|Editorial Comment: School fees, levies: Ensure parents get value for money|
|Monday, 07 May 2012 23:36|
Pumping more money into education does produce better education, although the law of diminishing returns does apply. So doubling a fee rarely doubles a school’s effectiveness and after a certain point any fee increase produces a near-zero change.
Any consideration of a fee or levy has to list just what is being paid for out of that fee or levy.
This means that a comprehensive budget is required, preferably with some detail of what the school will look like if the money is not raised.
The second factor that must be considered is affordability. Here there are two sets of criteria, for State schools and for non-Government schools.
Zimbabwe gives every parent the right to send their children to a State school, so fees and levies have to bear a close relationship to income levels of these parents, particularly to those who live within the school’s zone, that is those who live near the school.
But the ministry also used to insist that there was some mechanism whereby the poorest parents in a zone could pay less, after their income was vetted; that may need to be enforced.
Non-Government schools clearly have more latitude here, since they can take pupils from anywhere in Zimbabwe, but the governors or other fee-levying authority needs to at least consider the likely incomes of the target group of parents, otherwise they will not fill their places or will not attract the sort of pupil they desire.
A third set of criteria is not often mentioned, but has now started to move to centre stage. This is the need for the money raised to be properly spent, which goes beyond pure honesty. It must include the need for good management and sensible decisions.
The dual requirement of honesty and management requires a basic audit, to ensure no one has pocketed the money, but also careful and informed comparisons between budgets and actual spending.
The ministry laid down its rules and guidelines right back in the 1980s. Parents were given the power, at both Government schools for the levies and non-Government schools for the fees, to approve these and to question the School Development Association or Governors, and to offer suggestions. But not all parents are education experts or accountants, and at many schools perhaps none are. So the ministry has to give final approval.
Generally speaking, the ministry has gone along with what a substantial majority of parents decide, and that policy has made sense. After all if parents agree then who should tell them otherwise.
But this year the ministry has also started auditing the levy accounts of State schools, placing them in the same position as trust schools which have always had their accounts professionally audited in accordance with their trust deeds. And some schools have flunked the audit.
In other cases it is clear that although parents are paying a respectable levy, the results are disappointing. While the heads and the SDAs are totally honest, management decisions are not best practice, to put it kindly.
In fact, for Minister David Coltart to be pushing for tighter regulation, some schools must be in poor shape. He was a governor of trust schools and even a leader of a group of trust schools and was vocal over the right of parents to make a final decision. Admittedly, a trust school is likely to have some hot-shot accountants and skilled managers among its governors and in the general parent body, plus people who at least have access to top-notch educational expertise. So dishonesty and poor spending decisions are highly unlikely in these cases.
We hope that his proposed changes will try and give the parents at the average State school something far closer to this level of financial, managerial and educational expertise so that they can make informed decisions about levies. This seems to require a more active role for the ministry, the only likely source of such skills for most State schools.
And of course, as we have mentioned, State schools need a tighter definition of affordability than non-Government schools although even here, where there are two State schools very close to each other, one could have a significantly higher levy than the other so long as both sets of parents were receiving value for their money.
It is this question of “value for money” that now needs to be pressed. The system of parents and ministry approving fees at non-Government schools and levies at State schools can work exceptionally well. But parents, especially parents at State schools, now need far more information about “best practices” and need the assurances they are now starting to get with the audits that the money is well spent.
Model budgets, and several might be needed for different groups of parents, would help plus ministerial oversight of conformity to the budget.
If a fraction of the levy is to go on new classrooms then these must be built; if there is provision for painting a school it must be painted; if a lab is being equipped then the ministry must check that the right equipment from the best providers is bought.
And, it always needs to be remembered, there are some parents who want the advantages of higher fees or levies without paying for them themselves.
They tend to be the most vocal in opposition. But they could easily be put in their place if the ministry started looking at something better than a bare majority of parents voting in favour.
As Minister Coltart knows, if a substantial majority approve then it is likely that a fee rise or levy increase is justified and wanted, and the problem of an active minority forming a tail that wags the dog, either for excessive fees or fees that are too low, is avoided.
So perhaps he needs to look at the voting rules as well.
We believe that the present system, at least in concept, is very good. We hope the changes will preserve the gains while ensuring that parents do get the value they require for their hard-earned money.