Over the last twenty years of focused educational reforms, Zambia has had a number of successes from which others can learn. These are substantiated in the report on education reform in five countries, The Power of Persistence, by John Gillies. They are also borne out by various reports on education and development in Zambia and official reports to SADC.
For education reform to work a free flow of information is required and transparency and accountability must be sustained. How this works in practice can be a source of tension. For donor and ministry staff to work together positively, requires a recognition of these constraints and strategies how to surmount them.
Zambia has highly centralised human resource and management policies against a context of limited financial resources and extensive dependency on donor support. Education reform was guided by a policy framework in the National Educational Policy. Continuity was provided by the main policy document Educating Our Future (1996).
Change was integrated into Sector Wide Approaches (SWAps).
Education Management and Information Systems (EMIS) were instituted, implemented and made effective and became part of Ministry of Education and donor evaluation and planning. A regular policy dialogue with donors occurred that was beneficial to both sides. The training and empowerment of Ministry of Education staff has meant that their personnel has assumed responsibility for these functions and donors as co-operating partners provided financial and donor support where requested.
Donor bias towards short-term projects can also be frustrating to the Ministry of Education staff that hold long-term visions about what needs to be accomplished. Not all activities that donors may be interested in and projects they want to support will find a "home" within the Ministry of Education or be accepted, institutionalised and become sustainable within local contexts. This is particularly true of projects that were too "resource heavy". Examples that were not fully sustained were school health programmes, curriculum reform and teacher professional development.
The Basic Education Sub-Sector Investment Programme (BESSIP) ran only from 1999 to 2002 and was found not to be sustainable.
Zambia has been struggling with structural adjustment and these challenges impacted on the education system.
Many things had been learned through BESSIP including the importance of setting and achieving targets, monitoring goals, even writing reports and being accountable for the financial resources that were allocated to an activity.
There was a period where critics felt there were too many education reforms and labelled it "reformitis". Nearly all the activities were new over the two decades and included reform of primary teacher training and a revised primary school curriculum.
A new literacy programme was introduced, combined with "mother-tongue instruction in the early grades to support literacy acquisition". Zambian language proficiency tests had to be developed to assess this innovation. The Zambia Teacher Education Course (ZATEC) did succeed in doubling the number of primary teachers in schools but a thorough assessment of its teacher quality components has not been made.
Also new were National Assessment of Standards, Primary Reading Programme, and Breakthrough to Literacy. In addition key components of change were decentralization and community schools-giving a role to District Education Boards (DEBs) in a highly centralised education system. Zambia has 72 districts. School grants programme and payroll distribution were decentralised. Many DEBs lacked capacity and some of their roles were re-centralised. Overall capacity at the local level has grown significantly with the consequence that were positive for the education system.
Community Schools grew to encompass 16 percent of all primary school pupils (it was one percent in the early 1990s). Because Community Schools were scattered and small, they made up one third of all the primary schools in Zambia. Community Schools have the power to hire and fire teachers while government schools don't.
One key problem in Zambia is that while many of the education reforms helped to make the system operate more efficiently, there were no discernable improvements in students' learning outcomes. Zambia has been labelled a "low cost, low quality" education system. On the comparative SACMEQ assessments, Zambia is at the bottom in reading and mathematics. What was encouraging was the finding that "no deterioration in learning outcomes was observed during the expansion period, and community school students, though a highly diverse group, have posted test scores that have surpassed or closely aligned with those in government schools" (Gillies, page 116).
Next week Issues will consider the lessons for Botswana posed by education reform in Namibia and Zambia.