonial education may have been provided by both missionaries and the colonial government for reasons other than economic development it was this neglect of the sector, evident at Zambia’s independence in 1964 with 107 university graduates, that led successive governments to ensure a better control of the system to implement its goals for the country’s development. More recently, policy-making has improved with the support of international partners and the opportunities provided through Zambia’s participation as a member of the international community.
The main school system has always consisted of a primary and a secondary school level. The primary sub-sector comprises seven years of schooling while the secondary school subsector is divided into two levels: Grades 8 and 9 (Forms 1 and 2), which required an examination and again selection to senior secondary levels of Grades 10–12 (Forms 3–5). Tertiary and higher education address skills development in colleges and institutes and university education offers Bachelors degrees (four years), as well as degrees in the Veterinary (five years) and Medicine (seven years) fields.
Early childhood care development and education (ECCDE), now recognised as the foundation to schooling and personality development has until recently been controlled by local councils (through the Ministry of Local Government) and basically fee-paying with the majority of the institutions owned by private businesses. The urban nature of this sub-sector has always had an inequitable aspect. However, the proliferation of such institutions and the orientation towards preschooling (preparation for formal schooling) has prompted the government to bring the sub-sector under the control of the Ministry of Education (MoE) so as to provide oversight to the many providers.
The state of education services in Zambia is both robust and vulnerable to shocks, creating challenges of increasing equitable access to schooling and improving its quality at all levels of education (primary, secondary and higher). Insufficient funding, low absorptive capacity to effectively and efficiently utilise given resources, lack of monitoring of the implementation of policies/plans, the poor functioning of designed governance structures and the ever-present effect of the HIV/Aids epidemic interact to present formidable challenges.
There are, however, a number of actions that can be taken going forward, including:
- The government needs to comply with its reporting obligations under the international human rights treaties, in particular on the right to education;
- There is a need to develop policy instruments to operationalise the new Education Act(2011) while its review is going on. The urgency with which the Act’s implementation should be implemented is dictated by the need to meet some of the international education goals whose deadline is imminent;
- The government needs to adequately fund the Central Statistical Office (CSO) and provide sufficient staff in order to improve education data collection, analysis and publication;
- Planning and budgeting for education should be integrated more closely so that budgeting is target specific and in line with the Annual Strategic Plan and five-year plans;
- Conditions of service for teachers need to be improved and remuneration packages made more attractive to invite and keep individuals in the teaching profession;
- The engagement of civil society as an oversight structure, along with local-level governance and management structures such as School Boards/Management Committees, parent–teacher associations and the media, needs to be strengthened;
- Zambia has found a way to balance government control of education with partnership with international and local organisations. In this regard strategies should focus on partnerships not only for leveraging resources but also for monitoring implementation in order to better report on results. Working better with civil society organisations (CSOs) and other local-level partners will increase effectiveness.