TOGO: School year reopens with free primary schools

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

For the first time in recent years, primary school students started a new school year on 6 October in Togo without paying enrolment fees. The government has waived primary school fees as part of a more than US$80 million investment in the education system. While parents celebrated the savings, administrators taken aback by the surprise announcement worry how they will pay for school operations the fees had helped fund.

Parents will be better off by US$3.70 and US$5.10 for each primary-age girl and boy, respectively, in a country where the average monthly income is about US$33, according to the World Bank.

Yao Vincent Nouchet, director of a primary school in Kangnicope, 3km outside of the of the capital Lome, and secretary general of the National Union of Primary School Educators, told IRIN the new policy may be problematic for schools: “In principle, we have nothing against doing away with fees. It is good for the parents, but we were not prepared. We count on a percentage of these fees to stock our classrooms, to finance cultural activities, fund sanitation programs and pay assistants.”

The Ministry of Communication’s fee-waiver announcement on 1 October has Nouchet concerned there will be an influx of new students his school had not planned on, “We fear parents who enrolled their children in private schools will now switch to public schools when we have already budgeted for a certain number of enrolees. But at least this policy may help increase enrolment for girls.”

While 78 percent of Togo’s children are enrolled in primary school, according to the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) in Togo, girls’ enrolment has always significantly lagged behind boys, reaching at most 35 percent.

But Pape Sow, the former director of Planning and Reform in the Senegalese Ministry of Education, said even free school may not be enough to get more girls into the classroom.

“Only after nearly 10 years of working to improve girls’ access to schools did we have parity in the primary classroom in Senegal. But this parity drops off in secondary school. Girls leave schools to work as domestic workers, for example. We cannot control demand for education.”

Sow said some parents simply prefer Koranic religious schools to public schools, regardless of fees. He added, getting students to the classroom is the first challenge, but keeping them there is an on-going struggle.

Meanwhile, Togolese teachers try to accommodate a wave of fee-free new enrolees.

The director of Ahanoucope primary school in Lome, Kossiwavi Dotsou, told IRIN she was short of textbooks and teachers on the opening day, “We already have a shortage of teachers, which I had indicated during a previous evaluation before the school vacation. I hope it will be resolved soon…We will make it work.”

Togo’s government officials have not made public details of how the government will change school operations to make up for the funding gap.

UNICEF has indicated it will help carry out a study to evaluate the implementation of the country’s first comprehensive fee-free primary school policy.